Issue 10.5: October/November 2007

The High Life

story by Lynn Cook
photo by Chris McDonough


Twenty concrete steps, steep and uneven, lead down to a tiny porch and the front door of a home that is barely clinging to the hillside. There is a reassuring iron-pipe railing, but beyond it, the valley plunges straight down. I pause, hesitant, then decide that if Aunty Genoa can handle these steps every day, I can manage them once—Aunty Genoa being Genoa Leilani Keawe Aiko, who will celebrate her 89th birthday this Halloween.

I find Aunty in the parlor. The furnishings are simple: a milo wood rocker carved with her initials and made by a grandchild; shelves that hold stacks of scrapbooks; a record player precariously perched on a couch. On the turntable is a recording Aunty Genoa made at Club Polynesia on June 27, 1949. The slightly scratchy 78 platter goes round and round, and above the crowd, Aunty can be heard singing “Kaulana O Hilo.” Sitting in her Papakolea home fifty-eight years later, Aunty sings along, her voice perfectly matching the original. Then she stops and corrects the voice coming from the phonograph. “I sang that wrong,” she says, chiding herself laughingly. “You know, the first time we don’t always know.”

Aunty Genoa is most famous as the singer who can hold a single note for close to two minutes on her signature song “Alika.” Few realize, though, that that talent is also a perfect metaphor for her life: Aunty Genoa is a master at taking a moment, drawing it out and making it all that it can be. In her shows, with her mu‘umu‘u, gold loafers and fire-engine red lipstick, she may look like a sweet tutu—and she is one—but she is also a bold and enterprising woman who started her singing career on a dare and who has held the reins of her own recording and publishing company for most of her professional life.

Aunty’s story spans much of the last century. One of eleven children, she was born in Kaka‘ako in 1918 and grew up in La‘ie. She went to school through the eighth grade, then stopped. “My mom couldn’t afford to send me to high school,” she says, “but we were busy singing at our church events.” Her eyes twinkle when she recalls noticing a boy, “he was good-looking, you know, a nice-looking boy.” On the way home from a concert one afternoon, the bus Aunty was riding stopped at Kahana Bay. “My cousin
whispered in my ear that Puni, the good-looking boy, was there and wanted me to stay.” She did, and that day led to a marriage to Edward Puniwai Aiko in 1935 and their eleven children together.

Aunty was singing, having babies and working hard to make ends meet. Times were tough in the early ’40s in Honolulu, particularly with the war. “One of my neighbors said, ‘Come on, I’ll teach you how to string flowers and to sell them from bar to bar.’” Aunty sold lei, danced hula at the Y (“For $3. It was good money then, you know.”) and drove servicemen all over the island in a yellow taxi. Every job gave her a new skill. “That was my higher education, you know. Street smarts.” Her oldest son, Gary Aiko, still a young boy, contributed by selling newspapers. “He brought the money home to me. I put it in the bank, and when we didn’t have any grocery money, I would ask him if I could have a loan.” She says, eyes tearing at the memory, that he always answered, “Ma, that money is for you.”

When neighborhood bands needed a singer, they called Genoa. She played the Civic Auditorium on King Street, the island’s largest dance hall, which could hold up to 3,200 people. “It was also used for the pro wrestling ring and the roller derby,” Aunty remembers. “Sometimes folks came expecting loud cheering and blood, and instead they got me, with a big band back-up.”

Her solo singing career really began in 1944 on a dare from her girlfriends. “They told me I wouldn’t do it,” she recalls with a laugh, “so I called in to Uncle Johnny Almeida’s radio show and asked to sing.” Almeida invited her to the studio; she sang “For You, A Lei” for her niece (who now, nearly sixty years later, plays guitar with Aunty’s band). She was an instant hit, and by 1946 she was recording with 49th State Records and playing clubs around Honolulu, at the legendary Club Polynesia, Aloha Grill, Knights Inn, Hawaiian Village, Sierra Cafe and the Biltmore Hotel. “Those clubs are all long gone,” she says, “but back then, they were full of music all night long.”

As Aunty’s career developed, so did her business acumen. The entrepreneurial spirit that had seen her selling lei and driving a taxi transferred to her musical life. She became part-owner of the Club Polynesia and launched her own record label.

“I wasn’t happy with the ‘deals’ the record producers were offering musicians—it seemed like the producers made all the money while we did all the work,” she says of her motivation. “I figured I could do it myself, so I got some backing, and in 1966, I launched Genoa Keawe Records.” From the start, she was the producer, distributor, bookkeeper and head of public relations. If a record store wanted a weighty case of vinyl albums, Genoa delivered them personally. “My taxi-driving experience served me well,” she laughs.

She also took every opportunity to be “out there,” as she puts it, signing albums, singing on television and making appearances on KCCN Hawaiian radio. Her popularity soared. Her record sales did, too. In the 1960s she was invited to Japan, first to open the Joban Center, a resort-style spa, then for a three-month gig, where she put on shows every day around the country. She toured Russia, Alaska, the US continent, Tahiti and Japan.

Through the years, she performed with all of the Islands’ top musical acts and recorded many of them on her label, including Kealoha Kalama, Andy Cummings and Myra English. She ran a school of Hawaiian music, language and hula. She has received every award in the Hawai‘i music world and an honorary doctorate from the University of Hawai‘i. Today she continues to perform several times a week at private parties and concerts and every Thursday night at the Waikiki Marriott Resort.

“Best bargain in town,” she says, “sunset view, no cover and validated parking!” Aunty plays with son Eric Keawe on guitar, son Gary on vocals and bass, niece Momi Kahawaiola‘a on guitar and steel guitar master Alan Akaka. Two soft ‘ukulele strum, then Aunty leans into the mike and says, “Aloha, thank you for coming out tonight. You’re listening to Aunty Genoa and her Hawaiians.” People from around the world—hula dancers from Japan who learned to Aunty’s records, master musicians hoping to be invited onstage, diehard fans, travelers who’ve just stumbled upon the show—are all rapt once she starts singing. That voice, still so strong at 89, she calls a gift from God. “I wanted to be a singer, so when I was little, I prayed every night,” she remembers. “I thank God I still have it.” HH