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The music of George Helm

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Posted: Tuesday, May 22, 2007 12:00 am

By Ryan McKinley

Ka Leo Staff Reporter

George Helm was probably much better known as the founder and political activist who started the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana than as a popular musician. That is probably because his only album was not released until after his death. Helm performed with Steve Mai'i at the Gold Coin Restaurant several nights a week for almost three hours a night.

In late 1976 Gold Coin owner Richard Wong decided to record some random performances of Helm and Mai'i. The recording was just an off-hand decision and Wong simply put the tapes into storage after recording them.

When Helm was suddenly lost at sea with Kimo Mitchell on March 7, 1977, Wong found he had a viable commodity. Wong quickly took Helm's recordings to a studio for editing. Wong also had to call in bassist Steve Mai'i to record accompaniment because when Wong made the recording he only had one microphone and focused it solely on Helm. Wong quickly released "The Music of George Helm: A true Hawaiian," on Gold Coin Records. In the wake of Helm's disappearance and apparent death the album gained much publicity and became a big hit.

To start off, I want to say I am not a fan of falsetto music, but I did enjoy Helm's album. The 24 tracks with the exception of two are in Hawaiian and are all written by other composers; Helm's interest in history is evident from the song choice which focuses on music of the past and not popular music of 1976. For instance, the composers include Queen Liliu'okalani and Lena Machado.

The album starts off with a song for Helm's hometown "Kalama'ula." Also included is the song "Hi'ilawe," which was made popular by Gabby Pahinui. Helm's version is slightly slower than Pahinui's. "'Alika," Genoa Keawe's signature song is also on the album and features some great guitar work by Helm.

The parts of the album I found most interesting are Helm's dialogues before the songs. At the start of about half the songs Helm gives little introductions, usually talking about history and the meanings behind the Hawaiian lyrics. For example, "Kalena Kai," talks about a small town on the 'ewa side of the island; this is my favorite song on the album and is a great showcase for Helm's soaring voice.

These mainly brief introductions give some insight into Helm as a person, and show his desire to share Hawaiian history and culture. These intros provide precious insight that may not be found in a history book, particularly when writing a paper for a Hawaiian studies class.

The whole album is also of invaluable historical importance and was thought lost for many years until 1996 when Michael and Meleana Cord of Cord International and Hana Ola Records released the album on CD as "Classic Collector Series Vol. 11."

The Cords remastered the sound for CD and added extensive liner notes by radio deejay Harry B. Soria Jr. which won a Na Hoku Hanohano (Hawaii's Grammys) for best liner notes in 1997. The sound quality on the CD is also great considering the relatively low technical quality of the original recording. Cord International also made sure that a part of the profits from the album would go to Helm's family. There was never an official agreement between Wong and the Helm family, which meant they received none of the proceeds.

The whole album is a winner, particularly if you enjoy falsetto music. If you do not enjoy falsetto singing this is probably not for you. Essentially a live album, but for the most part all the audience noises that are usually heard on a live album are absent. The songs fade in at the beginning and occasionally fade out before the song is actually over. This album is a wonderful document of a true Hawaiian, who left us much too soon, performing the music of his heart.

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