92-year-old composer makes CD debut
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor
"I'm a late bloomer," said Muriel Flanders, who turns 92 on Saturday and will make her recording debut as a composer this week when Mountain Apple Co. releases "The Music of Muriel Flanders."
Cory Lum The Honolulu Advertiser
Muriel Flanders and Jon de Mello, who is producing "The Music of Muriel Flanders," share a laugh at Flanders' daughter Mary Philpotts McGrath's Nu'uanu home.
Cory Lum The Honolulu Advertiser
In a subtle way, it's a chronicle of her life, with songs that relate to places and people she has loved, experiences she's had.
"It comes as a surprise one that I didn't expect at age 92 to be breaking into the music world," said Flanders. "I'm living proof that it's never too late."
She's also living proof that the right lineage doesn't hurt: Flanders is the daughter of the late Kamokila Campbell, herself a composer, whose parties at her home at Lanikuhonua (on the beach at what is now Ko Olina) are still the stuff of legend. Kamokila Campbell's songs were recorded by the master producer and bandleader Jack de Mello, whose son, Jon, was Campbell's godson. Jon de Mello, of course, is a principal in Mountain Apple Co., the state's best-known recording company, and, in a neat full circle, is producing Flanders' collection and was able to tap his many artist friends to participate. A Campbell Estate heir, Flanders is a generous philanthropist, and proceeds from her latest venture will benefit Music Box, a family foundation that encourages young members of the family to get involved in the arts.
On her birthday Saturday, Flanders will greet reporters, friends, family and supporters at her first CD-launch party. And if she's excited, there are ample reasons.
First, the CD has potential commercial clout, with its mixed plate of performers and fare likely suitable for airplay on KINE-FM, KSSK, KUMU and a few other stations.
Then there's the fact that this is a sort of coming-out party: Writing music, she said, has been a silent passion for years. She always admired and envied from afar the successes of fellow composer R. Alex "Andy" Anderson, who made the songwriting leap and turned it into a prolific career. Anderson is the composer of a myriad of popular hapa-haole Hawaiian hits, including "Mele Kalikimaka," "The Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawai'i" and "The Princess Pupule."
Songwriting "is something that appeals to me, whether it's (about) trees outside my window or an incident or story," said Flanders, who compares her craft to that of the late Anderson because of the similar hapa-haole structure of her music.
Flanders' songs tell a history in sound of Hawai'i over the years, the vision of a privileged kama'aina growing up in the Islands, witnessing change, savoring memories. She put her personal vision into songs about Kapolei, Olomana and L«'ahi, areas dear to her that have undergone much change.
One very intimate tune, "My Lanikai," appears to be about a place, but is actually a reference to the changeable moods of her late father. Another, "Black Tears of Pearl Harbor," concerns World War II; she had rather hoped that the Disney folks would include it in "Pearl Harbor," the film that made its world premiere here last month, but had that door firmly shut in her face.
"It was rejected," she said. "I guess they had their own musical staff."
In addition to continuing the family tradition of composing, the diminutive Flanders, whose quick mind and smile radiate from beneath a floppy hat festooned with three bejeweled bees, has taken on another of her mother's ways. She is a noted philanthropist who donated $675,000 two years ago to establish "Muriel's House," the 'Ewa Beach clubhouse for the Boys & Girls Club of Hawai'i, and $300,000 three years ago to 'Iolani Palace, to convert the basement of the historic site into a gallery to exhibit the crown jewels and other belongings of Hawai'i's ali'i, including King David Kalakaua, Queen Kapi'olani and Queen Lili'uokalani.
The granddaughter of James Campbell, Flanders is the niece of Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, and her daughters include Mary Philpotts McGrath, the noted Island interior decorator; Alice Guild, executive director of the Friends of 'Iolani Palace; and Judith Flanders, who is acting as Flanders' manager and oversees Music Box, a family endeavor to which CD proceeds will go to foster and encourage grandchildren and great-grandchildren to venture into the arts.
She is the widow of Walter E. Flanders Jr., visionary developer who was a principal in West Beach Development Co., which created the master plan for what has become the Ko Olina Resort, surrounding Lanikuhonua, the family home of which she writes in one song.
Flanders has composed nearly 40 tunes, of which 15 are being published under the guidance of de Mello, a Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning producer and composer.
"She's an eloquent writer," said de Mello. "She works on them (her songs) over and over, and up to when we were recording, she was taking care of the lyrics, changing here and there."
One track on the new CD, "Sea Dreams," is a revival of his father Jack de Mello's original recording of Flanders' lone previously published composition.
"That was a lucky break for me," said Flanders of the younger de Mello's participation. "Jon is part of our family; he recognized that these songs had some merit, which I really didn't know. He saved them from the junk heap."
The artists involved say working with Flanders has been a pleasure, not like work at all.
"I was jazzed to meet her," said Keale, after recording one of Flanders' tunes. "I couldn't believe how sharp her mind was. She is so uplifting. Her daughter brought her to see me perform at the Sheraton Waikiki, and I'm honored to do her music. It's the old generation connecting with the new generation."
Keale said the tune picked for him, "From Steamer Lane to Shore," deals with beaches he got to know when he was a beach boy himself. "It's about Duke Kahanamoku, growing up on the beach, waves he used to ride," he said.
Robert Cazimero, who sings two tunes (one with brother Roland, another with Teresa Bright), said he was a tad nervous, as was Bright, about the recording session. "She brought pua keni keni and we made lei; it was very, very sweet, validating the sweetness of that whole project. Pretty cool, doing her song, working with Teresa," he said.
Lehua Kalama Heine, a member of Na Leo, said the trio was eager to be involved. "We jumped at the Pauahi song ("For You, Pauahi"), because we all went to Kamehameha and it honors Kamehameha, and we loved 'Beautiful L«'ahi.' Her songs are so sweet, the melodies pretty. They're snapshots in time because of the kind of words she uses. Takes you back to the '40s and hapa-haole times. And they really fit into what we do."
De Mello, who said that producing the disc has been one of the joys of his career, describes Flanders, his lifelong friend, as "a woman of multiple moods ... enigmatic and flamboyant ... the total spectrum of love and respect for her Islands and its people."
He recalled how Flanders, who lives at the Arcadia Retirement Residence, often plays the piano there for other residents and how she came to the Mountain Apple Co. Christmas party and entertained everyone playing honky-tonk on the piano. "She is something else," he said.
"Creating music keeps me stimulated," said Flanders. "I lie awake at night, thinking of the words. When you write music, it keeps you sharp, makes the brain work."
Her bank of memories is rich with vivid detail. "I remember going to Lahaina, looking for the Old Lahaina Jail, which was near my grandmother's property," she said. The result is "The Old Lahaina Jail."
"I think 'Pearl Harbor' is my best," she said. "I worked hard on the lyrics," which speak of "black tears of Pearl Harbor," a reference to oil seeping up from the USS Arizona.
As a composer, she has had her share of defeat and denials. Besides the snub from Disney, she said she was shut out of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center's Christmas song contest four years ago. It hurt. "I really thought I was going to walk off with first prize," said Flanders. "But I didn't win. I didn't even get a mention."
Her next composition will be about the monkeypod tree. Make that the 'ohai.
"I want to write (a tune) about the monkeypod ... and get people to call it by its Hawaiian name, the 'ohai," she said.
From her Arcadia residence, she can see a mighty 'ohai in the yard of an adjoining church. And that's been a lingering inspiration to get a song written.
"So far, I'm an army of one," she said of her campaign to get folks to call the monkeypod by its Hawaiian name. She thinks a song might entice the Outdoor Circle to join her in her efforts to get 'ohai on the botanical map.
Not a singer
Flanders describes herself as strictly a composer, not a singer. "I have a raspy voice," she said. "I've always had it. I'm sure my mother wanted to disown me, not having a good voice."
Still, when she sat at the piano at daughter Mary Philpotts McGrath's Nu'uanu home recently, playing "My Lanikai" and "Up a Lazy River," her impromptu vocals sounded fine.
The project took about 18 months. First, he recorded stories and the melodies of each title and gave the tapes to the performers, so they could absorb the mana'o and the mood of the piece. He's also preparing a CD of the conversations he had with Flanders about the project, as a gift to the family, so future generations can "hear her real voice, telling the story" of each song.
"She has so much to share," said de Mello. "One of my biggest regrets is not having a video camera going when her songs were being developed. And the first time she heard certain songs (recorded); she didn't expect it. For a painter, the neatest thing is to get the painting on the wall, well lit, so it can be seen. For a composer, (it's) to be heard ... and well-sung."
Contact Wayne Harada at 525-8067, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or fax at 525-8055.
Correction: The photo of composer Muriel Flanders and record producer Jon de Mello was taken at her daughter Mary Philpotts McGrath's Nu'uanu home. A different location was listed in the caption.