Kalakaua’s recorded voice unintelligible despite effort
QUESTION: Whatever happened to attempts to retrieve a voice recording of Hawaii King David Kalakaua as he lay dying in a San Francisco hotel in 1891?
ANSWER: Efforts to date have been largely unsuccessful, but Bishop Museum collections manager DeSoto Brown said he is hopeful technicians in the future can render a clear track of Kalakaua’s voice.
The Edison Phonograph Co. recorded Kalakaua’s voice on a wax cylinder. An attempt to retrieve Kalakaua’s voice in 1989 failed.
In 2009, the cylinder was taken to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., where lab physicists have applied the same technology used to study subatomic particles to re-create old recordings by modeling the sounds a stylus would capture moving up and down the grooves of a record.
That technology enabled the laboratory to reproduce the sounds without touching and further deteriorating the wax cylinder.
Berkeley lab personnel were able to recover sounds from the Kalakaua cylinder but the sounds were “scratchy” and unintelligible.
Brown said that based on newspaper accounts of the day, he believes the first voice in the recording made on Jan. 16, 1891, was that of a representative of the Edison Phonograph Co. Then there is a faint, unintelligible voice that is Kalakaua’s.
Brown said that when the cylinder was given to the Bishop Museum in 1918, the person who donated the wax cylinder commented that the sound of Kalakaua’s voice was faint in the recording.
According to an Aug. 2, 1936, story in The Honolulu Advertiser, Kalakaua said on the recording, “Aloha kaua — aloha kaua. Ke ho‘i nei no paha makou ma keia hope aku i Hawai‘i, i Honolulu. A ilaila oe e ha‘i aku ai ‘oe i ka lehulehu i kau mea e lohe ai ianei.”
That is translated as: “We greet each other — we greet each other. We will very likely hereafter go to Hawaii, to Honolulu. There you will tell my people what you have heard me say here.”
Four days after making the voice recording, Kalakaua died of kidney disease.
While people remember the “Merrie Monarch” Kalakaua as the king who supported the hula, he was also fascinated by the technological inventions of the late 1800s.
Brown said Kalakaua kept scrapbooks about the latest inventions and that when he built Iolani Palace, he made sure it had the latest technology, including electricity and indoor plumbing.
“It was a hopeful and exciting time for people,” he said.
Brown said he hopes that somewhere the technology is available to eliminate the scratchy background sounds and enhance voices in the wax cylinder recording.
“I’d like to think there is a possibility. I actually don’t know,” he said.