Kalakaua’s recorded voice un­in­tel­li­gi­ble de­spite ef­fort

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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.

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