50 Greatest Songs of Hawaii
Three years ago, we compiled a list of Hawaii’s 50 greatest albums. The response was so great that we’re back with another list, this time singling out the best individual songs of Hawaii’s unrivaled musical canon. To help with such a daunting task, we invited an esteemed panel of musicians, historians and producers to vote for the songs they felt represented the best in Hawaii music. (See bottom of the page for the full list of panelists.) The results, tabulated according to a weighted point system, are amazingly diverse, including everything from revered, Hawaiian-language standards to bubbly hapa haole ditties, monarchy-era anthems to contemporary, radio-friendly hits.
1 Aloha Oe
Queen Liliuokalani, 1878
More than a century ago, “Aloha Oe” became one of the first Hawaiian songs to achieve recognition outside of the Islands. Today, it remains Hawaii’s most famous composition. Since Liliuokalani composed the song in the late 1870s, its poignant words and melody have been sung on countless occasions, from sendoffs at Honolulu Harbor to final farewells at local funerals.
Says Hawaiian historian and singer Nalani Olds, “When I was with the Royal Hawaiian Band, we took a six-week tour of Europe, and it was amazing to hear Aloha Oe’ done in so many foreign tongues. All of these people knew it, even in the remotest places.”
photo courtesy of Hawaii State Archives
Although the song has become synonymous with goodbye, the queen herself reportedly insisted that it was a love song. She is said to have composed the song during a tour around Oahu, shortly after witnessing a lingering embrace between a woman in her entourage and a man at the Edwin Boyd Ranch in Maunawili.
In the opening lines, the queen describes in Hawaiian the proud rain upon the cliffs, seeking out the lehua- flower. “The rain represents semen falling from Wakea, sky father, seeking out Papahanaumoku, earth mother,” explains Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, who helped research and publish The Queen’s Songbook, a collection of 55 of her compositions. “It’s a poem about love and passion, man and woman. It’s much, much more than just goodbye.”
The queen was the most prolific among the royal composers, which included her siblings who lived to adulthood, Kalakaua, Likelike and Leleiohoku. Collectively, they are known as Na Lani Eha, the royal four, for their accomplishments as composers, musicians and perpetuators of their culture.
While Liliuokalani was imprisoned for eight months at Iolani Palace after the overthrow of the monarchy, she described composing as a “a gift of nature [which], never having been suffered to fall into disuse, remains a source of the greatest consolation today. ... Hours ... I might have found long and lonely, passed quickly and cheerfully by, occupied and soothed by the expression of my thoughts in music.”
2 I’ll Remember You
Kui Lee, 1964
Although Lee died of cancer at age 34 in 1966, many of his compositions achieved immortality in the repertoire of his childhood friend Don Ho. Lee, a Hawaiian fireknife dancer, was a talented song stylist and entertainer, but his legacy is his work as a composer, with more than 40 song credits to his name.
Lee as a fireknife dancer in New York.
photo courtesy of the Kui Lee ohana
Lee helped pioneer a new era in local music in the 1960s by infusing jazz, blues and rock into his tunes. The strength of “I’ll Remember You,” though, is its simplicity—a memorable melody with evocative lyrics. The song became a signature of Ho’s when he first recorded it in 1965; national artists, including Elvis Presley and Andy Williams, soon followed.
The song always had special meaning for Ho, who in 2004, told HONOLULU about the first time Lee played “I’ll Remember You” for him. They were hanging out at a friend’s apartment one night when Lee revealed that he had cancer.
“I sat there for four hours and made sure he sang it for me over and over again so I would get everything right, exactly what he was feeling,” Ho said. When he left the apartment, he drove straight to Duke’s, without any sleep, to arrange the song. He and his band, the Aliis, performed the song that night.
“I said to the audience, ‘I’d like to sing a beautiful song written by a friend of mine, who has cancer.’” Ho said. “I had a hard time getting through that song. I got so choked up, people in the audience started to cry.”
Ho called Lee to the stage to sing, which elicited even more tears from audience members. “He was a poet, and I was just the messenger boy,” Ho said.
3 Honolulu City Lights
Keola Beamer, 1978
images courtesy of Tom Moffatt
Keola Beamer has been playing and composing for most of his life, but “Honolulu City Lights,” a song he wrote almost 30 years ago, remains his most popular creation. “I’ve played this song so many times, every once in awhile I go on strike, and say, I’m not going to play it this tour,” he says, laughing. “And invariably, people come up to me afterwards and ask, what happened?”
Something about the song resonates with Hawaii residents and visitors alike, who recognize in Keola and Kapono Beamer’s recording the genuine melancholy of departure from the islands.
Keola was inspired to write the song on the eve of an extended trip to California. “I was getting ready to fly over, and I was looking out over the lights of Honolulu and not really wanting to go that much,” he said. “I’m a Hawaiian through and through, and it’s difficult to leave the place you love, and so the first seeds of that song were planted in my heart right then, as I looked out over the city from Alewa Heights.”
The song also contains the DNA of several generations of Beamer musicians. In the recording studio, their uncle Mahi Beamer added a descending piano counter melody taken from his grandmother Helen Desha Beamer’s “To You.” Combined with a lush complementary string arrangement from producer Teddy Randazzo, the effect was a knockout.
Keola says, “In a strange way, my life ended up following that song. I ended up traveling around the world, much more than I thought I would in my youth, through Europe and Asia. I somehow fulfilled some of the destiny of that song.”
Gabby Pahinui at a Diamond Head Crater Festival.
photo Courtesy of Tom Moffatt
Gabby Pahinui transformed this hula standard about a love affair at a Big Island waterfall into an anthem for slack guitar players. With his guttural falsetto, musical virtuosity and incomparable ability to bring out the soul in his songs, Pahinui became a folk hero of the Hawaiian Renaissance. “The first time I heard Gabby, I could see the faces of my tutus,” says slack key master Dennis Kamakahi. “I said, This is what Hawaiian music is all about.”
photo Paradise of the Pacific, 1953
Andy Cummings, 1938
Cummings, a homesick local boy, penned this signature song while touring Michigan, more than 4,000 miles away from Hawaii. Many musicians have interpreted the famous ode to Hawaii’s crown jewel, but none top Cummings’ original version, which music historian George Kanahele called a “rare instance of a near perfect fit of song and singer.” The 1946 recording showcases Cummings’ fine tenor voice backed by his Hawaiian Serenaders, including slack key and steel guitar legend Gabby Pahinui.
photo courtesy of Bishop Museum
6 Hawaii Aloha
Rev. Lorenzo Lyons, 1800s
This beloved hymn, which borrows its melody from another tune, “I Left It All With Jesus,” was composed by Lyons, a missionary fluent in the Hawaiian language, and known to his Waimea, Big Island, congregation as “Makua Laiana” (Father Lyons). Radio personality Harry B. Soria Jr. says the song was not always performed as the stirring anthem it is today. “When I was a kid ‘Hawaii Aloha’ was more of a church song. But they started doing it after events, and now, we all hold our hands high while singing it.”
7 Kuu Home o Kahaluu
Jerry Santos, 1976
Santos calls “Kuu Home o Kahaluu” his growing up song. In 1972, he was living away from home for the first time, in a little fourth-floor apartment in San Francisco. A year earlier, the prospect of a record contract had lured him to Los Angeles, and but he ended up in the Bay Area, playing his music in coffee houses all over the city. It was a fun time, a learning experience, Santos recalls, but he was beginning to wonder what direction his life should take next.
Singer/songwriter Jerry Santos was born and raised on the Windward side of Oahu.
photo courtesy Jerry Santos
“The song was a conversation to my family, about the choices that we make,” he says. “I’m the youngest of nine children, and very few of the others have gone away from home. I have a sister whose whole life has been in a one-mile radius from where we grew up [in Kahaluu]. I flew the coop, and so the song was about acknowledging who you are and where you come from, what your choices are.”
In the end, Santos decided to return home—a decision he has never regretted. “The interesting thing was that by the time I got back to Hawaii, and had written those songs, I found like spirits in Robert Beaumont and other people who were making music at the time,” Santos says. “It actually led me to Olomana, and everything we’ve done since. It was the right thing to do.”
When the recorded version of the song appeared on Olomana’s 1976 debut album Like a Seabird in the Wind, it was an immediate sensation, garnering heavy radio play despite its 6 minute playing time.
Santos says, “People gravitate to that song because, if you take out the place, everyone has the same story. We all have our childhood memories, we all have to make those choices in life about what to do next.”
8 Kaulana na Pua
Listening only to the upbeat melody of “Kaulana na Pua,” it would be easy to miss the song’s serious political message. Originally entitled “Mele Ai Pohaku,” (the stone-eating song), it protests Hawaii’s annexation with bitter lyrics: “We do not value the government’s sums of money. We are satisfied with the stones, astonishing food of the land.” Prendergast composed the song in 1893, and it remains a touchstone of the sovereignty movement to this day.
9 Ke Kali Nei Au (The Hawaiian Wedding Song)
Charles E. King, 1925
It just wouldn’t be a Hawaiian wedding without a performance of “Ke Kali Nei Au.” Ironically, the song, although romantic, never actually mentions anything about marriage—King originally composed the song for a 1925 operetta, Prince of Hawaii. But with lyrics such as, “sweetheart, you are so precious, I pledge my love to you alone,” its appeal as a song of dedication is undeniable, leading everyone from Alfred Apaka to Andy Williams to offer their own version.
10 Morning Dew
Lyrics by Larry Lindsey Kimura, Music by Eddie Kamae, 1972
Kamae, an ukulele virtuoso, came up the sweet melody for this Sons of Hawaii classic and asked Kimura, an authority on Hawaiian language, to create the lyrics. “Eddie only had one idea, this recurring feeling of ‘wait for me,’” recalls Kimura, who drew added inspiration from the damp, chilly climate of his Big Island hometown, Waimea. “The morning dew, in Hawaiian culture, represents young love, because of its freshness. But it’s temporary, it doesn’t last.”
Kamae (center) founded the Sons of HawaiÔi, icons of the Hawaiian Renaissance.
photo courtesy of Bishop Museum
11 Blue Hawaii
Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, 1937
“Blue Hawaii” has become indelibly linked to Elvis Presley, thanks to his swoon-inducing performance in the 1961 movie of the same name. But the song actually dates back to 1937, when Bing Crosby sung it as part of the frothy musical Waikiki Wedding. Written by Robin and Rainger, a prolific songwriting duo working for Paramount Pictures, “Blue Hawaii” may have been overshadowed at the time by another song from the same movie: Harry Owens’ smash hit “Sweet Leilani,” No. 21 on our list.
photos (left) courtesy of Tom Moffatt Collection, (middle and right) Odeelo Dayondon
12 Pua Ahihi
Lyrics by Mary Kawena Pukui, Music by Maddy Lam, 1950
Pukui is best known as the co-author of the Hawaiian Dictionary, but she is also credited with composing at least 150 songs in her lifetime, often collaborating with such prominent songwriters as Lam, Irmgard Aluli and Eddie Kamae.
Mary Kawena Pukui was, in her day, the leading authority on Hawaiian language.
photo courtesy of Bishop Museum
The story behind “Pua Ahihi,” according to Pukui’s hanai daughter, Pat Namaka Bacon, is that Lam came to Pukui with the music and asked for accompanying lyrics. Inspired by a relaxing drive in upper Nuuanu, where the lehua ahihi grows, Pukui composed these words about long and lasting love. The romantic piece became a trademark of the Kahauanu Lake Trio, who helped establish the song as standard for hula halau.
“The boys knew this was going to be our No. 1 song,” Lake says. “We only recorded it one time, and it took, because we were so in love with the song. Kawena’s beautiful lyrics and Maddy’s beautiful melody—it was the best combination you could ask for.”
As the foremost authority on Hawaiian language in her lifetime, Pukui frequently served as editor and mentor to countless songwriters, teaching them about the customs of Hawaiian composition and correcting their Hawaiian lyrics. “Kawena guided me all of those years, in many ways” says Kamae, who sought out Pukui at the Bishop Museum when he first began researching Hawaiian music in the 1960s. “She always encouraged me.”
Pukui probably wrote many more songs than she is given credit for. “People would ask her to write up something, and they’d copyright it in their names—she didn’t care,” Bacon says. “She didn’t have too much trouble composing. Somebody would want something, and she would have it 24 hours later. I think it was natural for her, because nobody in the family composed music. It was a gift.”
13 Hawaii Ponoi
Lyrics by King David Kalakaua, Arrangement by Henry Berger, 1860s-1870s
Hawaii’s anthem is traditionally credited to Kalakaua, but the lyrics were likely written by his predecessor, Lunalilo, who reigned for only a year, says Hawaiian scholar Kimo Keaulana. While researching Hawaiian language newspapers from the monarchy era, Keaulana learned that a young “Lunalilo had entered a national anthem contest, and ‘Hawaii Ponoi’ was his entry—the exact lyrics,” Keaulana says. “What had happened, and this is a Hawaiian practice, is that the new ruler is entitled to put his name on anything. So when Kalakaua takes the throne, he becomes attributed as the composer.”
photo courtesy Kealii Reichel
Kealii Reichel, 1994
Amazingly, “Kawaipunahele” was the first song Reichel composed.
He was in Kohala, participating in a 24-hour vigil to commemorate the closing of the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian monarchy’s overthrow. “We had a break from the prayers and ceremony, and I looked over the channel over to Maui, and I was missing home,” he recalls. “And this song just came out.” Lacking real paper, Reichel quickly jotted the lyrics on the back of a Burger King napkin. It was this song that inspired Reichel to record his critically acclaimed debut album of the same name.
Charles Kaapa, Undetermined
This song’s lyrics recount a ship’s voyage to the Arctic, with a risqué double meaning, but it’s Genoa Keawe’s breathtakingly long vocal sustains on the chorus that have made it a perennial favorite. “Her version is high drama; it’s so memorable, and people think that’s the way it was always done,” says radio personality Harry B. Soria. “But the song goes way back, and I’ve got lots of other versions in which no one ever did that. No one will ever be able to trump her version.”
16 Pua Hone
Dennis Kamakahi, 1977
Thirty years ago, Kamakahi composed “Pua Hone” for his now wife, Robin, at the unlikeliest of times—the night he performed with the Sons of Hawaii at a federal penitentiary in Tacoma, Wash.
In the 1970s, Kamakahi filled Gabby Pahinui’s position in The Sons of Hawaii.
photo by Mark Arbeit
“I was in transition, trying to decide if I should move to Alaska or go back to Hawaii,” says Kamakahi. “There were prisoners from Hawaii, and I thought about all of their loved ones back home. I left the prison, and I’ll never forget the sound of the door slamming, this huge metal thud. It was like a sign that it was time to make a decision.”
Kamakahi, who grew up speaking Hawaiian, composed the words and melody that night. “Pua Hone” is translated as “Honey Flower,” not a real flower, but a figurative expression for a “love that’s slowly nurtured in the heart.” The reference to Makiki is a nod to Robin’s hometown.
“I guess absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Kamakahi says. “I called her up, played the song over the phone and proposed to her. We got married right after I got back.”
Kamakahi, who is also a renowned slack key guitar player, has composed nearly 500 songs over the past 40 years. Like other native speakers who’ve studied the traditional Hawaiian composition, he steers clear of literal references in his compositions in favor of more metaphorical language
A year after the Sons of Hawaii released “Pua Hone,” The Brothers Cazimero recorded a slower version on Hoala, their first album with producer Jon de Mello. Kumu hula Leinaala Kalama Heine choreographed its hula, helping to make the song a standard for halau across the Islands.
Helen Desha Beamer, 1941
Helen Desha Beamer composed this, her most well known song, for the 1941 wedding of her youngest daughter, Helen Elizabeth Kawohikukapulani Beamer. Winona Beamer was there when her grandmother first sang the song, and remembers the emotional scene: “Kawohi was sitting there, so beautiful, and she had tears in her eyes, because part of the song refers to how loved she is by her parents and her grandparents, and how they cherish her and have cradled her close to their hearts.”
18 Kuu Ipo i ka Hee Pue One
Princess Miriam Likelike, 1860s-1880s
A lilting melody and romantic lyrics have made this song a favorite among Island performers, who can only guess at its composer’s intentions. Among the four Royal Composers, the least is known about Likelike, who may have written this song about a moment of perfect love for someone she never married. “Because of the Hawaiian tradition of kaona (hidden meaning), the meaning of a song is often only known by composer and the person it was composed for,” says historian Nalani Olds.
19 Hawaii ’78
Mickey Ioane, 1978
Ioane drew inspiration from a tumultuous year in which Hawaiian demonstrators clashed with the National Guard at Hilo Airport over land issues, and resort development began crowding Hawaii Island’s oceanfront. “Talking with my grandfather, I asked, ‘If Kamehameha came back right now, how would he feel about seeing condos on the sacred land where we used to go fish?’”
The Makaha Sons of Niihau were the first to record Hawaii 78.
photo courtesy of Bishop Museum
20 Kuu Pua i Paoakalani
Queen Liliuokalani, 1895
During the eight months she was imprisoned at Iolani Palace, Liliuokalani regularly received flowers from her homes on Oahu, usually from her garden in Pauoa. One day, she recognized a type of flower that grew at her home in Waikiki, Paoakalani, and composed this song—translated as “My Flower at Paoakalani—as a tribute to its beauty, according to The Queen’s Songbook.
21 Sweet Leilani
Harry Owens, 1934
Harry Owens wrote this song in just an hour, to celebrate the birth of his daughter in 1934. But when Bing Crosby sang the hapa-haole tune in his movie Waikiki Wedding, it became a worldwide phenomenon, winning the 1938 Academy Award for best song and sparking countless cover versions. Harry B. Soria Jr. says, “It caught on hugely, even among an uninitiated Mainland audience, because it was a very nostalgic, lovely melody that was easy to remember.”
(left) Harry Owens lounges on the beach with his daughter Leilani. (right)
photo courtesy Hawaii State Archives
22 Akaka Falls
Helen Lindsey Parker, 1934
Helen Lindsey Parker was known as the “Lark of Waimea,” for her lilting voice and her talent for Hawaiian-language composition. Her “Akaka Falls” boasts one of Hawaiian music’s most recognizable melodies, and romantic lyrics centered around the picturesque, 442-foot waterfall on the Big Island. Harry B. Soria Jr. says while “Akaka Falls” is still popular today, it was once an essential standard in any Hawaiian artist’s performance. “It’s been recorded many, many times, by most of the groups of the ’30s and ’40s. It was a real showstopper.”
This 19th-century mele inoa (name chant) for King Kalakaua took on new life in 1971, when The Sunday Manoa released their version on their groundbreaking Guava Jam album. Traditionalists eschewed the new sound, but the younger generation embraced the blazing ukulele fingerwork of Peter Moon and the vocal and musical talents of Robert and Roland Cazimero—a spark in the renaissance in contemporary Hawaiian music. “The events of the time made this album,” Moon told HONOLULU in 2004. “We were surprised at how the album was received, because we didn’t set out to change anything.”
The Sunday Manoas Peter Moon (center) and Roland and Robert Cazimero.
photo courtesy of Bishop Museum
photo courtesy of Honolulu Magazine, 1990
24 Puamana (Sea Breeze)
Words by Charles Kekua Farden, music by Irmgard Aluli, 1937
A beautiful tune extolling the Farden family’s home in Lahaina, Maui. Keola Beamer, who recorded a version of “Puamana” with his brother in 1978, remembers speaking with Aluli about the song. “I asked her, ‘Auntie, how did you write this beautiful song?’ She said, ‘I was in my home, sweeping my floor, and the breeze was coming through, and I thought, oh, how beautiful,’” Beamer says. “Man, that day I went home and I swept my whole house.”
25 Kanaka Waiwai
Music by John Alameida, 1915
Few other church songs have enjoyed the enormous local popularity of “Kanaka Waiwai,” based on the biblical verse in which Jesus tells a rich man to give away his possessions to gain eternal life. The origins of the song, which experienced a revival with the Sons of Hawaii’s 1971 recording, are often disputed. But the music, if not the lyrics, is widely credited to legendary musician John Almeida, who wrote more than 300 songs in his lifetime.
26 Pua Lililehua
Lyrics by Mary Kawena Pukui, Music by Kahauanu Lake, Late ‘60s
Ukulele master Lake made his impressive debut as a composer with this song for his soon-to-be-wife, Maiki, a kumu hula. His mentor, Pukui, provided the words, which describe both a flower and the wind and rain of Palolo, Maiki’s hometown. “The song’s timing sets it apart as a new influence,” notes Hawaiian scholar Kimo Keaulana. “Most modern hula songs are composed in 4/4 timing, but this was in 2/4 timing, [setting a] precedence for other composers in the Hawaiian Renaissance.”
27 Pua Lilia
Alfred Alohikea, 1916
In the 1920s and ’30s, the handsome Alohikea, a consummate ladies’ man, was considered one of the Islands’ finest entertainers by such contemporaries as Charles E. King and Andy Cummings. Today, he’s best known as the composer laureate of Kauai. Considered one of Hawaii’s most erotic love songs, “Pua Lilia” is a favorite among such recording artists as Robert Cazimero and Marlene Sai because of its dynamic melodic range, which showcases their vocal prowess.
28 Mele Kalikimaka
R. Alex Anderson, 1949
“Mele Kalikimaka” has become R. Alex Anderson’s best-known composition, outpacing songs such as “Lovely Hula Hands” and “Haole Hula,” which were, in Anderson’s heyday, his biggest hits. No surprise, as it’s truly become Hawaii’s way to say a Merry Christmas. The carol is well known on the Mainland as well, thanks to its original appearance as the B-side to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” release.
29 Waimanalo Blues
Liko Martin and Thor Wold, 1974
Hawaiian activist and composer Liko Martin originally wrote this song as “Nanakuli Blues.” But when Country Comfort recorded it for their 1974 album We are the Children, the group localized the song as a political protest about the development taking place all around them: “Spun right around and found that I’d lost/ the things that I couldn’t lose/ the beaches they sell to build their hotels/ my fathers and I once knew.”
30 A Hawaiian Lullaby
Lyrics by Hector Venegas, Music by Peter Moon, 1973
Venegas found comfort in writing the words to this local classic while his daughter, Krista, recovered from a long bout of meningitis. At the time, Venegas handled bookings for Sunday Manoa’s Peter Moon, who asked if he could put music to the words.
Venegas agreed, but didn’t hear the song until after the group had recorded it at Capitol Records, with Robert Cazimero singing lead. “I got chicken skin,” recalls Venegas, who estimates that about 30 artists have recorded the song since.
31 Ipo Lei Manu
Queen Kapiolani, 1890
Best known for her charitable deeds, Kapiolani composed this touching love song for her husband, King Kalakaua, in 1890, shortly after he sailed from Honolulu for California. The king died in San Francisco in January 1891, never getting the chance to hear the song. “Sometimes sadness can be so beautiful,” says musician Robert Cazimero. “In this particular piece of work, it’s that overwhelming lamentation and sadness that makes the song and the singer rise.”
photo courtesy of Brett Uprichard, BigBambooStock
32 Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World
E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen/Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, 1993
On its face, nothing could be simpler than this song. One voice, one ukulele, one take. But something about it captured the essence of Israel Kamakawiwoole’s ineffable talent, and revitalized the beauty of a well-worn standard. It’s become a global sensation, and its popularity shows no sign of letting up. Leah Bernstein of Mountain Apple Co. says various edits of the song have been licensed 111 times to punctuate movies, television dramas, commercials and even Web sites.
photo: W.S. Vlcek/courtesy of Hapa
33 Lei Pikake
Barry Flanagan, 1981
Flanagan was a busboy on Maui when he wrote this English-language poem. “After reading the [Hawaiian translation from professor Kiope Raymond], the melody hit me like a bolt of lightning—I wrote the song in five minutes,” says Flanagan, founder of music group Hapa. Then-member Kelii Kanealii provided the song’s searing lead vocal, but Hawaii listeners wouldn’t hear it until a decade later, when the group released its self-titled debut. The album earned six Hoku Awards, including Song of the Year for “Lei Pikake.”
34 Beyond the Reef
Jack Pitman, 1948
“Before ‘I’ll Remember You’ and after ‘Sweet Leilani,’ this song was Hawaii’s hapa-haole song of the times—it was Alfred Apaka’s big hit,” notes singer Nina Kealiiwahamana. Interestingly, the wistful lyrics and simple melody so closely associated with Hawaii was written in 1948 by a Canadian expatriate and makes no mention of the Islands in the song. “Throughout the ’50s, it was a huge standard ... because this icon of Hawaiian music sang it,” says radio host Harry B. Soria Jr.
35 About You
Cecilio Rodriguez, 1974
“About You” was inspired by Rodriguez’s real-life fling during a ski vacation in Colorado. When he invited his new love interest to the West Coast, she declined, saying “You don’t know anything about me,” he says. “I answered, ‘I know everything I have to know about you.’ And I thought—ooh, wait! That’s a song!” Rodriguez didn’t get the girl, but he did compose one of the most enduring hits on Cecilio & Kapono’s 1975 album, Elua.
Cecilio Rodriguez (left) with Henry Kapono in a 1970s publicity shot.
photo courtesy Cecilio & Kapono
36 Days of My Youth
Kui Lee, 1966
Lee reportedly penned many of his songs in the last year of his life, before succumbing to cancer in 1966. “His brain was accelerating, because he knew his days were numbered,” entertainer Don Ho told the magazine in 2004. “His songs came quicker.” Ho helped popularize this dramatic composition with his own recording in 1966; the composer’s elegiac lyrics and haunting melody resonate with Islanders today.
37 Tiny Bubbles
Leon Pober, 1966
No Hawaii entertainer in history is more intimately associated with the Islands than Don Ho, and no tune is more associated with Ho than this hapa-haole toast. Ho, who died in April, became a fixture in Waikiki in the mid-’60s, drawing fans from around the globe to his thrice-daily show at Duke’s. “He was an entertainer, very charismatic,” says promoter and longtime friend Tom Moffatt. “Sometimes, I’d take people to his show, and they’d say, ‘What the hell is this? This guy is mumbling.’ But by the time he was done, they were in the palm of his hands.”
photo by Olivier Koning
38 Lovely Hula Hands
R. Alex Anderson, 1940
In a 1984 interview with HONOLULU Magazine, Anderson recounted the inspiration for “Lovely Hula Hands.” “I was at a private party,” he said, “and a hula girl was dancing. The guy next to me suddenly said, ‘Aren’t her hands lovely!’ And right away it hit me: I thought, there, that’s the key to a good hula.” Fittingly, Anderson’s composition has become a indispensable part of any hula dancer’s repertoire.
Songwriter R. Alex Anderson and his wife, Peggy, were married 71 years.
photo courtesy of Paradise of the Pacific, 1952
photo courtesy of Honolulu Star-Bulletin
39 Lei Aloha Lei Makamae
Charles E. King, 1934
Although Charles E. King composed this song almost a decade after “Ke Kali Nei Au,” many refer to it as the “real” Hawaiian wedding song. Noelani Mahoe, author of Na Mele o Hawaii Nei, says, “‘Lei Aloha Lei Makamae,’ to me, is more a wedding song than ‘Ke Kali Nei Au,’ when you look at the lyrics.” But others refuse to take sides. Mahi Beamer says, “They’re equally beautiful, and have both become popular because they are romantic duets to sing at weddings.”
40 Ka Ulu Wehi o ke Kai
Edith Kanakaole, 1979
Kanakaole, a famed Hawaiian chanter and kumu hula, wrote this lively mele about gathering various types of limu, a ritual she enjoyed with her mother and, later, her own daughters. “She was a staunch Mormon and would relish the drives to the temple in Laie because of the fragrant limu as we passed Kaaawa and Punaluu,” recalls her daughter Nalani. “It was down to a science in knowing the different limu and how they smell as we passed these places.”
41 My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua
Bill Cogswell, Tommy Harrison and Johnny Noble, 1933
This light-hearted ditty exemplifies composer and band-leader Johnny Noble’s talent at creating hapa-haole tunes tailor-made for tourists’ tastes, but palatable for locals as well. In a 1944 Paradise of the Pacific article, Noble said of his style, “I decided that if I didn’t change the style of playing Hawaiian music, my band would be just another Hawaiian orchestra. Visitors to the Islands thought that Hawaiian dance music was too slow, and the younger set had been infected with the jazz rhythms of the Mainland bands.”
42 Ka Makani Kaili Aloha
Matthew Kane, 1916
Written by a Maui composer, this oft-interpreted song—translated as “The Kipahulu Zephyr”—tells of a wind that snatches away a man’s wife. The heartbroken man consults a kahuna, who helps the man lure his wife back home through supernatural means. “I’ve often considered that to be one of the most beautiful Hawaiian songs ever written,” says musician Keola Beamer. “A beautiful melody, great intervals, gorgeous chords—truly an inspired work.”
Nona Beamer and son Keola.
photo courtesy of Maile Loo
43 Pupu Hinuhinu
Winona Beamer, 1949
Beamer says she wrote this lullaby after returning from a tour in 1949. “I had a little lullaby for the girls in the family, but I didn’t have anything for the boys,” she says. “I thought, I should write something simple and sweet that I can use in the classrooms.” The lyrics use the image of cowrie shells as a bedtime metaphor. Beamer explains, “Shells are like people, they get tired and so when the sun goes down, we should put the little shells to sleep.”
Lyrics by Amy Hanaialii Gilliom, Music by William Kahaialii, 1998
This song was actually inspired, composed and recorded right in Palehua. “This one morning was absolutely incredible,” she recalls. “Once the fog parted, everything became so clear.” Willie K composed the melody using a custom slack-key tuning. “If you listen closely, you can hear little birds in the background,” Gilliom says. “We actually went outside the studio and recorded in the bushes.”
45 To You Sweetheart Aloha
Harry Owens, 1935
This 1935 Harry Owens composition was once an essential part of an evening out on the town in Hawaii. “Anybody who came to the Islands in the days after it came out would have heard that song,” says Hula Records founder Don McDiarmid Jr. “For the dance bands in nightclubs around Waikiki, it became a signature way to end the evening.” In fact, because of its lyrics, it was often used as a farewell song in place of “Aloha Oe.”
46 You Kuuipo
Lyrics by Gilbert Belmudez, Music by William Kahaialii, 1990
For lyricist Gilbert Belmudez, the ipo (sweetheart) of the song is Hawaii itself. “I wrote ‘You Kuuipo’ as a thank you to the Islands for the beauty and the love that they taught me.” He wrote most of the lyrics in 1984, while living on Maui, but it wasn’t until 1990, when he met up with old friend Willie Kahaialii in San Francisco, that words and music came together. An insanely catchy, soaring chorus has made this song a radio staple ever since.
47 I’ll Weave A Lei of Stars for You
R. Alex Anderson, 1948
Another standout from Anderson’s prolific career, which includes more than 200 songs. It’s become a signature of singer Emma Veary, who says she’s never gotten tired of performing the tune. “The lyrics are just breathtakingly romantic,” she says. “The lei is a special Hawaii symbol for people, and in this song it’s a lei of love, really. R. Alex Anderson was just a lovely man, a sweet person, and that comes across in his music.”
48 Ke Alaula
Lyrics by William K. Panui, Music by Louis R. Kauakahi, 1994
This title track from the Makaha Sons’ 1994 album, Ke Alaula, was originally written as a chant for Halau Na Mamoalii o Kauiki, a keiki halau in Maui. Moon says the lyrics draw parallels between Western and Hawaiian religious traditions, describing the rising and setting of the sun. “Man is like that: one day our sun will set,” he explains. “But it’s a cycle. We live, we die, someone else lives and dies. It keeps going.”
Lena Machado, 1933
While Machado’s soprano-falsetto earned her the title “Hawaii’s Songbird,” she was equally accomplished as a composer, with at least 60 song credits. In Machado’s 2006 songbook, hanai daughter Piolani Motta explains how Machado listened to the lively stories told by local lei sellers. “Hoonanea” borrowed from their tales “about romance, about affairs that began with dancing in the moonlight and ended with passionate moments of love that sent people soaring like birds.”
Mackey Feary, 1975
With their pleasing harmonies and pop-oriented songs about life in the Islands, Kalapana became one of the most successful local bands of the 1970s. Its hit tunesmiths were Mackey Feary and Malani Bilyeu, with Feary composing “Nightbird” as a teenager. “If you listen very closely to his lyrics, you’ll know his life story, because he often wrote about whatever was happening in his life,” says Kalapana member Gaylord Holomalia.
photo courtesy of Bishop Museum
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Haunani Apoliona, musician, Olomana, and chairwoman, Office of Hawaiian Affairs
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