50 Greatest Songs of Hawaii
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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.”
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