50 Greatest Songs of Hawaii
An esteemed panel of musicologists, producers and artists select the 50 greatest songs in Hawai‘i music history.
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by Andy Cummings, 1883
PHOTO: Paradise of the Pacific, 1953
Cummings, a homesick local boy, penned this signature song while touring Michigan, more than 4,000 miles away from Hawai‘i. Many musicians have interpreted the famous ode to Hawai‘i’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.
6. Hawai‘i Aloha
By Rev. Lorenzo Lyons, 1800s
Photo: Bishop Museum
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 ‘Hawai‘i 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. Ku‘u Home o Kahalu‘u
By Jerry Santos, 1976
Photo: COURTESY JERRY SANTOS
Santos calls “Ku‘u Home o Kahalu‘u” 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.
“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 Kahalu‘u]. 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 Hawai‘i, 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 ½ 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 nā Pua
By Ellen Wright Prendergast, 1893
Listening only to the upbeat melody of “Kaulana nā Pua,” it would be easy to miss the song’s serious political message. Originally entitled “Mele ‘Ai Pōhaku,” (the stone-eating song), it protests Hawai‘i’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)
By 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 Hawai‘i. 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 Hawai‘i 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.”
11. Blue Hawai‘i
By Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, 1937
Kamae (center) founded the Sons of Hawai‘i, icons of the Hawaiian Renaissance.
PHOTO: BISHOP MUSEUM
“Blue Hawai‘i” 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 Waikīkī Wedding. Written by Robin and Rainger, a prolific songwriting duo working for Paramount Pictures, “Blue Hawai‘i” 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.
12. Pua ‘Āhihi
By Lyrics by Mary Kawena Pukui, Music by Maddy Lam, 1950
Mary Kawena Pukui was, in her day, the leading authority on Hawaiian language.
Photo: BISHOP MUSEUM
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.
The story behind “Pua ‘Āhihi,” according to Pukui’s h-anai 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 Nu‘uanu, 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 h-alau.
“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. Hawai‘i Pōno‘i
Lyrics by King David Kalākaua, Arrangement by Henry Berger, 1860s-1870s
Hawai‘i’s anthem is traditionally credited to Kalākaua, 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 ‘Hawai‘i Pöno‘i’ 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 Kalākaua takes the throne, he becomes attributed as the composer.”