50 Greatest Songs of Hawaii
An esteemed panel of musicologists, producers and artists select the 50 greatest songs in Hawaii music history.
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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.”
Andy Cummings, 1938
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 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.
6. Hawaii Aloha
Rev. Lorenzo Lyons, 1800s
photo courtesy of 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 ‘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
Singer/songwriter Jerry Santos was born and raised on the Windward side of Oahu.
photo: courtesy of Jerry Santos
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.
“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
Ellen Wright Prendergast, 1893
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 (center) founded the Sons of Hawaii, icons of the Hawaiian Renaissance.
photo: courtesy of Bishop Museum
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.”