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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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.