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 Keali‘i Reichel, 1994
PHOTO: COURTESY KEALI’I REICHEL
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.
By Charles Ka‘apa, 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
By Dennis Kamakahi, 1977
In the 1970s, Kamakahi filled Gabby Pahinui’s position in The Sons of Hawai‘i.
PHOTO: MARK ARBEIT
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 Hawai‘i at a federal penitentiary in Tacoma, Wash.
“I was in transition, trying to decide if I should move to Alaska or go back to Hawai‘i,” says Kamakahi. “There were prisoners from Hawai‘i, 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 Hawai‘i released “Pua Hone,” The Brothers Cazimero recorded a slower version on Ho‘-ala, their first album with producer Jon de Mello. Kumu hula Leina‘ala Kalama Heine choreographed its hula, helping to make the song a standard for h-alau across the Islands.
By 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. Ku‘u Ipo i ka He‘e Pu‘e One
By 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. Hawai‘i ’78
By Mickey Ioane, 1978
The Mākaha Sons of Ni‘ihau were the first to record “Hawai‘i ’78”.
Photo: Bishop Museum
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 Hawai‘i 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?’”
20. Ku‘u Pua i Paoakalani
By Queen Lili‘uokalani, 1895
During the eight months she was imprisoned at ‘Iolani Palace, Lili‘uokalani regularly received flowers from her homes on O‘ahu, usually from her garden in Pauoa. One day, she recognized a type of flower that grew at her home in Waikīkī, 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
By Harry Owens, 1934
PHOTO: HAWAI‘I STATE ARCHIVES
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 Waikīkī 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.”
22. ‘Akaka Falls
By 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.”
The Sunday Mānoa’s Peter Moon (center) and Roland and Robert Cazimero.
Photo: BISHOP MUSEUM
This 19th-century mele inoa (name chant) for King Kalākaua took on new life in 1971, when The Sunday Mänoa 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.”