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50 Greatest Songs of Hawaii

An esteemed panel of musicologists, producers and artists select the 50 greatest songs in Hawaii music history.


(page 4 of 6)

21 Sweet Leilani
Harry Owens, 1934

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 Waikiki 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.”

(left) Harry Owens lounges on the beach with his daughter Leilani. (right)

photo courtesy Hawaii State Archives

22 Akaka Falls
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.”

23 Kawika

This 19th-century mele inoa (name chant) for King Kalakaua took on new life in 1971, when The Sunday Manoa 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.”

The Sunday Manoas Peter Moon (center) and Roland and Robert Cazimero.

photo courtesy of Bishop Museum


photo: courtesy of Honolulu Magazine, 1990

24 Puamana (Sea Breeze)
Words by Charles Kekua Farden, music by Irmgard Aluli, 1937

A beautiful tune extolling the Farden family’s home in Lahaina, Maui. Keola Beamer, who recorded a version of “Puamana” with his brother in 1978, remembers speaking with Aluli about the song. “I asked her, ‘Auntie, how did you write this beautiful song?’ She said, ‘I was in my home, sweeping my floor, and the breeze was coming through, and I thought, oh, how beautiful,’” Beamer says. “Man, that day I went home and I swept my whole house.”

25 Kanaka Waiwai
Music by John Alameida, 1915

Few other church songs have enjoyed the enormous local popularity of “Kanaka Waiwai,” based on the biblical verse in which Jesus tells a rich man to give away his possessions to gain eternal life. The origins of the song, which experienced a revival with the Sons of Hawaii’s 1971 recording, are often disputed. But the music, if not the lyrics, is widely credited to legendary musician John Almeida, who wrote more than 300 songs in his lifetime.

26 Pua Lililehua
Lyrics by Mary Kawena Pukui, Music by Kahauanu Lake, Late ‘60s

Ukulele master Lake made his impressive debut as a composer with this song for his soon-to-be-wife, Maiki, a kumu hula. His mentor, Pukui, provided the words, which describe both a flower and the wind and rain of Palolo, Maiki’s hometown. “The song’s timing sets it apart as a new influence,” notes Hawaiian scholar Kimo Keaulana. “Most modern hula songs are composed in 4/4 timing, but this was in 2/4 timing, [setting a] precedence for other composers in the Hawaiian Renaissance.”

27 Pua Lilia
Alfred Alohikea, 1916

In the 1920s and ’30s, the handsome Alohikea, a consummate ladies’ man, was considered one of the Islands’ finest entertainers by such contemporaries as Charles E. King and Andy Cummings. Today, he’s best known as the composer laureate of Kauai. Considered one of Hawaii’s most erotic love songs, “Pua Lilia” is a favorite among such recording artists as Robert Cazimero and Marlene Sai because of its dynamic melodic range, which showcases their vocal prowess.

28 Mele Kalikimaka
R. Alex Anderson, 1949

“Mele Kalikimaka” has become R. Alex Anderson’s best-known composition, outpacing songs such as “Lovely Hula Hands” and “Haole Hula,” which were, in Anderson’s heyday, his biggest hits. No surprise, as it’s truly become Hawaii’s way to say a Merry Christmas. The carol is well known on the Mainland as well, thanks to its original appearance as the B-side to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” release.

29 Waimanalo Blues
Liko Martin and Thor Wold, 1974

Hawaiian activist and composer Liko Martin originally wrote this song as “Nanakuli Blues.” But when Country Comfort recorded it for their 1974 album We are the Children, the group localized the song as a political protest about the development taking place all around them: “Spun right around and found that I’d lost/ the things that I couldn’t lose/ the beaches they sell to build their hotels/ my fathers and I once knew.”

30 A Hawaiian Lullaby
Lyrics by Hector Venegas, Music by Peter Moon, 1973

Venegas found comfort in writing the words to this local classic while his daughter, Krista, recovered from a long bout of meningitis. At the time, Venegas handled bookings for Sunday Manoa’s Peter Moon, who asked if he could put music to the words.

Venegas agreed, but didn’t hear the song until after the group had recorded it at Capitol Records, with Robert Cazimero singing lead. “I got chicken skin,” recalls Venegas, who estimates that about 30 artists have recorded the song since.

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