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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 5 of 6)

31 Ipo Lei Manu
Queen Kapiolani, 1890

Best known for her charitable deeds, Kapiolani composed this touching love song for her husband, King Kalakaua, in 1890, shortly after he sailed from Honolulu for California. The king died in San Francisco in January 1891, never getting the chance to hear the song. “Sometimes sadness can be so beautiful,” says musician Robert Cazimero. “In this particular piece of work, it’s that overwhelming lamentation and sadness that makes the song and the singer rise.”

photo courtesy of Brett Uprichard, BigBambooStock

32 Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World
E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen/Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, 1993

On its face, nothing could be simpler than this song. One voice, one ukulele, one take. But something about it captured the essence of Israel Kamakawiwoole’s ineffable talent, and revitalized the beauty of a well-worn standard. It’s become a global sensation, and its popularity shows no sign of letting up. Leah Bernstein of Mountain Apple Co. says various edits of the song have been licensed 111 times to punctuate movies, television dramas, commercials and even Web sites.

photo: W.S. Vlcek/courtesy of Hapa

33 Lei Pikake
Barry Flanagan, 1981

Flanagan was a busboy on Maui when he wrote this English-language poem. “After reading the [Hawaiian translation from professor Kiope Raymond], the melody hit me like a bolt of lightning—I wrote the song in five minutes,” says Flanagan, founder of music group Hapa. Then-member Kelii Kanealii provided the song’s searing lead vocal, but Hawaii listeners wouldn’t hear it until a decade later, when the group released its self-titled debut. The album earned six Hoku Awards, including Song of the Year for “Lei Pikake.”

34 Beyond the Reef
Jack Pitman, 1948

“Before ‘I’ll Remember You’ and after ‘Sweet Leilani,’ this song was Hawaii’s hapa-haole song of the times—it was Alfred Apaka’s big hit,” notes singer Nina Kealiiwahamana. Interestingly, the wistful lyrics and simple melody so closely associated with Hawaii was written in 1948 by a Canadian expatriate and makes no mention of the Islands in the song. “Throughout the ’50s, it was a huge standard ... because this icon of Hawaiian music sang it,” says radio host Harry B. Soria Jr.

35 About You
Cecilio Rodriguez, 1974

“About You” was inspired by Rodriguez’s real-life fling during a ski vacation in Colorado. When he invited his new love interest to the West Coast, she declined, saying “You don’t know anything about me,” he says. “I answered, ‘I know everything I have to know about you.’ And I thought—ooh, wait! That’s a song!” Rodriguez didn’t get the girl, but he did compose one of the most enduring hits on Cecilio & Kapono’s 1975 album, Elua.

Cecilio Rodriguez (left) with Henry Kapono in a 1970s publicity shot.

photo courtesy Cecilio & Kapono

36 Days of My Youth
Kui Lee, 1966

Lee reportedly penned many of his songs in the last year of his life, before succumbing to cancer in 1966. “His brain was accelerating, because he knew his days were numbered,” entertainer Don Ho told the magazine in 2004. “His songs came quicker.” Ho helped popularize this dramatic composition with his own recording in 1966; the composer’s elegiac lyrics and haunting melody resonate with Islanders today.

37 Tiny Bubbles
Leon Pober, 1966

No Hawaii entertainer in history is more intimately associated with the Islands than Don Ho, and no tune is more associated with Ho than this hapa-haole toast. Ho, who died in April, became a fixture in Waikiki in the mid-’60s, drawing fans from around the globe to his thrice-daily show at Duke’s. “He was an entertainer, very charismatic,” says promoter and longtime friend Tom Moffatt. “Sometimes, I’d take people to his show, and they’d say, ‘What the hell is this? This guy is mumbling.’ But by the time he was done, they were in the palm of his hands.”

photo by Olivier Koning

38 Lovely Hula Hands
R. Alex Anderson, 1940

In a 1984 interview with HONOLULU Magazine, Anderson recounted the inspiration for “Lovely Hula Hands.” “I was at a private party,” he said, “and a hula girl was dancing. The guy next to me suddenly said, ‘Aren’t her hands lovely!’ And right away it hit me: I thought, there, that’s the key to a good hula.” Fittingly, Anderson’s composition has become a indispensable part of any hula dancer’s repertoire.

Songwriter R. Alex Anderson and his wife, Peggy, were married 71 years.

photo courtesy of Paradise of the Pacific, 1952


photo courtesy of Honolulu Star-Bulletin

39 Lei Aloha Lei Makamae
Charles E. King, 1934

Although Charles E. King composed this song almost a decade after “Ke Kali Nei Au,” many refer to it as the “real” Hawaiian wedding song. Noelani Mahoe, author of Na Mele o Hawaii Nei, says, “‘Lei Aloha Lei Makamae,’ to me, is more a wedding song than ‘Ke Kali Nei Au,’ when you look at the lyrics.” But others refuse to take sides. Mahi Beamer says, “They’re equally beautiful, and have both become popular because they are romantic duets to sing at weddings.”

40 Ka Ulu Wehi o ke Kai
Edith Kanakaole, 1979

Kanakaole, a famed Hawaiian chanter and kumu hula, wrote this lively mele about gathering various types of limu, a ritual she enjoyed with her mother and, later, her own daughters. “She was a staunch Mormon and would relish the drives to the temple in Laie because of the fragrant limu as we passed Kaaawa and Punaluu,” recalls her daughter Nalani. “It was down to a science in knowing the different limu and how they smell as we passed these places.”

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