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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41 My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua
Bill Cogswell, Tommy Harrison and Johnny Noble, 1933
This light-hearted ditty exemplifies composer and band-leader Johnny Noble’s talent at creating hapa-haole tunes tailor-made for tourists’ tastes, but palatable for locals as well. In a 1944 Paradise of the Pacific article, Noble said of his style, “I decided that if I didn’t change the style of playing Hawaiian music, my band would be just another Hawaiian orchestra. Visitors to the Islands thought that Hawaiian dance music was too slow, and the younger set had been infected with the jazz rhythms of the Mainland bands.”
42 Ka Makani Kaili Aloha
Matthew Kane, 1916
Written by a Maui composer, this oft-interpreted song—translated as “The Kipahulu Zephyr”—tells of a wind that snatches away a man’s wife. The heartbroken man consults a kahuna, who helps the man lure his wife back home through supernatural means. “I’ve often considered that to be one of the most beautiful Hawaiian songs ever written,” says musician Keola Beamer. “A beautiful melody, great intervals, gorgeous chords—truly an inspired work.”
Nona Beamer and son Keola.
photo courtesy of Maile Loo
43 Pupu Hinuhinu
Winona Beamer, 1949
Beamer says she wrote this lullaby after returning from a tour in 1949. “I had a little lullaby for the girls in the family, but I didn’t have anything for the boys,” she says. “I thought, I should write something simple and sweet that I can use in the classrooms.” The lyrics use the image of cowrie shells as a bedtime metaphor. Beamer explains, “Shells are like people, they get tired and so when the sun goes down, we should put the little shells to sleep.”
Lyrics by Amy Hanaialii Gilliom, Music by William Kahaialii, 1998
This song was actually inspired, composed and recorded right in Palehua. “This one morning was absolutely incredible,” she recalls. “Once the fog parted, everything became so clear.” Willie K composed the melody using a custom slack-key tuning. “If you listen closely, you can hear little birds in the background,” Gilliom says. “We actually went outside the studio and recorded in the bushes.”
45 To You Sweetheart Aloha
Harry Owens, 1935
This 1935 Harry Owens composition was once an essential part of an evening out on the town in Hawaii. “Anybody who came to the Islands in the days after it came out would have heard that song,” says Hula Records founder Don McDiarmid Jr. “For the dance bands in nightclubs around Waikiki, it became a signature way to end the evening.” In fact, because of its lyrics, it was often used as a farewell song in place of “Aloha Oe.”
46 You Kuuipo
Lyrics by Gilbert Belmudez, Music by William Kahaialii, 1990
For lyricist Gilbert Belmudez, the ipo (sweetheart) of the song is Hawaii itself. “I wrote ‘You Kuuipo’ as a thank you to the Islands for the beauty and the love that they taught me.” He wrote most of the lyrics in 1984, while living on Maui, but it wasn’t until 1990, when he met up with old friend Willie Kahaialii in San Francisco, that words and music came together. An insanely catchy, soaring chorus has made this song a radio staple ever since.
47 I’ll Weave A Lei of Stars for You
R. Alex Anderson, 1948
Another standout from Anderson’s prolific career, which includes more than 200 songs. It’s become a signature of singer Emma Veary, who says she’s never gotten tired of performing the tune. “The lyrics are just breathtakingly romantic,” she says. “The lei is a special Hawaii symbol for people, and in this song it’s a lei of love, really. R. Alex Anderson was just a lovely man, a sweet person, and that comes across in his music.”
48 Ke Alaula
Lyrics by William K. Panui, Music by Louis R. Kauakahi, 1994
This title track from the Makaha Sons’ 1994 album, Ke Alaula, was originally written as a chant for Halau Na Mamoalii o Kauiki, a keiki halau in Maui. Moon says the lyrics draw parallels between Western and Hawaiian religious traditions, describing the rising and setting of the sun. “Man is like that: one day our sun will set,” he explains. “But it’s a cycle. We live, we die, someone else lives and dies. It keeps going.”
Lena Machado, 1933
While Machado’s soprano-falsetto earned her the title “Hawaii’s Songbird,” she was equally accomplished as a composer, with at least 60 song credits. In Machado’s 2006 songbook, hanai daughter Piolani Motta explains how Machado listened to the lively stories told by local lei sellers. “Hoonanea” borrowed from their tales “about romance, about affairs that began with dancing in the moonlight and ended with passionate moments of love that sent people soaring like birds.”
Mackey Feary, 1975
With their pleasing harmonies and pop-oriented songs about life in the Islands, Kalapana became one of the most successful local bands of the 1970s. Its hit tunesmiths were Mackey Feary and Malani Bilyeu, with Feary composing “Nightbird” as a teenager. “If you listen very closely to his lyrics, you’ll know his life story, because he often wrote about whatever was happening in his life,” says Kalapana member Gaylord Holomalia.
photo courtesy of Bishop Museum
|Mahalo to all our Esteemed Panelists
Haunani Apoliona, musician, Olomana, and chairwoman, Office of Hawaiian Affairs
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