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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43. Pūpū Hinuhinu
By Winona Beamer, 1949
Nona Beamer and son Keola.
PHOTO: COURTESY MAILE LOO
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 Hānaiali‘i Gilliom, Music by William Kahaiali‘i, 1998
This song was actually inspired, composed and recorded right in Pālehua. “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
By Harry Owens, 1935
This 1935 Harry Owens composition was once an essential part of an evening out on the town in Hawai‘i. “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 Waikïkï, 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 Ku‘uipo
Lyrics by Gilbert Belmudez, Music by William Kahaiali‘i, 1990
For lyricist Gilbert Belmudez, the ipo (sweetheart) of the song is Hawai‘i itself. “I wrote ‘You Ku‘uipo’ 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 Kahaiali‘i 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
By 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 Hawai‘i 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. Pānui, Music by Louis R. Kauakahi, 1994
This title track from the Makaha Sons’ 1994 album, Ke Alaula, was originally written as a chant for Hālau Nā Mamoali‘i o Ka‘uiki, a keiki hālau 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.”
By Lena Machado, 1933
While Machado’s soprano-falsetto earned her the title “Hawai‘i’s Songbird,” she was equally accomplished as a composer, with at least 60 song credits. In Machado’s 2006 songbook, hānai daughter Pi‘olani Motta explains how Machado listened to the lively stories told by local lei sellers. “Ho‘onānea” 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.”
By Mackey Feary, 1975
Photo: Bishop Museum
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.