The 25 Greatest Hawai‘i Songs of the New Century
As voted by a panel of experts. Plus, read the stories behind the music.
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5. Lei Ho‘oheno
Composed by: Kainani Kahaunaele
Performed by: Weldon Kekauoha
Appears on: Ka Lehua ‘Ula
Photo: Courtesy of Weldon Kekauoha
Composer and musician Kainani Kahaunaele gave this mele, originally written as a song of love and friendship for her goddaughter, to Weldon Kekauoha in 1999, but Kekauoha says it took him a few years to figure out how to do the mele justice. “If you look at the lyrics, there’s really only one verse and one bridge,” he says. “It’s a really short song, and I didn’t really know what to do with it to make it last longer than a minute and a half.” When he finally arranged and recorded the song, though, everything came together. Says music expert Keola Donaghy, “Every time I hear it, it takes my breath away. The mele is exquisite, and Weldon’s delivery is flawless. It’s a case of syncronicity of the language, the melody and his mesmerizing vocal performance. To me, it’s a modern standard of the Hawaiian repertoire.”
6. Ke Anu O Waimea
Composed by: Kuana Torres Kahele
Performed by: Nā Palapalai
Appears on: Makani ‘Olu ‘Olu
Kuana Torres Kahele says that, for him, “Ke Anu o Waimea” has always had a happy part to it, and a sad part, too. He originally wrote the song for his mom, comparing her beauty to that of Waimea, on the island of Hawai‘i, where she and and his father first met. “My idea was to write this song, not let her know about it, record it and, when the CD was finished, it would be an awesome surprise birthday present for my mom,” he says. “So we recorded it, the release was set, but, then, about a month before the album came out, my mom passed away.” It was a hard blow for Torres Kahele, and disorienting, as it happened just as Makani ‘Olu ‘Olu, the album, and, especially, “Ke Anu o Waimea,” the song, were taking off in popularity. “For a long time, I had a very hard time singing that song. I couldn’t shake certain things out of my head, because of what it was, who it was for, the timing, all that. I would make either Keao or Kehau in the band sing it, because I couldn’t. It’s a pretty song, very hula, very uplifting. I just had a hard time with it.” The happy part? Torres Kahele says he feels better singing the song today, and is gratified to see how it’s lived on, more than a decade later. “Ke Anu o Waimea” has become the No. 1 most requested hula song in Hawai‘i, on the Mainland, even in Japan, he says. “It’s become a household name within hula. It would be hard to find a hālau that doesn’t know it. To think that it’s honoring my mom, that feels good.”
Composed by: Napua Greig and Kīhei Nahale-a
Performed by: Napua Greig
Appears on: Pihana
Photo: ryan siphers
In Hawaiian, “lawakua” means backbone, or strong-backed. For Napua Greig, it was the perfect word to describe her sister Kahulu. With the help of Kīhei Nahale-a, she composed a mele that describes how important her sister was to her development and her career. “I took her thoughts and feelings and put some imagery around it, using her sister’s name, and also the imagery of being in a really healthy forest, surrounded by all the things you need to be sustained,” says Nahale-a. When combined with Greig’s sweet vocal performance and a melodic piano line, the song becomes an emotional tribute to a loved one.
8. Spread A Little Aloha
Composed by: Danny Kennedy
Performed by: Mana‘o Company
Appears on: Spread a Little Aloha
A-L-O-H-A! A little aloha in our day. This bouncy song has a killer hook that’ll get stuck in your head for hours. Surprisingly, composer Danny Kennedy remembers being a little doubtful about putting it on the album: “For me to be spelling out the letters of ‘aloha,’ coming back after 10 years of not having an album out, I was thinking, man, this is kind of a bubblegum song.” Luckily, Mana‘o Company went with it, and “Spread a Little Aloha” became an almost instant local-radio anthem. Fun bit of trivia: That’s Keali‘i Reichel singing on the bridge of the song.
9. Ka Lehua ‘Ula
Composed by: Weldon Kekauoha
Performed by: Weldon Kekauoha
Appears on: Ka Lehua ‘Ula
One crucial element of Hawaiian composition is the process of “paka,” or constructive criticism, in which a writer will show his or her work to a trusted friend or teacher to get feedback and improve the mele. For example, “Ka Lehua ‘Ula” was literally Weldon Kekauoha’s first Hawaiian composition, but he then workshopped it with his friend Iwalani Hoomanawanuiikanaauao Apo and his teacher Ipolani Vaughn. “I knew it was going to be a song speaking about a particular flower, and it just sort of evolved into a love song honoring my wife,” he says. “They really helped put my thoughts down correctly.” The final result? A bona fide new Hawaiian classic.
10. Pili Kāpekepeke
COMPOSED BY: JULIAN K. AKO
PERFORMED BY: NĀ PALAPALAI
APPEARS ON: MAKANI ‘OLU ‘OLU
Photo: courtesy of mountain apple co.
If you know that a “pili kāpekepeke” is an uncertain relationship, then the meaning of the image of a bird darting to and fro to drink nectar from different lehua blossoms, or a fisherman wandering the ocean in search of fish, becomes all too clear. This song melds the witty lyrics of composer Julian K. Ako with the unmistakable sound of Nā Palapalai, and musician Lihau Hannahs Paik says that, while the band has had larger hits, “Pili Kāpekepeke” is “one of the strongest linguistically and has more of a universal message.”
11. Ola‘a Beauty
Composed by: Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett
Performed by: Hoku Zuttermeister
Appears on: ‘Āina Kūpuna
Start with a concise, poetic mele by Frank Hewitt and put it into a gentle, waltz-time arrangement by Hoku Zuttermeister that harkens back to earlier times, and you’ve got a winner. As Lihau Hannahs Paik of Kūpaoa says, “To me, Hoku’s rendition of this song connects different generations of Hawaiian music and I think that’s important. He made the waltz cool again with this song.”