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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12. ‘Ala Pīkake
COMPOSED BY: MANU BOYD
PERFORMED BY: HO‘OKENA
APPEARS ON: COOL ELEVATION
Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple Co.
Composer Manu Boyd paints an evocative picture of an evening tryst in Wai‘alae, using flower imagery and oblique metaphor. “Pa‘ipa‘i lau i ka pā kōnane lae/I pua na‘u e kui a lawa pono lae,” I struck the leaf branches, bathed in moonlight/In order to acquire blossoms to string until complete. Never has the fragrance of a pīkake blossom been so suggestive. “This song has that perfect level of hinting at what’s going on, but not revealing too much overtly,” says Keola Donaghy. “When you get the sense, the flavor of what’s happening under the surface, that’s something I really like. When you don’t know those things, it really adds to the intrigue of the song.”
Musical Duo Kūpaoa.
COMPOSED BY: PUAKEA NOGELMEIER
PERFORMED BY: KŪPAOA
APPEARS ON: BUMBYE
Photo: courtesy of mountain apple co.
Queen of Bumbye.
Puakea Nogelmeier wrote this song to affectionately tease his foster mother, Ululani, a strong, stubborn wahine. The inspiration, he says, came when Ululani, 89 at the time, was admitted to The Queen’s Medical Center with a heart malfunction. Doctors fixed the heart problem, but, the next day, she refused to drink any liquids. No water, no juice, no watery poi, nothing. Doctors couldn’t find any obstruction, and so Nogelmeier and his hanai sister Ku‘uipo tried for hours to persuade their mom, so that a tube would not have to be inserted down her throat. “All she says is, bumbye, bumbye, bumbye,” Nogelmeier recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘This could be bad; we’re going to lose this old lady, not from heart problems, but from hard head.’” At the end of the second day, Nogelmeier was heading home, cranky and tired from the ordeal, when Ululani told him, “Eh, no forget your song.” “What song?” he asked. “The bumbye song.” He went to his car, teary-eyed, and, on the way, wrote the whole song. The next morning, he pulled out his ‘ukulele, and sang it for her in the hospital room, with a crowd of nurses and doctors looking on. “She’s laughing, because the words are funny, and I get to the last verse, and it goes, ‘No Ululani he inoa ...’ and she goes, ‘Don’t say my name!’ I go, ‘Say your name? I’m telling people in the elevator about this crazy old lady with the hard head.’ We’re laughing, laughing, and she reaches over … and drinks a glass of water. And the crisis is past.” He says, for months after, every time he visited Ululani’s house, she would demand to hear the bumbye song, because it made her laugh so much. She passed away at the end of that year, and “at her funeral, we had everyone there sing it. It’s not a sad song, it’s a funny, happy song about this wonderful woman, the queen of bumbye.”
14. Missing You
Composed by: John Cruz
Performed by: John Cruz
Appears on: One of These Days
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
“Missing You” is such a stark, lonely ballad, you’d never guess it started its life as a different, faster composition. John Cruz says, “It was incomplete and wasn’t coming together, but I moved back to Hawai‘i, and I was driving down the street by Kapi‘olani Park, and the thing just came out. Slowing it down brought everything out. I was like, thank god, because I knew there was a good song in there somewhere.” At the time, the heartache of the girl he had lost was “super fresh,” Cruz says. “When I first wrote the song, it was still tough for me to sing it. The way it builds to that chorus—Iiiii’ve been missing you—it almost feels like crying.” We’ve all been there, John, we’ve all been there.
Composed by: “Brother” Noland Conjugacion
Performed by: “Brother” Noland Conjugacion
Appears on: Mystical Fish
Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Apple Co.
This radio-friendly earworm was born when Brother Noland was teaching performing arts to kids at Pālama Settlement. “It was about how to be poetically intelligent, write positive messages. I shared it with this all-girl band, and we put it together and recorded it.” A couple of years later, when Noland started working on his 2006 album Mystical Fish, he pulled out “Backfire” and tweaked it into the form you hear today, complete with that irresistible pidgin hook: “No go come back.” “That’s the overall theme,” Noland says. “Anything can backfire on you. What’s important is that you don’t let the devil in, but you just keep steady with the good.”
16. Huki ‘Ia
Composed by: Pila Wilson, Iota Cabral, Kīhei Nahale-a
Performed by: ‘Ai Pōhaku
Appears on: MNL
Reggae sometimes gets written off as party music, but “Huki ‘Ia” puts a serious message over the Jamaican beat. Co-composer Kīhei Nahale-a says he and his bandmates were listening to an old recording of a kupuna talking about how offensive it was to see the bottom of the American flag at the head of the Hawaiian flag. “From a Hawaiian cultural perspective, the head is the most sacred place, because that’s where our ancestors communicate with us,” Nahale-a says. “Symbolically, having the ‘ōkole of the American flag sitting at the head of the Hawaiian flag is disrespectful. So, we were thinking, what if we delivered Hawaiian lyrics in a different genre? Originally, it was to the tune of “Jammin’” by Bob Marley. We wanted kids to identify with it. But then it morphed into its own melody, and really took off in the Hawaiian-language community. It became kind of an anthem for the young kids who spoke Hawaiian.” The lyrics pose the question over and over again: “No ke aha ia mea e mau nei/I luna o ko kākou?” Why is this thing always above our head like this? Why are we allowing this to happen? The chorus shifts to an imperative: “Kēlā hae lā/Huki ‘ia lā i lalo.” We have to pull that flag down. Pull it down. “We play “Huki ‘Ia” at concerts and, man, next thing you know, all these Hawaiian flags come out,” Nahale-a says. “The song has survived in kind of an underground music movement. There’s no official [physical] release of the song. It was a live recording from a KTUH event, and that went viral. It doesn’t live in a publishing house—it lives in the communities.”
17. Ku‘u Hoa Hi‘ikua
Composed by: Kalehua Krug
Performed by: Hi‘ikua
Appears on: Aia I Hi‘ialo
Kalehua Krug composed this song the night his father was diagnosed with cancer. “The word hi‘ikua is, to carry on your back,” he says. “The song was dealing with getting older, and my father had been my hoa hi‘ikua, the one to carry me. But in that situation, I knew I was transitioning into a time when I would be the hoa hi‘ikua, to carry him.” Krug’s falsetto and the stately instrumentation pack an emotional punch, but the song ends by transitioning from minor chords to a fuller, warmer E, giving it a more positive sense of resolution. He says, “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, when cancer survivors hear it, it helps them build strength and keep fighting.”
Composed by: Keali‘i Reichel
Performed by: Keali‘i Reichel
Appears on: Kawaiokalena
On “Kawaiokalena,” Reichel pays tribute to his partner of almost 30 years, Fred “Punahele” Krauss, painting a picture of love using imagery drawn from their home, Pi‘iholo, in Upcountry Maui. “It’s a totally different universe from anywhere else on the island,” says Reichel. “The winds, the rain, the mist. The Pi‘iholo area was often mentioned in ancient chants from composers across the island chain, but the place names and wind names are pretty unknown to the average person, so I wanted to spotlight the area again.” The beauty of the natural landscape proves to be the perfect metaphor for a deep and lasting relationship.