The 50 Greatest Hawai’i Albums of All Time
An esteemed panel of musicologists, producers and artists select the 50 albums they feel represent the best in Hawaii music.
When part of The Sunday Manoa, Peter Moon showed Hawai’i what an ‘ukulele could really do. More than a decade later, Moon was still pushing the boundaries of contemporary Hawaiian music, with the release of Cane Fire. Joining Moon were all-star players and vocalists Cyril and Martin Pahinui, Bobby Hall and Steve Wofford. The album won seven Ho-ku- Awards in 1983, with the album’s riveting title track becoming “Song of the Year” and “Single of the Year.”
Perhaps better known as a political activist than as a musician during his lifetime, George Helm became a recording star posthumously, with this simple, live album.
Originally from Moloka’i, Helm learned to play and sing falsetto at St. Louis High School in the late ’60s, under the tutelage of Kahauanu Lake. After a short career at Hawaiian Airlines, he became a full-time musician, playing at regular gigs around Honolulu. Helm also immersed himself in the Hawaiian activism movement, becoming a leader of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana.
In 1976, between trips to Kaho’olawe to protest the bombing, Helm was playing evenings at the Gold Coin Restaurant in Honolulu. Richard Wong, the restaurant owner, taped some of the performances, but didn’t do anything with the recordings until Helm was lost at sea on one of his Kaho’olawe journeys in March 1977.
When Helm died, Wong quickly pulled Helm’s electric bass player, Steve Mai’i, into the studio to fill in the bass lines underneath Helm’s trebly guitar work, released the album that May and sold 25,000 copies almost overnight.
Unfortunately, no contract between Helm and Wong had ever been signed, and Helm’s family saw no royalties from the album’s sales. Harry B. Soria says, “It was like a bootleg. It was an afterthought, but it was brilliant, and Hawai’i was just struck with the guy. But not a penny went to the family.”
Producer Michael Cord, who later reissued the album on compact disc, helped to rectify the situation by buying the copyright from Wong and agreeing to pay the Helm family royalties on all subsequent sales.
Helm’s powerful voice and message continue to resonate today. The object of Helm’s political crusade has been realized as well-the Navy finally completed its handover of Kaho’olawe this April after a 10-year, $460 million cleanup.
Although Kahauanu Lake played a mean left-handed ‘ukukele, he chose to strum rather than pluck, even when playing rhythm. Studying under Hawaiian authority Mary Kawena Pukui, Lake insisted on accurate pronunciation of Hawaiian words. “The Trio offered an alternative to the backyard style of Gabby,” says panelist Robert Cazimero. “They added a sophisticated kind of elegance that brought along with it the hula, and the marriage was so sublime.”
Tom Moffatt jokes that Country Comfort got him out of the group management business. These Waima-nalo boys did have a reputation for partying, but they gained an even bigger reputation for their music with this rock-influenced debut. The album’s high production values and radio-friendly songwriting paved the way for acts such as Kalapana, Olomana and The Beamer Brothers. The extracurricular excess caught up with the band eventually, but hits such as “Waima-nalo Blues” continue to get airplay even today.
Moe Keale started his singing career long before his now-famous nephew, Iz, but there’s an unmistakable similarity in their voices. “It’s just that beautiful, pure Ni’ihau sound,” says panelist Lydia Ludin, a respected Hawaiian music resource. A master of the ‘ukulele, Keale joined the Sons of Hawai’i in the late 1960s. This album features one of Keale’s best-known songs, “Aloha Is,” which earned him a Ho-ku- Award for “Song of the Year” in 1987.
Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom puts her classically trained voice to beautiful use on this, her second album. It’s her first completely Hawaiian-language album, as well as her first collaboration with Willie K, and the chemistry is undeniable. The simple, traditional presentation makes Gilliom’s new compositions right at home next to standards such as “I Ali’i No ‘Oe.”
Judging from the composition credits of New Jersey native Barry Flanagan on Hapa’s self-titled debut, it’s hard to believe that he’d moved to Hawai’i just 10 years before releasing it. “Because this was a native language, I made sure to connect with the right people, such as translator Ki-‘iope Raymond,” Flanagan says. “I learned how to put poetry together in the Hawaiian mindset and gave it to Ki-‘ope.” Hapa’s debut album featured hits such as “Ku’u Lei, Ku’uipo.” no.
The Hawaiian Style Band was a success story in reverse. It had a hit radio single before it recorded an album, won a Ho-ku- award before it assembled a band and released a hugely successful album before it ever played a live concert.
It all started with a jingle called “E Nana,” written for Local Motion by Wade Cambern and Bryan Kessler. “People were calling in to radio stations and wanting to hear the Local Motion commercial song,” Cambern says. “That was the first indication that we had something unique that could be marketable.”
Rob Burns, the founder of Local Motion, recognizing the opportunity, got Cambern and Kessler into a studio to record another song, “Live a Little,” and released it as a single. It was an instant hit, and won a 1991 Hökü award for best single.
“On the evening of the Hökü’s, we just decided then and there to start working on a full-length CD,” says Cambern. Robi Kahakalau and Merri Lake McGarry joined the group as core members, and Rob Burns used his local connections to bring in an all-star cast of guests-Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, the Ka’au Crater Boys, Cyril and Bla Pahinui, Del Beazley. Cambern says, “I think some people were skeptical of a couple of haole boys trying to put a Hawaiian CD together, but Rob kind of smoothed the whole deal over, and got all these guys to come to the studio.”
The resulting sound was magic, and the consistently solid songwriting earned Vanishing Treasures the 1993 Contemporary Album of the Year Ho-ku- award. The next logical step was to go out on tour to support the album, and the Hawaiian Style Band debuted live at that year’s Waiki’i Music Festival on the Big Island.
The band released two more albums, but Vanishing Treasures remains its defining moment.
The Hilo Hawaiians, made up of Bunny and Kihei Brown, Mona and Puni Kalima and Arthur Kaua, was one the most notable groups to come out of the renowned Haili Choir in Hilo. They sang beautiful vocal harmonies, led by Kihei’s falsetto. This LP was released in several editions, most notably as a deluxe, 58-page, full-color booklet, now a collectible. Sections include a brief Hawaiian history, and such essays as “Malihinis and how they got here,” and “What should you bring to Hawai’i?”
With her soulful voice and local-girl humor, Melveen Leed expertly combined the genres of Hawaiian and country music. Leed’s singing career kicked off when local record producer Charles Bud Dant contacted Nashville’s Owen Bradley, who had produced Patsy Cline’s albums. “I ended up recording six albums in Nashville,” Leed says. “I sang at the Grand Ole Opry, and it was wonderful, because I was representing Hawai’i.” Hawaiian Country includes two of Leed’s signature hits, “Paniolo Country” and “Walk Through Paradise.” no.
Poi Dog is the only nonmusic album on this list (well, unless you consider “Fate Yanagi”), but it couldn’t not be included. No other Hawai’i comedy album has been so funny, given such keen insights into local culture or been so imitated.
Rap Reiplinger made a name for himself in the early ’70s, performing at the Territorial Tavern as part of the comedy group Booga Booga, with James Grant Benton and Ed Kaahea. But it was this solo debut that cemented his reputation as a comedic genius. Even his own later work would never match this one.
Reiplinger’s comedy was fueled by a brilliant intellect. He was instantaneous with a comeback, and was constantly coming up with new material. Leah Bernstein, president of Mountain Apple Co., says that when Poi Dog producer Jon de Mello gave Reiplinger a typewriter to type out his material, “He was just coming up with all this new material and he literally burned out the typewriter. I had to take it in to Kaimukï Typewriter to get it fixed, and the store manager asked me, ‘Did your kid pound on this or something?’ I had to tell him it was Rap Reiplinger.”
In the studio, Reiplinger was better able to transfer the ideas to record. “He was ahead of his time,” says musician Jake Shimabukuro. “He used multi-tracking techniques just how we do with our instruments, creating conversations, creating dialogue between himself and himself, or three or four different people talking to each other. He was just amazing at creating atmosphere.”
Poi Dog has also avoided the pitfall so common to comedy: unkind aging. Rap’s material is as funny now as it was in the ’70s. Mr. Frogtree’s room-service frustration, Auntie Nelly Kulolo’s Date-a-Tita service-it all seems to just get better and better.
This album captures Gabby Pahinui at his backyard best. Here, the slack key icon jams with four of his sons-Martin, Cyril, Bla and Philip-and old friends, including music greats Sonny Chillingworth and Leland “Atta” Isaacs. It was a concept album. Rabbit Island is a small island off East O’ahu, near Pahinui’s Waima-nalo home. No music festival takes place on Rabbit Island. But with lively tracks such as “Ho’oheno K36eia No Beauty” and “Pa-lolo,” Pahinui and his pals didn’t need one.
These 25 classics recorded for producer and conductor Jack de Mello remind listeners why Emma Veary is one of Hawai’i’s most glorious voices. No modern-day singer has come close to Veary in performing Monarchy Era songs, such as “Kamehameha Waltz,” “Ku’u Pua I Paoakalani” and “The Queen’s Prayer.” “Emma was classically trained as a singer,” notes panelist Byron Yasui. “But when she sings Hawaiian songs, she sings it with this incomparable Hawaiian soul and passion.”
With Troy Fernandez on ‘ukulele and Ernie Cruz on guitar, the Ka’au Crater Boys became one of the most popular local acts of the 1990s, spinning out upbeat originals such as “Tropical Hawaiian Day” and fresh remakes of tunes such as “Rhythm of the Rain” and “Still the One.” “When I first heard the title track, I said, ‘That can’t be an ‘ukulele!'” says panelist Jake Shimabukuro. “I was listening to Troy play, and I was just so blown away-it was just ingenious.”
Years ago, Loyal Garner earned the nickname “Lady of Love” while hosting a telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It seemed entirely appropriate for a woman whose rich, soulful voice and warm personality had entertained Hawai’i for more than 20 years. Garner “always sang from her heart,” says panelist Alan Yoshioka, of Harry’s Music Store. “Loyal expresses the warm and tender side of her. One of the songs, ‘Blind Man in the Bleachers,’ moved us to tears whenever she performed it.”
Ho’oluana was the last album recorded by the Ma-kaha Sons of Ni’ihau before Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s departure, and it shows the band at its creative peak. The group recorded the songs between touring over a period of three years, and member Louis “Moon” Kauakahi says, “This was one of our best efforts, because we took time to rehearse and get a proper perspective.” The album went on to win five Hoku awards.
With his rich baritone voice and classic good looks, Palani Vaughan seemed destined to be the next Alfred Apaka. But after a stint in Waikïkï performing romantic hapa haole lullabies like “Honolulu,” he changed direction.
“My heart gravitated toward more traditional Hawaiian music,” says Vaughan. “In the ’60s and ’70s, there was a lot happening with young Hawaiians trying to understand who they were, including me. I was a Hawaiian without roots.”
Vaughan found what he was looking for in historic texts about Hawai’i’s monarchs. “I realized that, aside from hula, people didn’t recognize Kaläkaua enough for his achievements,” Vaughan says. “You could read about his achievements, but you couldn’t find them in music. I thought music was a better way of educating the masses.”
That led Vaughan to write dozens of songs celebrating Kaläkaua’s reign, compiling them in this astonishing four-volume series Iä ‘Oe E Ka Lä. One of Vaughan’s most recognizable compositions, “Ka’a Ahi Kahului,” explains how Kaläkaua encouraged railroad-building in the Islands. Vaughan also resurrected 19th century songs, such as the title track, which was written by a relative of Kaläkaua in honor of his historic good-will journey around the globe.
After the first volume was released, Vaughan began looking the part, growing a thick mustache and mutton-chop sideburns to resemble Kaläkaua. Vaughan’s concerts were elaborate, featuring traditional royal costumes and props, such as a replica of the ‘Iolani Palace gazebo.
“Palani helped perpetuate our Hawaiian culture,” says radio personality Honolulu Skylark. “He was so driven in his belief that this history, this language and this art should not die.”
Although Vaughan went on to record a second two-volume set of songs honoring Hawai’i’s royalty, it “was overshadowed by Iä ‘Oe E Ka Lä,” he says. Considering what a triumph the earlier body of work is, he has nothing to be ashamed of.
The members of Ho’okena took their name from a song about a district in South Kona. It means “to satisfy thirst”-a lead-in to the group’s debut album, Thirst Quencher! At the time, the group consisted of William “Ama” Aarona, Manu Boyd, Horace K. Dudoit III, Gregson “Bozo” Hanohano and Glen Smith. “We wanted to present both original compositions and older Hawaiian songs in a new, contemporary arrangement, with some influence from my teacher, Robert Cazimero,” Boyd says.
Na Leo Pilimehana had its first hit while its members were still in high school with “Local Boys.” This album, recorded a decade later, was the first album recorded under its own label. Member Lehua Kalima Heine says, “It was a progression, because we were taking control of things, playing more of our own music. We weren’t just the little high school girls people remembered.” Growing up was a good thing-the album was a hit, netting Na Leo four Hoku awards.
Featuring percussionist Lopaka Colon, ‘ukulele whiz Jake Shimabukuro and Jon Yamasato on vocals and guitar, this album-with songs like “Mr. Sun Cho Lee” and “Bring Me Your Cup”-wasn’t recorded for public release. “We recorded this because we needed a demo tape to play for club owners,” Shimabukuro says. “My ‘ukulele teacher, Tracey Terada, let us record it in his studio, people passed it around and we decided to release it.” It’s a good thing they did.
Even after Guava Jam, The Sunday Ma-noa continued to expand the frontier for contemporary Hawaiian music. This final release by the pioneering trio features songs such as “Eleu Mikimiki” and “Manu Ulaula,” which added a banjo and electric fiddle to the group’s already innovative sound. “There were great songs on that album,” says radio personality Honolulu Skylark. “Peter with his driving guitar on ‘Iuka Ko-ke’e’ and ‘Hawaiian Lullabye’-oh! Just chicken skin.”
Willie Kahaiali’i is one of the most eclectic performers in Hawai’i (last year he played Eddie in a Maui staging of the Rocky Horror Music Show), and this debut album shows his range perfectly. From traditional Hawaiian falsetto on “Ho’onanea” to reggae on “Good Morning” to calypso on “Katchi Katchi Music Makawao” to barbershop on “Honey Girl” to electric rock ‘n’ roll on a cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction”-there’s nothing he can’t do.
Although Arthur Lyman first tasted fame as Martin Denny’s vibraphone player-you can hear his playing on Exotica-he later became a star in his own right, after being signed to Hi Fi Records. He recorded almost all his albums in Honolulu, and was a fixture at the Hawaiian Village Hotel Shell Bar. Lyman’s seminal hit was the mellow “Yellow Bird,” which spent 10 weeks on Billboard’s Top 10 chart in 1961, peaking at No. 4.
Charles K.L. Davis earned a reputation for his boisterous delivery of comic hapa-haole tunes, such as “Red Opu” and “Carburetor Song.” He spent much of his later years entertaining crowds at Kemo’o Farms near Schofield Barracks, but his music beginnings were classical-an education at Julliard School of Music in New York, a performance at the Metropolitan Opera (the first Hawaiian to do so) and starring roles on Broadway.
From the 1950s to the ’80s, The Kahauanu Lake Trio stirred audiences with its jazz-infused, acoustic performances of Hawaiian music. Kahauanu Lake, with his imaginative use of ‘ukulele chords, his brother Tommy Lake on acoustic bass and Al Machida on guitar-all three able to employ a falsetto and regular voice-rarely sounded, or looked, less than perfect. This, anthology includes the group’s biggest hit, “Pua Lililehua” which Kahauanu wrote for his wife, the late kumu hula Maiki Aiu Lake.