Hawaiian music has a unique charm, deeply rooted in the idyllic feel of the old-time islands. This page is mainly devoted to the classic Hawaiian steel guitar recordings of the 1920-1950s, which mixed dynamic technique with Tin Pan Alley-inspired showmanship. The Hawaiian steel guitar sound spread into country music during the Great Depression era, and eventually became a dominant motif in the hick music scene. The original Hawaiian style is a bit different, taking curious dips and loop-de-loops that sounds as delightful today as did back in the days of yore.
A few modern artists are also reviewed here, and I hope to expand this page to include more contemporary slack-key guitarists. Artists or labels are welcome to contact me about being included on the site.
Greatly influenced by the legendary Lena Machado's leo ki'eki'e (falsetto) singing style, Linda Dela Cruz was a wartime and postwar singer who performed constantly and recorded sparingly. This disc collects about a two dozen hard-to-find tracks, cut in the 1940s and '50s for island labels such as Bell, Tropical and Trade Winds... Most of these tunes are wonderful -- smooth falsetto crooning that's a little more accessible (but no less authentic) than the standard fare. The style may still be an acquired taste, but if you want to give it a try, this is certainly a fine place to start. Yet another great archival effort from the folks at the Hana Ola label.
The Puerto Rican-Hawaiian connection is very much alive in the work of bands such as Pahoa, Hawaii's El Leo, who specialize in what islanders called kachi-kachi at the start of the 20th Century -- the adaptation of Puerto Rican jibaro music to Hawaiian climes. This album features several traditional PR tunes along with some nice originals, including "La Borinque Rap", a bouncy but easygoing, trilingual guaracha rap tune. The band's rhythms and cuatro riffs are solid, with canny slack-key guitar slipped in on the sly... A fun, self-produced album that give a glimpse into a little-known but melodically rich musical tradition.
Ken Emerson "Slack And Steel" (1997)
Almost by accident, I saw this guy play at a gig he was doing in a posh Kauai hotel lounge... Hearing there'd be some slack-key, we hiked over to the hotel, plunked our scruffy butts down, paid too much for watered-down drinks and took a gander at the white hippie dude with the stageful of guitars... And he was pretty darn good! A very skillful slack key player, Emerson also enjoys playing old, singer-songwriter hippie tunes from the 'Seventies, and this album reflects that stylistic mix... There's some fine island music on here, ranging from Bob Brozman-esque acoustic blues to fine falsetto singing, and a lot of original acoustic reggae and folkie material, which I'm less into but which was still pretty nice. Emerson's history is emblematic of the mellowness and deep alterna-culture roots of the Kauai scene: his family has been involved in musicmaking since the early 20th Century (a relative of his performed Hawaiian music at the fabled 1915 World's Fair Exhibition, which brought "world music" to America) and as a young man he kicked back and forth between Northern California and Hawaii for years and years... His time spent in Santa Cruz during the '70s is pretty apparent; fans of eclectic acoustic music will want to check this one out!
Halau Hula Ka No'eau "Hawaii Traditional Hula" (Arc Music, 2003)
Traditional hula, drumming and chants, from one of Waimei's premier modern folk ensembles... Might be a little raw and inaccessible for the casual Hawaiian music fan, but great for the hardcore traditional revivalists.
A fairly stripped-down, acoustic set of Hawaiian-language songs, with modest, plaintive vocals by Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom, and guitar and ukulele by Willie Kahaiali'i. Robert Cazimero also plays piano on a few tunes... It's a nice enough set; didn't totally wow me, but it wasn't objectionable in any way, either... Worth checking out.
The Maui-based duo of Barry Flannagan and Keli'i Kaneali'i are the core of Hapa, though various sidemen and guest players (such as Kenny Loggins and Stephen Stills) join in on this, their first album. Compared to their later work, this is a pretty down-to-earth album, mainly acoustic and rooted in traditional slack-key styles, with fine Hawaiian vocals and pretty-sounding guitar work, including several "new acoustic" instrumentals. It gets a little gooey around the edges (a hint of things to come), but it's still very nice. Worth checking out!
This is also mostly nice, at least the acoustic tunes are, though there are some orchestrated tracks which I find icky, and one track with the Irish uillean pipes on it that's a little questionable... Still, this disc is much better than you'd expect if you'd only heard their super-tacky Collection album. A few tunes, particularly "Emme's Island Moments," have a distinctly Ry Cooder-ish feel to them... Worth checking out.
Hapa "Collection" (Mountain Apple, 2000)
A sampling of this modern island band, drawing on several albums recorded between 1992-99. It's too popped-up and perfect for me, and I don't like the high-tech sound (synthesizers, electric guitars, confessional lyrics, etc.) Even the more traditional sounding songs are too slick and too genteel for me, and some of the music is just plain awful. I know they're very popular and commercially successful and all that, but this stuff sounds really boring to me. I have plenty of other records I could listen to instead.
The first album by this popular 'Nineties band... Modern world-beat pop, with reggae, soca, country and folk-rock all woven together, with a hint of traditional Hawaiian music in there too (mostly it's the bilingual lyrics that bring "Hawaiianness" to this record)... The songs are generally mellow odes to the natural and spiritual beauty of the islands, as well as a tune or two in favor of Hawaiian sovereignty... Not really my kind of music, but it's a nice, mellow set and I know (from listening to the radio there) that this kind of reggae-light stuff is pretty popular on the islands...
An impressive archival collection highlighting the post-WWII recordings of the Hawaii Shochiku Orchestra, a big band-ish society dance band that backed vocalists such as Chiyoko Ida, Chiyomi Furukawa, Ted Shimabuhuro, and others in the Japanese- and Okinawan-Hawaiian community. Bandleaders Francis Zanami and Masaji Uyehara, Okinawan nisei whose families came to Hawaii at the turn of the century, during the first wave of Okinawan migration, formed their first ensemble in the 1930s, but somehow the war with Japan sort of sidelined their professional aspirations. In the late '40s, however, they regrouped and formed the Shochiku Orchestra, enjoying considerable commercial success in the years that followed. This music doesn't sound particularly "Hawaiian," but it sure is cool. Japanese vocals, with a mix of modern and traditional compositions, some based on Okinawan folk themes, all framed in a gentle yet persuasive sweet dance band style. This disc isn't simply novelty material... it's true world pop, old-school style! Also includes copious, well-written liner notes which outline an encapsulated version of the history of once-independent Okinawa vis-a-vis Japan and the rest of western Asia.
Daniel Ho "Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Collection" (Daniel Ho Creations, 2003)
His acoustic guitar playing is quite lovely, but the backing arrangements on much of the album are just too darn gooey for me. I couldn't hang with it.
A nice set of modern leo ki'eki'e (falsetto) singing from the brother duo of Richard and Solomon Ho'opi'i, who were formerly in the late '60s Hawaiian revival band, the Ho'onanea Seranaders, and later recorded several albumas the Ho'opi'i Brothers in the late '70s and '80s. This is pretty nice stuff, plain and down-to-earth renditions of many well-known tunes, including a clownish version of Sol K. Bright's Hawaiian yodel. The steel guitar and ukulele accompaniment are pretty modest and down-to-earth, as are the vocal acrobatics.... Folks who are put off by the more shrill side of falsetto singing should still be able to get into this album; they keep it pretty simple.
Sol Hoopii "Master of the Hawaiian Guitar, v. 1" (Rounder, 1987)
Sol Hoopii "Master of the Hawaiian Guitar, v. 2" (Rounder, 1988)
Dennis Kamahaki and George Kuo (both from the Sons of Hawaii band) join bassist Martin Pahinui on this fine, vocal-heavy collaboration, which also introduces Kamahaki's son, ukulele player David Kamahaki, to the Hawaiian music scene. The music is pretty flowery -- a cheerful mix of island standards and several original new tunes written by Dennis Kamahaki. It's a little less contemplative than your typical slack key set (if there is such a thing as a typical slack key set!), but this disc'll still win you over. Recommended!
If you ever pick up a copy of the Bear Family catalog, there's a whole section devoted to dozens of post-war German pop artists. It's the sort of thing where you just scratch your head, and think, "Huh. Wonder what that stuff's like...?" but you quickly put it out of your head, since the attraction isn't that great. So here's one that snuck in by the back door... I actually thought this was a collection of Hawaiian oldies, but it turns out 'taint necessarily so. The Hula Hawaiians were actually a Swiss outfit, led by steel guitarist Walter Roost. Formed in Basel in 1945, the band recorded well into the 'Fifties and 'Sixties -- and man, did they rock! Not only could they play straight up Hawaiian style, they also started to infuse their work with a driving rockabilly undertone... a hint of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant along with the standard Polynesian fare. Every time I'd play something off this disc on the radio, I'd get someone calling up to ask what it is... Of particular note is the Hawaiian-ized version of Anton Karas' "Third Man Theme." Highly recommended!
A great collection of classic tunes recorded by guitarist Andrew Aiona Long (he shortened his Hawaiian name when he moved to California in the late '20s). Great stuff recorded when Iona was working in Hollywood on films such as Rhythm Of The Islands and Hawaiian Buckaroo. This disc concentrates on Iona's sessions for the Columbia label; he also recorded extensively for several other companies before and after these mid-thirties dates. As with other Old Masters releases this has superior sound quality and informative liner notes... Highly recommended!
Andy Iona "Volume 4: Songs Of Old Hawaii" (Cumquat Records, 2002)
Another fine set of sweet-sounding oldies, including eight studio tracks and another ten tunes taken from rare old transcription discs. It's really nice stuff. This humble Australian label (Cumquat Records) has a real treasure trove of similar material... A goldmine for serious collectors of Hawaiiana. Check out their website for more details...
I Kona or Ikona -- see Ledward Kaapana.
Barney Isaacs & George Kuo "Hawaiian Touch" (Dancing Cat, 1995)
A sweet, super-mellow, relaxed, all-instrumental, no-hurries, no-worries set that features beautiful duets from steel guitarist Barney Isaacs and slack key star George Kuo. It's really lovely, really subtle stuff, the kind of record you can have on the stereo for days on end and not mind a bit. Recommended!
Jim Jensen & The Hawaiian Hotshots "Volume One: Here Is Happiness" (Cumquat)
Lovely, mellow instrumentals featuring the drifting, dreamy lap steel work of slide guitarist Jim Jensen, along with his pals in the Australian-based Hawaiian Hotshots (a group that also included guitarist Bruce Clarke, owner of the Cumquat label, which is the best source of this fine album...) Originally recorded in 1991, this album is a studious though quite soulful homage to the old-school Hawaiian music of the 1940s -- this really is a beautiful record; I've listened to it for days on end and never grown tired of it. Recommended!
World Music Index