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.
A popular lounge performer, ukulele player Kahauanu Lake led a trio that serenaded guests at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki throughout the 1950s, '60s, and beyond. The playing on this disc -- a reissue of an LP cut back in '64 -- is smooth and serene, yet also authentic and quite satisfying. There's a little bit of an old-school pop vocals/barbershop feel to the arrangements and vocals, but overall this is quite nice and melodically rich. Definitely worth checking out, and a notch or two above most of the old souvenir albums that came out of the islands back in the old days... Give it a shot!
Although this disc does indeed feature contributions from several of the all-time greatest slack-key guitarists -- Sonny Chillingsworth, Atta Isaacs, Ledward Kaapana, Gabby Pahinui -- this is hardly a slack-ley lovers dream record. Instead, gloopy pop stylings, with strings arrangements and sluggish tempos, dominate. There are many classic tunes on here as well, and while on occasion Leed sings in a more or less straightforward traditional style, more often she pushes into more tenuous terrain, incorporating mainstream, Vicki Carr-ish pop vocal techniques into the repertoire, and more often than not, these overwhelm the original material.
One of Hawaii's greatest singers of the pre- and post-WWII era, Honolulu's Lena Machado (1903-74) was a master of the leo ki'eki'e (falsetto) singing style... The "songbird" nickname is pretty apt; some folks may find the falsetto vocals offputting, but within the style, it doesn't get much better than this. Machado became famous as a radio singer and nightclub performer starting in the early 1920s, and was one of Hawaii's best-beloved singers for the next four decades. Machado worked with Hawaii's musical elite: in her early career she worked with hotshot guitarists Sol K. Bright and Sol Hoopii, as well as bandleader Lani Macintyre; after World War Two, her band featured slack-key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui. This collection reissues in its entirety Machado's self-released1962 LP, along with five other somngs that give a tantalizing hint of what she sounded like in her early years. Again, the flowery, old-fashioned style might not be for everybody, but this is the kind of record that, if you give it half a chance, can really grow on you. Check it out!
Selections from three early albums, No Kristo (recorded in 1976), Kahea O Keale (1977), and Ke'ala from 1978. This set includes some of the first recorded work from the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (aka "IZ"), who became one of Hawaii's most popular artists. The Mahaka Sons drew on the musical traditions of the island of Ni'ihau, the so-called "forbidden island," off the shores of Kauai, where by law only native-born Hawaiians can own land, and foreigners can only visit under strict regulation. The group's warm vocal style and large, dynamic sound incorporated some of the feel of mainland folk music, but little of the cloying, mellowness that came to drag the folk scene down. They also bridged several styles of island music -- galloping '30s-style acoustic music, along with elegant slack key, and dreamy group vocals. They were clearly influenced by groups like Gabby Pahinui's Sons Of Hawaii and the more youth-oriented Sunday Manoa, but the Makaha band had its own magical sound, and this retrospective captures ot well... It's lively yet relaxed, heartfelt and innovative, and filled with unusual, distinctive instrumental arrangements. Nice stuff... highly recommended!
The post-IZ remnants of the original Mahaka Sons ensemble -- a trio including Louis Moon Kauakahi, Jerome K. Koko and John K. Koko -- many years later and with a too-sweet, vocal-based, folk revival-ish set... DidnÕt really do much for me, though I suppose it's okay.
Doug & Sandy McMaster "In A Land Called Hanalei" (Aloha Plenty, 2001)
Dunno much about these folks... but this is a nice, mellow set of slack key 'n' acoustic noodling instrumentals, by some local folks in Hanalei, Hawaii. This CD was in the stereo at our friend's house on Kauai, and it was as lovely a soundtrack to listen to while watching the misty clouds on the Northern Shore as any of the albums I had brought with me. The label can be reached at: http://www.alohaplentyhawaii.com, or e-mailed at: email@example.com. Think they might have some other records out, too...
A British "sweet band" entreprenuer who got the Hawaiian bug in the late '30s, Felix Mendelssohn helped popularize the style throughout the UK and Europe in the wartime era. Mendelssohn himself was not a musician, or even a singer, but he recruited the best talent available and these recordings are a great mix of pleasantly corny, genteel big band and authentic slack-key steel stylings. Recommended!
This second disc covers the latter half of Mendelssohn's career, when he found great renown, and great disappointment, leading a large (and quite costly) Hawaiian orchestra across the UK and Europe during the late 1940s. Included here are delirously detailed liner notes from erstwhile bandmember, steel guitarist Kealoha Life, who recounts with great minutae all the ups and downs of Mendelssohn's lavish stage show. The music itself is great -- pure dance band material, but with fine, understated steel guitar work and a flawless repertoire. Among the many musicians in the Mendelssohn entourage, Tau Moe and his family also made their mark in the postwar era. Mendelssohn, sadly, died yound in the early 1950s, but as this disc amply demonstrates, he left behind a lot of great music. Definitely worth tracking down.
A nice sampling of the work of Hawaiian pop modernist Peter Moon, ranging from his early days with the Cazimero Brothers in the Sunday Manoa band, to his late-'70s stint as a bandleader in his own right. There's some traditional stuff here, with sweet slack key and steel guitar work, as well as several jaunty, rock-influenced uptempo acoustic tunes, such as the playful "Island Love," which kicks off this collection off. Moon sings in both English and Hawaiian, and mixes in a little bit of Dan Hicks-ish acoustic swing, as well as a mellow, hippie-ish vibe on tunes like "Ballad Of Keawaiki." This compilation might be the best way to introduce yourself to his work; there's only one song on here I just couldn't stand -- the syrupy pop tune, "A Hawaiian Lullaby" -- but other than that, this is a nice sampling of what the younger set came up with after the first flowering of the Hawaiian music revival. Recommended.
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