5 Must-Hear Hawaii Songs for Visitors

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People who know me are confounded, dumbstruck even, that I don’t listen to music. “But you’re a professional musician,” they’ll say. “Don’t you need inspiration?”

Sure I do. But frankly, nothing new or old does anything for me that hasn’t already made an indelible mark on the way I look at the world. Many of the songs that have so shaped my worldview are Hawaii songs, not necessarily “Hawaiian” in the literal sense but specific to the experience of being here long enough to have a deeply personal connection with this island paradise. Here are five songs I think will help any visitor understand what it’s like to live in Hawaii, before they even get here. And, having heard them, I believe visitors can more fully appreciate what those of us who do live here know intuitively.

Ku’u Home o Kahalu’u, OlomanaIt’s a song about coming of age, a bittersweet homage to a love parted and a plea for acceptance when a dreamed-of reunion finally does happen. Literally, it’s about a girl. But it’s also a song about hope that a childhood home, Kahaluu on Oahu’s east side, will embrace the wandering, grown songwriter (Jerry Santos) as it did in his childhood.

Consummately produced with crystalline instrumentation and compelling swells of melody and harmony, Ku’u Home is patently nostalgic and sentimental. I’m not sure that anyone, anywhere, ever, has done that better.

Hi’ilawe, Gabby PahinuiGabby “Pops” Pahinui is probably the most beloved figure in Hawaiian music. Hi’ilawe is his most recognizable work. It’s a traditional song sung in Hawaiian, written in the late 19th century but made his own by his slack key guitar stylings and his one-of-a-kind voice. Hi’ilawe is a song about a love affair that takes place under a towering waterfall in the heart of Waipio Valley on the Big Island.

Even most fresh malahini (transplant) women and girls can break off a convincing hula for Hi’ilawe. It’s another song that is simply part of the fabric of life in these islands.

Island Style, John CruzJohn Cruz comes from a family of accomplished musicians, all of whom have created songs that became part of Hawaii’s unofficial soundtrack. Island Style incorporates elements of modern pop music into a fundamentally traditional Hawaiian form. In essence, it’s a song about food and family. But beyond that, it’s a proud affirmation of living “island style” with humility and filial piety common to the Hawaii experience.Hawaii ’78, Israel “Braddah Iz” Kamakawiwo’oleBraddah Iz gripped the world with his one-man-and-an-ukulele interpretation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World”. It was world music number one, and graced an absurd amount of movie soundtracks and TV commercials.

Hawaii ‘78 is not a postcard. It’s a lament, a dirge even, brooding and foreboding. It poses the question of what King Kamehameha the Great and his wife Ka’ahumanu would make of the ever-increasing commercial development of the Hawaiian Islands. It also answers the question. Simply put, Braddah Iz believed they would be bummed. Hawaii ’78 is a song that doesn’t celebrate what Hawaii represents to the world. It explores what Hawaii has lost to it. The song has gravity, enough to pull in Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who performed it at the historic Hawaii Theatre a few years ago.

Lifetime Party, Cecilio & Kapono

On a much lighter note, C&K was a hit-making machine back in the seventies. Frankly, any one of their songs from that period could

be included here. I’m going with Lifetime Party because it captures what I love most about having been fortunate enough to grow up here. Its upbeat clip and syncopated harmonies just make you feel good.

Lifetime Party is an invitation. It asks the listener to join the singers at a backyard kanikapila, where family and friends gather to play music, eat, dance, and otherwise embrace Hawaii’s true paradise beyond the postcard.

Fate Yanagi, Rap ReplingerRap Replinger was a Hawaii comedian. His comedy sketches are legendary. Aunty Marialani. Room Service. I, along with everyone who grew up in my generation, can recite them verbatim. They are as funny as provincial humor can get, anywhere in the world.

Fate Yanagi is musically sound, expertly composed, arranged, and recorded. The words come from a man who died while body surfing Point Panic, “90-feet and glassy.” It professes love for Fate Yanagi, Head Cheerleader of Furtado Memorial High School, and a genuine concern for returning a borrowed can of surfboard resin “when I’m dead.” Its pidgin-English delivery is truly comic, and not lost on anyone who speaks regular English.

There are countless other Hawaii songs that could be included here. These are just the first few that come to mind when it comes to music I can listen to, Hawaii/Hawaiian or not.

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