Kumu Hula (hula master), chanter, and cultural exponent Pekelo Day presents a collection of powerful chants for hula. As the title suggests (“Mai Nā Kūpuna Mai” means “From the Ancestors”), Kumu Pekelo approaches chant with a deep reverence for the gifts of knowledge he has received from those who have gone before him. We should expect this from someone whose traditional path was foretold by his grandmother; he fulfilled her prophecy by winning a prestigious oli (unaccompanied chant) competition when he was only 13.
of Hawaiian Music
This list was originally compiled as a handout for a Hawaiian vocal class, so the emphasis is on albums with strong vocal content (and was originally limited to 25 recordings so that it would fit on one sheet of paper!) It doesn’t even scratch the surface of great Hawaiian music, so it will continue to be expanded. Please also note that the intention of this list is to offer examples of the broad range of Hawaiian music that falls into the “traditional” category, so not everything is going to appeal to every listener. You can listen to samples through the links following each listing.
AND YES! If you order through these Amazon or iTunes links, we will receive a small commission that will help fund Pili’s work and this Web site. For the rest of your Amazon and iTunes shopping, or for direct donations, visit the Tip Jar page.
Spine-tinglingly powerful chants from the O‘ahu-born, Oakland-based Kumu Hula, probably the most famous figure of the Hawaiian diaspora. He was featured in the PBS documentary American Aloha - Hula Beyond Hawai‘i. Better than caffeine.
A journey through time in chant and narrative with the master chanter from Maui. Features tales of gods, heroes, and chiefs.
Kumu Hula (and teacher of generations of Kumu Hula), master chanter, entertainer… it’s hard to imagine what Hawaiian culture would be like today without Uncle George. One of the visionary founders of the Merrie Monarch Festival, he understood that hula needed to be brought to the attention of the world with a world-class event. This is a wonderful recording of classic mele hula performed by Uncle George and some of his protégés.
It is often assumed that all Hawaiian music is mellow and relaxing, but in reality, a lot of it is upbeat and energetic. Keola has created a unique, meditative slack key style in which the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. His music is tranquil, but not bland – there is always an aura of mystery. If you’re getting lomilomi massage, watching the sun set, or just want to be cradled by gentle waves of the most nahenahe (soft and sweet) Hawaiian music – then this is the recording for you.
A masterpiece by brothers Robert and Roland, two icons of the cultural renaissance of the 70s who are still at the top. They make one 12-string guitar and one stand-up bass sound like a whole orchestra, and their inventive arrangements take traditional Hawaiian songs to a new level of sophistication. Their voices must be heard to be believed. Robert is also an influential kumu hula, and the subject of the inspiring documentary film Nā Kamalei - The Men of Hula.
It seemed like Sonny was everywhere in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, as a soloist, a studio musician accompanying vocalists such as Lena‘ala Haili, Myra English, and Marlene Sai, and as a key member of his mentor Gabby Pahinui’s all-star hui. Although his music is always grounded in the Hawaiian traditions he learned from family members on Moloka‘i and the Big Island of Hawai‘i, the wide scope of his musical interests can be heard in his playing, from old R&B and rock to country and Latin. Sonny’s musical brilliance and deep sense of aloha eventually brought him into the role of mentor to many of the next generation of slack key masters.
Uncle Kawai was known for his powerful ‘ukulele strum, his haunting baritone voice, and his dedication to performing traditional songs in the straight-ahead hula style that he learned growing up on Moloka‘i. He once said, “When you sing Hawaiian music, you sing from your na‘au (gut), but you give from your pu‘uwai (heart). That is how I was taught by my nā kūpuna.” Like Aunty Genoa Keawe, Uncle Kawai is someone to listen to when you want to hear traditional Hawaiian music in its pure form.
Amy Hanaiali‘i (she has dropped the “Gilliom” from her name since recording this CD) left the classical world to return to the music of her ancestors, and has become today’s leading Hawaiian diva, and a fine composer, too. The crisp arrangements on this album perfectly showcase her gorgeous and expressive voice and the playing of her all-star accompanists such as Led Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui.
Uluwehi Guerrero's newest CD is the 2010 Nā Hōkū Hanahano award winner for the year's Best Hawaiian Album. Uluwehi delivers some timeless classics, and other tunes that are certain to become classics, now that he has showcased them with his gorgeous nahenahe vocals. Uluwehi is one of Hawai‘i's greatest falsetto singers, as well as a noted kumu hula, and this CD shows the depth of his skills and his love for the songs of his homeland.
Five musicians who sound like a chorus of thirty, plus slack key guitar, 12-string guitar, ‘ukulele and bass. This is their second “best of” collection, and features their reliably exquisite arrangements of great songs, both classics and originals.
A reunion album from one the hottest bands of the Hawaiian renaissance. In the 70s, twin brothers Ledward and Nedward Kaapana, along with cousin Dennis Pavao, brought the richness of their music-filled upbringing in the tiny village of Kalapana to the big city, and became instant sensations. They have since gone on to great solo careers. Awesome 3-part harmonies and shimmering guitar work.
The same mainland styles that inspired hapa-haole (half-foreign) music (that Wicky-Wacky-Grass-Shacky stuff) inspired these great musicians to create smooth, sosphisticated Hawaiian jazz. Ah, Saturday night in Waikīkī, 1947… meet me at sunset, we’ll hit Yau Lee Chai and the Queen’s Surf!
When he was still in his teens, Dennis was chosen by Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawai‘i to fill the enormous hole left by the departure of Hawai‘i’s ultimate slack key guitar legend, Gabby Pahinui. Dennis has since become one of Hawaiian music’s most respected living composers, and this solo recording from a couple of decades later is one of the best of Dancing Cat Records’ Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Series (and one of the most vocal-oriented).
The classic solo recording from IZ, beloved as much for his huge heart as for his huge, sweet voice… and it comes through in every note. (I bet you already have this one, don’t you?)
Uncle Ray was one of the last of the old-time slack key guitar players. His ocean-deep, bluesy voice and the steady strength of his classic slack key style are instantly recognizable and never forgotten.
Moe Keale will be remembered for many things… his many roles as an actor (Hawai‘i 5-0, Magnum P.I., etc.), his skill as healer (he was a lomilomi massage practitioner), his famous nephew (Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole)… but it’s his singing and ‘ukulele playing that are truly unforgettable. He was one of the original Sons of Hawai‘i (see below). Moe has one of those uniquely Hawaiian voices that wraps you in warmth, and his ‘ukulele picking is nothing short of virtuosic. His nephew IZ learned a lot from his uncle.
Classic hula songs by the ultimate authority, done in the straight-ahead hula style. She was still performing weekly until just before her much-lamented passing in 2008, just months short of her 90th birthday. Her recordings will show you why “Aunty says” are the two most powerful words in Hawai‘i.
A “best of” collection from this rootsy contralto with a really hot band and numerous Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards (the Hawaiian equivalent of the Grammy). She is one of Hawai‘i’s favorite female vocalists.
It’s hard to imagine Waikīkī in the 50s and 60s without this band. They could play more than a thousand songs from memory, and their Hawaiian was perfect at a time when many singers struggled with the language. Their effortless harmonies and K. Lake’s distinctive ‘ukulele strum set a style that is still emulated today.
A Big Island treasure, the Lims are another example of the magic that can happen when a family makes music together. Slack key guitar, ‘ukulele, steel guitar, bass, and perfectly blended women’s voices… it’s all there, down-home but polished, and always the real Hawaiian deal.
Her career spanned the 20s to the 70s, including 30 years with the Royal Hawaiian Band and numerous mainland tours with her own troupe. You’ll hear echoes of her vocal style from every falsetto singer in Hawai‘i, kāne or wahine, and her immortal compositions are still performed by every Hawaiian musician.
IZ with his legendary original band in an electrifying early performance, playing for an ecstatic audience. (Also known as “Live at Hank’s Place”.)
This young group’s 2002 debut won 5 Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards. Amazing three-part falsetto harmonies… and the incredible driving rhythms created by the interplay of ‘ukulele, guitar, and stand-up bass show why Hawaiian bands don’t need drums. Hawaiian music lives on!
Olomana was a stellar pop/rock band in the 70s, but this recording from two decades later is pure Hawaiian, thanks to new member Haunani Apoliona, slack key guitarist, vocalist, cultural authority, and composer of the famous title song, which has become one of the anthems of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
Both Cyril and his brother Martin (see below) have accomplished an exceedingly rare feat: they have both attained world-class standing in a field in which their father, Gabby, set the standard. Cyril is a fine vocalist (and his voice has that certain magical Pahinui sound), but it is his slack key guitar work that raises him to the highest levels of Hawaiian musicianship. The rippling cascades of sound that pour forth from his 12-string guitar are unmistakably his own.
The grand master of slack key guitar, with an indescribably soulful, smoky voice. The greatest Hawaiian musician – ever.
Martin has that great Pahinui vocal sound, and his falsetto is particularly awesome. This recording is also packed with great guitar work and fine arrangements of classic songs.
Ever since his work with Hui ‘Ohana in the 70s, Dennis has been the king of Hawaiian falsetto. This is his most satisfying solo work, and the title track, featuring his fine but seldom-heard baritone voice, has become another anthem of the sovereignty movement.
A hula and chant master turned vocalist, his first public performance (he had never performed prior to the release of his first album!) drew 10,000 people. His richly emotional original songs, mastery of Hawaiiana, and what is simply one of the most beautiful voices on earth, have made him one of the most popular Hawaiian artists ever. This brilliant two-disc retrospective, along with its single-disc sequel, pick out his most-Hawaiian work in song and chant.
The release of this landmark recording heralded the beginning of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance. Master musicians Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui had each been drawn to mainland musical styles; when they joined forces to return to their Hawaiian roots, they brought the back yard to center stage, and showed the way to all the younger musicians on this list. (Also known as “The Red Album” or “The Five Faces Album”.)
The music of Hawai‘i has drawn inspiration from the paniolo tradition since the coming of the guitar. Great versions of classic songs by master artists such as Gary Haleamau, Leabert Lindsey, Clyde “Kindy” Sproat, and members of the Lim Family.
A great selection of Hawaiian swing tunes. The Vintage Hawaiian Treasures series collects tracks from many of the great artists of the 40s - 60s, focusing on the great 49th State record label (named, optimistically, before Alaska snuck in and grabbed number 49). Check out the other titles in this series, too.
This was a Nā Hōkū Hanohano award winner for Kapono, who delivers sophisticated, jazzy slack key arrangements of some of his great-grandmother Helen Desha Beamer’s beloved songs.
While the sound of the steel guitar has long represented Hawai‘i to many mainlanders, steel players in the Islands are far outnumbered by guitarists and ‘ukulele players. Bobby is one of today’s top virtuosos, and this collection of steel guitar standards (“Hula Blues”, “Sand”) and instrumental versions of vocal standards (“Kamalani O Keaukaha”, “Kawohikūkapulani”) is steel playing at its best. And check out “Sleepwalk” – it may not be a Hawaiian song, but Bobby’s version is the best I’ve ever heard on any instrument.
Led was one of the members of the great Hawaiian Renaissance band, Hui ‘Ohana (see above), and is still one of Hawai‘i’s greatest entertainers – his infectious laugh alone can make your day. He also happens to be an astounding slack key wizard; I truly believe that you could hand him a guitar that had been “tuned” by a drunken chimpanzee, and he would just go ahead and make beautiful music with it. Although he’s also known for his falsetto singing, this recording is all instrumental.
Ozzie must get tired of being asked if he’s classically trained (he’s not), but there’s no denying that the endless inventiveness, elegance, compelling rhythms, and fluidity of his playing remind us that there are really no limits to the slack key style, when there’s a real master at work. This recording combines original compositions with Ozzie’s fresh take on some classic tunes.
When George shows up with his formidable double-neck guitar and his years of experience playing with many of Hawai‘i’s greatest musicians, you know he’s there to jam. He has the unique ability to play slack key in such a way that there are echoes of all the great old-time players (sometimes I think I’m hearing Gabby, Sonny Chillingworth, and Ray Kāne – all at once) while still somehow managing to have a sound that is all his own.
A sampler from Dancing Cat Records, the first label to focus on solo recordings by all the slack key greats. This collection features Cyril Pahinui, Ozzie Kotani, Moses Kahumoku, Leonard Kwan, George Kuo, Sonny Chillingworth, Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana, and Ray Kane, plus duets from Barney Isaacs/George Kuo and Keola Beamer/George Winston. If you’re new to the slack key guitar style, or just want a nice variety on one disc, this collection – and the second volume (below) – are the place to start.
Nā Hōkū Hanohano
Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award Winners
Male Vocalist (Tie)
Most Promising Artist
Haku Mele (Composer)
Hawaiian Language Performance