Top Ten Hawaiian Music Albums for Newbies–PART I

Why would a list like this guarantee all-out war among divergent camps of opinion, preference, and alliance? Three reasons come to mind immediately:

  1. There are so many divergent camps of opinion, preference, and alliance.
  2. Hawaiian musicʻs long history of recording multiplies the complexity exponentially.
  3. “Top Ten” sorts of lists can be shaped to serve different purposes; and those purposes are not always transparent to readers.

In other words, there are two sides to this equation. On one side is knowledge and preference: Musicians and fans will naturally promote who and what they like. On the other side, there is a tremendous diversity within Hawaiian music, of performance styles, historical context, and repertoire. Add to this cults of personality and production, and you end up with a complex mass of Hawaiian music that no Top Ten list could ever hope to represent in its entirety.

Letʻs take a closer look at this “tremendous diversity within Hawaiian music, of performance styles, historical context, and repertoire.”


These are subtraditions within the tradition of Hawaiian music. Some examples of subtraditions are:  chant, slack key guitar, a cappella choral singing, falsetto singing, crooners, steel guitar, ʻukulele trio, haʻi singing, guitar-based male vocal ensembles, Hawaiian guitar, orchestra arrangements . . . This list is NOT comprehensive, and these and other subtraditions are sometimes further subdivided as well.

The reason why these are called “performance styles” is that each is a way of presenting a mele—a poetic text with a tune. For example, the same mele can be performed in slack key guitar style or by an a capella chorus. The mele remains the same, but neither style could be used to describe the other.

Bottom line: performance styles are separate from mele.


Performance styles are also subject to musical fads, and over the 20th century, there have been many different trends. The acoustic solo guitar playing of the 1920s by the likes of Sol Ho‘opi‘i and Walter Kolomoku is very different from the kī hō‘alu slack key guitar style of folks like Ray Kane, Sonny Chillingworth, and Keola Beamer circulating since the 1990s. Big band swing styes of the 1930s and 1940s by the likes of Johnny Noble, Harry Owens Andy Iona and Dick McIntire were replaced by the smaller nightclub combos of folks like Richard Kauhi. Recordings by John K. Almeida with ʻukulele and guitar joining in with his mandolin sound positively dated next to the ‘ukulele trio sound of a group like Nā Palapalai with their rapid strumming work.

Bottom line: A historical chronicle is capable of showing how different musical fashions were products of their time. At the same time, a historical chronicle of a style may not necessarily present the most appealing sounds to contemporary listeners.


There is a lot to say about repertoire—the songs themselves. For now, the point I would like to make is this: Hawaiian music sits at a crossroads between traditional and commercial music.

In some ways, it is a commercial music, in that new songs are always being introduced. Thus, an introduction to Hawaiian music often includes—or at least tries to include—mention of important composers, like Queen Lili‘uokalani, Charles E. King, Bill Lincoln, etc.

In other ways, it is like a traditional music, in that old songs are embraced and kept in play, alongside new songs. So other introductions to Hawaiian music will often include the song “Hi‘ilawe” because of its association with Gabby Pahinui, a prominent exponent of kī hō’alu slack key guitar.

Bottom line: Individual songs present different justifications for inclusion on “Top Ten” lists.

Note in my title that this entry is PART I. Of course I will address more issues in subsequent entries, so stay tuned!!

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3 Responses to Top Ten Hawaiian Music Albums for Newbies–PART I

  1. Pingback: My Dinner with Amy « Julia Flynn Siler

  2. Roderick says:

    So where’s the lsit? You post couple of lists. What is the current top 20 selling new Hawaiian cds right now in Hawaii that people can go in the store to purchase? What is the top 20 Hawaiian contemporary cds in the past decade? What is the all time best 20 Hawaiian cd in the past 40 years? You post list please.

    • amykstillman says:

      Hi Roderick,
      The lists I posted for 2009 and 2010 are recommendations I am making to introduce listeners to different types of music under the umbrella of “Hawaiian music.” Tracking sales statistics is not what I do. I like to think of what I am doing here as offering different kinds of information about Hawaiian music, based on quite a few years of research and writing about the research I do.
      aloha, amy k.

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