Choosing Compilation CDs of Hawaiian Music

A compilation CD brings together multiple tracks, often by multiple recording artists, and often drawn from a variety of sources (definition courtesy Wikipedia).

You would think, then, that compilation CDs of Hawaiian music could offer good overviews of Hawaiian music to Newbies, right?

Yes. And No. Well, like, maybe.

Like anything else, there are pros and cons to recommending compilation CDs as introductions to Hawaiian music. Unless the wallet is bottomless, most buyers will attempt to select one or two items from the many on sale, hoping that the money was not wasted on a CD with music out of step with the buyerʻs preferences.

Here are two questions any buyer could ask about compilation CDs:

  1. Who is responsible for the selections presented?
  2. What criteria were used to select which tracks or which artists would be included on a compilation?

1. Who is responsible for the selections presented?

The more you know about who is behind a project, the more your chances of figuring out what preferences and biases are going to be reflected in the selections.  Some examples:

Compilations issued by established record companies, for example, are showcases for the labelʻs own artists and products. Important artists on other labels are not going to be included; important songs not recorded by a labelʻs artists will also not be included.

Compilations put together by radio DJs are likely to reflect what is popular among their listeners—to the extent that permissions and licenses allow. But what is popular is often not a balanced diet of important artists, important songwriters, or important songs.

Compilations by fans of 1920s Hawaiian guitar playing are going to privilege vintage recordings over those of more recent performers. Reissues of vintage recordings are nirvana for some, and dated for others. As they say, one personʻs treasure . . .

Compilations by scholars are going to privilege historical importance or representation. But again, that may not include the work of excellent artists and excellent productions who are passed over because of other more lionized artists circling the gates.

And so on.

2. What critieria were used to select tracks and/or artists for inclusion?

Is the compiler trying to make a historical statement? Is the compiler trying to assert aesthetic judgement? Is the compiler trying to champion a particular artist or performance style or historical period? Or is the compiler simply trying using a labelʻs popular artist/s to introduce listeners to lesser-known artists who also have CDs for sale?

The two main questions above, about compiler and criteria for song or artist selection, do not automatically pop into the minds of typical buyers standing in front of a CD display, or browsing the offerings on the iTunes Store or www.MELE.com.  What producers of compilations often want us to focus on is this: we recognize some of the songs or the artists already, and choose to take a chance on the rest.

My post of Sept. 12, 2009 offers an overview of recommended compilation CDs.

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