Hapa Haole Songs — An Introduction

Songs about Hawai‘i or some aspect of Hawaiian culture with English lyrics became popular in the 1910s. Publisher A. R. “Sonny” Cunha is credited with writing and publishing a string of these songs, including “My Waikiki Mermaid,” “My Honolulu Tomboy,” “My Honolulu Hula Girl,” etc. Henry Kailimai‘s “On the Beach at Waikiki” was a hit at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Songwriters in New Yorkʻs music publishing industry capitalized on the popularity with a string of Hawai‘i-themed songs containing dreadful stereotypes and pseudo-Hawaiian lyrics such as “Yacka Hula Hickey Dula” and “Oh How She Could Hacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.” One legacy of those songs, however, was the incorporation of the 32-bar AABA song form from American popular music that became canonic in the songwriting of R. Alex Anderson (“Lovely Hula Hands”), Sol K. Bright (“Sophisticated Hula”), Harry Owens (“Sweet Leilani”), Jack Pitman (“Beyond the Reef”), Tony Todaro (“Keep Your Eyes On The Hands”). These songs now define the “Golden Age” of Hawaiian entertainment–the big-band era of the 1930s into the rock era of the 1960s. Interestingly, although many hapa haole songs include 8- or 16-bar introductions in the sheet music, in live performance and on recordings those introductions are usually omitted. Without the sheet music, listeners would not know that the songwriter/s had an additional section to the song.

The perspective in a vast majority of hapa haole songs is that of a malihini visitor pining for a romantic encounter with an ʻukulele-playing hula girl. Elizabeth Tatar, in her study of Hawaiian music and tourism titled Strains of Change (1987) characterized the imagery as “sand, sun, and sex.” Sheet music cover art typically shows a hula girl and a white male tourist in western attire, often on a beach, and often under the moonlight.

Hapa haole songs are staples in beginning hula classes. The following recordings contain straightforward hula-friendly arrangements of the iconic hapa haole song repertoire, and are recommended for a basic starter library of hapa haole music.

Hula H-500Let’ Hula. Hula HS-500. Originally issued on LP in 1962, and  reissued on CD in 1999. Featuring the Maile Serenaders, and vocalist Nina Keali‘iwahamaha.




Mahalo MSCD 6002Easy and Sophisticated Hulas. Mahalo MSCD-6002. Originally two separate LP recordings issued in 1962, now combined in a 2-disc collection issued in 1996. Performed by Charles Kaipo [Miller] and His Happy Hawaiians.




Hukilau Hulas GNPHukilau Hulas. GNP Crescendo GNPD-35 (1992). The 24 songs in this collection were originally issued on two LPs, Hukilau Hulas Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, sometime in the 1970s. Performances by entertainers such as Bill Akamuhou, Kalani Bright, Andy Cummings, Bernie Ka‘ai, Ray Kinney, Mel Peterson, and more.

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1 Response to Hapa Haole Songs — An Introduction

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure

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