Hawaiian falsetto singing occupies a central position in Hawaiian music. It is distinct. It is special. It is . . . ‘ono! It can be many things–sweet, soft, gentle, brassy, kolohe, raucous, sassy. When paired with hula, it is nothing short of magical. For some inexplicable reason, one of the most revered experiences is the pleasure of watching the most graceful hula dancer performing a song that is being delivered in a clear, strong falsetto voice.
In Hawaiian, the term falsetto is rendered as “leo ki‘eki‘e“–literally, high voice. Falsetto–a term that describes the upper range in men’s singing, when the register shifts, and acoustically the air column is reduced by half. Falsetto singing exploits that upper “head” register. And Hawaiian falsetto singing exploits it even further through a deliberate crossing of that point in the register from lower “full” chest voice to upper “head” voice using yodel-like vocal breaks. Especially popular in hula ku’i songs, where the yodel is widely used on the final syllable in a stanza.
There are many stellar exponents of falsetto singing. For the moment I shall recommend one historical compilation, and a handful of starting points, among singers that span at least three generations. All of these recommendations are either original recordings or remasters of earlier recordings now available on compact disc. In future posts I shall delve into this most pleasurable dimension of Hawaiian music through closer discussion of the range of singers and styles.
Legends of Falsetto (HanaOla HOCD 35000, p2000). Historical recordings drawn from Honolulu labels Hawaiian Transcriptions, Bell, 49th State, and Aloha Records. Extensive historical liner notes by Harry B. Soria, Jr. This compilation includes an honor roll of both men and women singers active in the 1940s through 1970s. An excellent starting point for exploring falsetto singing.
Bill Ali‘iloa Lincoln–Hawaii’s Falsetto Poet (HanaOla HOCD 98000, p2007).
Historical anthologies produced by Harry B. Soria, Jr.
Songs and Stories of Hawaii (Pololu PP-195, 1996).
Nā Mele Kupuna (Pololu PP-2004, p2004)
The Ho‘opi‘i Brothers, recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1996. This CD is an anthology of their LP recordings on the Poki Records label, recorded in the 1970s.
Nā Mele Henoheno (Poki SP-9056, p1996)
In a remarkable career that spanned over three decades, Benny Kalama served as Music Director for Waikiki Records, and performed often on the Hawaii Calls Radio Show.
Dennis began his career as a member of the trio Hui ʻOhana, with cousins Ledward and Nedward Ka‘apana. After recording six LP recordings with the group, Dennis launched a solo career that produced another two recordings on Poki Records, and three recordings on his own Pilialoha label. This anthology gathers selections from his solo LPs issued on Poki Records.
Tony Conjugacion made his public debut in 1973, performing as Melveen Leedʻs protege “Little Anthony” in the concert “Hawaiiʻs Stars Present Hawaiiʻs Youth,” and launched his recording career in 1984. His artistry and mentoring has been an inspiration to many falsetto singers active in the present, and he has been a stalwart presence in the falsetto contests formed in the 1990s to encourage emerging artists. Nā Hula Punahele (Mountain Apple MACD-6578, p2007), is but the latest in a prolific and distinguished recording output over the years.