My 2009 Top Ten CDs for Newbies

[Note added on August 9, 2011:  This post continues a train of thought begun in the post “Thinking Aloud on a ʻTop Ten for Newbies” List” from Oct. 26, 2009. If you came to this page from a link, you may also be interested in checking out my 2010 followup post “My Own Personal Top 10 CD Picks for 2010” as well.]

One of the benefits of blogging on different aspects of Hawaiian music has been the opportunity to think through a question that comes up again and again:  What would a “Top Ten Hawaiian Music CDs for Newbies” include? So for my holiday post, let me offer my own personal “2009 Top Ten for Newbies” list. Here are the criteria for this personal list:

  • The selections on this list are my personal picks for what I would recommend to a “Newbie”–someone new to Hawaiian music.
  • This list contains recordings on CD that are currently available for sale at outlets such as Hawaiian Music Island ( LP recordings not yet reissued on CD are not considered here. (They may be considered for future inclusion, but not now.)
  • The order presented here is random.
  • My own preference for Hawaiian-language mele is clear from the absence of English-language hapa haole songs from the “golden years” of the 1930s-1960s, and “contemporary island music” since the 1970s.
  • In some areas, anthology or compilation recordings have been favored over individual artist releases, in order for a newbie to experience the diversity of artists and playing styles out there.
  • It is a delicate balance to choose between the recordings of historically significant performers done decades ago on inferior recording technology, and younger contemporary performers whose recordings are more sonically appealing to contemporary ears. As much as I revere seniority and status, I am inclined to recommend contemporary recordings, in hopes that a Newbie might be inspired to explore older vintage recordings and gain fuller appreciation of the artistic mastery preserved on inferior technology.
  • Any credibility in my opinions and selections rests on my knowledge of Hawaiian music performance traditions, repertoire, and recordings.
  • Differences of opinion are welcome!! Please–comment!!

Amy Stillman’s 2009 Top Ten Hawaiian Music CDs for Newbies

  1. The Rose Ensemble, Nā Mele Hawai‘i: A Rediscovery of Hawaiian Vocal Music. ( An extraordinary collection of mele Hawai‘i and hīmeni repertoire by a world-class professional vocal ensemble, meticulously prepared and lovingly presented. Truly exquisite performances. 19th-century Hawaiian songs delivered with remarkable historical awareness.
  2. Various Artists, Pure Hawaiian OR Pure Hawaiian–‘Elua (Quiet Storm Records). Take your pick– both CDs offer representative snapshots of tracks popular on radio and in CD sales in recent years. Both CDs combine a liberal sprinkling of major artists such as Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, and Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, as well as a sampling of independent artists such as kumu hula O’Brien Eselu, Steve Mai‘i & Teresa Bright, John Keawe, and John Cruz. Many of the songs are signature songs for the artists, such as “E Wai’anae” by The Pandanus Club, “Keiki o ka ‘Āina” by Robi Kahakalau, and Sunday Manoa’s “Kawika.” Liner notes provide Hawaiian-language lyrics and translations for all songs.Highly recommended.
  3. Various Artists, Slack Key Tradition (Liko Records; reissued by HanaOla Records). Despite my own personal preferences for the traditional stylings of Uncle Sonny Lim, and the forward-looking technical innovations of Jeff Peterson that remain deeply rooted in traditional approaches, my recommendation for an introduction to kī hō‘alu / slack key guitar playing still goes back to my favorite selection of big island-based traditionalists–which include Uncle Sonny Lim! Straightforward instrumentals played with clarity.
  4. Raiatea Helm, Hawaiian Blossom (2007). Truly a difficult call, to recommend a young twenty-something over the revered artistry of Aunty Genoa Keawe. And yet this already twice GRAMMY-nominated twenty-something sings in the ha‘i style with a depth far beyond her twenty-something years. This is a voice that bridges past, present, and future.
  5. Nā Kama, Kamakolu. No doubt this recommendation will also raise eyebrows, given the far greater prominence of more established groups such as Makaha Sons and Ho‘okena–both of whom are liberally included on my own personal playlists. However,  a list such as this one is an opportunity to introduce lesser known artists and endeavors as well as validate industry veterans. And as important as it is to acknowledge those who uphold and perpetuate traditional repertoire, it is equally important to recognize new songwriting especially when delivered with solidly rooted artistry. Kamakolu marked Nā Kama’s maturation of vocal blending on new songs as well as on old favorites.
  6. Tony Conjugacion. This fearless voice grounded in masterful ‘ukulele strumming first came to public attention in the 1973 concert “Hawaii’s Stars Present Hawaii’s Youth.” Then 12 years old, Tony went on to become one of the most important of the standard bearers for falsetto singing through the years when few others would go there, and when the few other active falsetto singers were his seniors by years and decades. Tony’s solo recording career began with the groundbreaking 1984 recording Hawaiian Passion. In an industry first, in 2003 Tony had the most unusual opportunity to re-record all of songs with the same crew musicians. My recommendation for a Newbie would be Nā Hula Punahele: Favorite Hulas, Tony’s most recent collection of hula standards released in 2007.
  7. Keali‘i Reichel, Kamahiwa / Collection One (Punahele Productions). The contents of this ground-breaking double-CD release are Keali‘i Reichel’s own selection of originally-composed songs and chants drawn from his five solo CDs released between 1995 and 2005. The extraordinary output of this multi-talented singer / haku mele songwriter / chanter / kumu hula signals the resolute centrality of Hawaiian language and poetry in mele, and its loving delivery in a leo nahenahe of unparalleled clarity and conviction.
  8. Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo‘ole, Facing Future (Big Boy Records, 1993). Okay, what would a Top Ten for Newbies list be without the incomparable Iz? I yield to popular acclaim on this front. This is Izʻs second solo release (following 1989’s Ka ‘Ano‘i), but it marks the launch of his solo career post-Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau. His plaintive version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World” caught the attention of an  television and movie audiences internationally. Yet Facing Future contains other gems, such as a most kolohe (rascal) rendition of “Henehene Kou ʻAka,” and “Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man,” an anthem of Native Hawaiian empowerment drawing upon the legendary trickster Maui.
  9. Gabby Pahinui, Gabby (Panini Records). This legendary singer / slack key guitarist / steel guitarist enjoyed a prolific recording career prior to as well as subsequent to the celebrated 1972 “brown album” that introduced him to a new generation of Hawaiian music fans. Three of Gabby’s sons who play with him here–“Bla,” Cyril, and Martin– have gone on to successful solo recording careers. This album contains sparkling recordings of classic signature hula ku‘i songs, especially “Hi‘ilawe” and “He‘eia.”
  10. Tia Carrere and Daniel Ho, ‘Ikena. In the interest of full disclosure, I co-produced this CD, and co-wrote all of the material. This recording won the 2008 GRAMMY Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album. The fact that none of the three principals–artists Tia Carrere and Daniel Ho, and myself–are active in Hawai‘i’s music industry grants this GRAMMY award broader music industry validation on two significant points: 1) this was the first award in Hawaiian music to recognize named artists as opposed to producers of the anthology recordings that took the award in the previous four years; and 2) the newly-composed repertoire on ‘Ikena earned recognition alongside the recycled older repertoire  on all other GRAMMY award nominees to date (all of which was new at one point in time!). I personally believe that our followup effort, He Nani, is even stronger musically than ‘Ikena–and in fact He Nani is a nominee for the 2009 GRAMMY award that will be announced on January 31, 2010. However, ‘Ikena has already garnered the recognition of the award itself, hence its place on this Top Ten list for 2009.

With the close of 2009, I wish you all the peace and joy of the season, and prosperity in 2010!

me ke aloha,

amy k. stillman

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8 Responses to My 2009 Top Ten CDs for Newbies

  1. Auntie Maria says:

    Sadly, your #2 recommendations both went “out of print” in 2007 when the record label (Quiet Storm) closed their doors. Scant inventory of any of the QS inventory was left behind, and these two wonderful CDs were among the first to sell out from the retailers which had them on the shelf.

  2. amykstillman says:

    Mahalo Aunty Maria for this update. Oh argh. Well, if anyone sees copies on ebay, grab them quickly!

  3. Norman says:

    It’s always next to impossible to create these types of lists, but thank you for doing it anyway. I particularly applaud you for your pick at # 5 and the reasoning behind it. Aunty Maria’s comment about CDs going out of print is just a reminder to us all to buy these CDs when they get released. It really is amazing how soon some of the best ones go out of print so fast. Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!

  4. jesseajohnston says:

    Hi, I just wanted to second your recommendation of #1!

    I was actually just listening to it yesterday and again admiring the quality of performance and recording.


  5. Rose says:

    I can’t believe you left out the Bros. Cazimero …..

    • amykstillman says:

      Yeah, I shocked myself too. Well, since “Pure Hawaiian” is out of print, that does open a slot here, into which Best of Brothers Cazimero. Which one of the 3 would I pick? Vol. 1 has classic songs–“Home in the Islands,” “Pupu Aʻo Ewa,” (remember when they swore at the May Day concerts that they would never sing “Pearly Shells?), “Waikā.” But I love the songs on Vol. 3 too, especially “Makee ʻAilana,” Kui Leeʻs greatly overlooked “My Hawaiʻi,” and the playful “Nā ‘Ale o Ni‘ihau.” What do you think?

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

  7. Pingback: My Own Personal Top 10 CD Picks for 2010 | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure

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