‘Ukulele trio . . . hula music . . . hula ku‘i songs . . .
Hula dancers love to dance. Hula teachers know, however, that not all CDs or all songs are equally suitable for hula dancing. Some of the most beautiful songs are in tempos just deadly for dancing. Some of the most beautiful singing is presented in stunning arrangements that are not exactly “hula-friendly.” And of course, hula dancers tend to avoid those recordings where the musicians take a verse to do their own thing, leaving the dancers with nothing to do. (You know–no mele, nothing to show in the hula!)
It is no coincidence that so many kumu hula are strong ‘ukulele players — Kimo Alama Keaulana, Tony Conjugacion, Leilani Sharpe Mendez, Howard and Natalie Ai, Darrell Lupenui, O‘Brien Eselu, Leilani Rivera Bond, Nani Lim Yap, Randy Chang, Chinky Mahoe, Aloha Dalire, Uluwehi Guerrero, Cody Pueo Pata, Bulla Kailiwai, Leilehua Yuen–the list can go on and on.
So, strong rhythmic ‘ukulele strumming is central to the sound of grounded hula music. In it‘s most essential form, the quintessential ensemble for hula dancing is the so-called “‘ukulele trio”–an ‘ukulele, a rhythm guitar, and a bass. That is the heart of it. Everything else is enhancement.
Then music for hula is vocal throughout. Mele is the basis for hula, so arrangements that take instrumental breaks to feature musicians leave hula dancers with nothing to do onstage in the middle of a song. Not ideal. So many hula troupes have take to snipping out the instrumental break in order to use a song. Minamina no ho‘i. All the way around.
Then there are types of song. Among Hawaiian-language song types, songs in the format of hula ku‘i are hula-friendly, offering up a range of options for a choreographer to show in the dance. These are songs like, for example, “Hi‘ilawe”–verses of two or four lines, each sung to the same tune (that the singer “plays” with over the course of the song), separated by instrumental “vamp” or “pā.”
So the following recommended recordings are my personal picks for a basic library of hula ku‘i songs performed in hula-friendly arrangements (no instrumental breaks) by quintessential ‘ukulele trio ensembles. My personal picks. Other people may pick other recordings. And in future posts I will delve in greater depth into hula ku‘i songs, and explore the historical heritage of folks like Kekua Fernandez and the Hawaiian Isles Serenaders and the Royal Hawaiian Girls‘ Glee Club. But for now, enjoy my selection of oh-so-‘ono ‘ukulele trio music!
The hula dancer‘s core collection of basic hula songs in “standard” arrangmenets — first & last verses repeated; all other verses sung once. Most lyrics & translations included in liner notes. Aunty Genoa recorded many albums. These two are at the center of an important body of work.
This sensational two-time Grammy award nominee updates Aunty Genoaʻs sound. But it is still quintessential ‘ukulele trio–strong ‘ukulele, strong voice, hula-friendly arrangements on the hula ku‘i songs. And Aunty Genoa even guests on several tracks!
Kawai Cockett and the Lei Kukui Serenaders were faithful to the ‘ukulele trio sound in at least eight recordings over nearly four decades. Any of his recordings would suffice in this post, hence I picked the aptly titled Hula! Hula! Hula! (Hula HS-614). I also chose to highlight the original LP cover of Kawaiʻs first LP recording issued in 1969. The CD reissue features a postcard photo of Kalalau Valley.
Tonyʻs 2007 Nā Hula Punahele / Favorite Hulas extends the “core collection” of hula songs marked by Genoa Keaweʻs 1960s LPs. Strong ‘ukulele strumming, hula-friendly arrangements, and a falsetto voice to die for. His debut LP Hawaiian Passion from 1985 contains exactly these ingredients. The LP cover is shown here (at right); the CD release in Japan sported a new cover. And in an industry first, Hawaiian Passion was completely re-recorded in 2003–all of the songs with all of the original musicians!
DARRELL LUPENUI / ALOHA PUMEHANA SERENADERS
Kumu Hula Darrell Lupenui fronted the Aloha Pumehana Serenaders in this 1976 LP release, which was reissued on CD in 2000. Darrell chants “Kawika” and “Lili‘e E,” and sings classic versions of hula ku‘i songs: “I Ali‘i No ‘Oe,” “Waikaloa,” “Hanohano hale‘iwa, “Kalena Kai,” “Mokuoeo,” “Hi‘ilawe,” and “Nanea Kou Maka I Ka Le‘ale‘a.”