Top Five Albums of Historical Significance — My Picks

We all love lists. Or at least magazine editors and bloggers like to that lists of “The Best . . . ” would sell lots of copies, or result in lots of hits. There are many ways to compile such lists, too. Writers often draw on popularity polls or sales statistics or radio play requests. Music critics and journalists stand on their familiarity with current scenes to compile lists from their own informed perspectives. Editors attempt to leverage expertise by gathering together groups of players–including musicians, journalists, producers, etc–who brainstorm then rank their picks.

Every list, no matter how thorough or informed, is inevitably going to draw out someone who will ask, “but what about so-and-so? or such-and-such?” It is true that different perspectives and different objectives will produce both agreements and disagreements. And perhaps there is value in what follows–the debates, the rationales, the reasoning.

So in the spirit of inviting discussion, I will post a list of five albums that I consider to be of historical significance to Hawaiian music. These are my choices. What are your choices?

Let me explain a bit what I mean by “historical significance.” I am not concerned with sales statistics or popularity or artist personalities. I am interested in naming albums that have been “game changers”–albums whose impact has been positive and deep; albums whose contents may represent the diverse range of scenes within Hawaiian music; albums whose contents have offered new models or new artistic directions; albums whose contents may be musically radical at the moment of release but “old hat” when musicians and listeners come around to accepting those sounds as viable containers for their creatorʻs mana’o; albums that are the “go to” resources for subsequent generations of musicians and listeners alike.

Here are my picks for the top five albums that I consider to be of historical significance because they are game changers in Hawaiian music. I began attempting to make a list of “Top Ten,” but after five it got real hard. So Iʻm posting at least the top five in hopes of stirring up discussion.

Sudden Rush. Kū’ē
(Way Out West WOW-9702, p1997)

This trio of Hawai’i-island musicians grooved to the vocabulary of hip hop, and even put forth a term, mele pāleoleo, to name their rapping. Is it Hawaiian music? Some folks will say yes because of the language and the creators. Some folks will say no because hip hop is African American in origin. What no one can deny is that Sudden Rush has demonstrated–on their sophomore album–that  Hawaiian people can express Hawaiian manaʻo using ʻōlelo Hawai’i, in ways that are relevant to Hawaiians today. It speaks to where Hawaiians are in the present, and more importantly, that Hawaiians LIVE and THINK and BREATHE and EXPRESS in the present. Our culture is not a museum relic.

Keali’i Reichel, Kawaipunahele
(Punahele Productions PP-001, p1995)

This album unleashed a perfect convergence of: haku mele, leo, ho’okani, hula, and state-of-the-art production values. The collection is anchored by six brand new compositions by haku mele Keali’i himself and by good friend Puakea Nogelmeier. These six mele sit alongside classically excellent renditions of classic songs like “‘Akaka Falls” and “Pua Mikinolia,” and in fact, any sonic boundary between new mele and old is seamlessly nonexistent. Keali’iʻs vocalizing and self-harmonizing on “Wanting Memories”–a cover of a song recorded by the African-American a capella quartet Sweet Honey in the Rock, demonstrates that he moves effortlessly from Hawaiian music across to pop music and back again. One singer, multiple idioms, one aesthetic sensibility, one manaʻo. Most of all, this album signalled unequivocally (like no other entire album had accomplished before) that the creation of new mele hula kuʻi had moved into a new generation. The evidence? The way that this album swept through the hula world. E ō!

Genoa Keawe
Party Hulas (Hula HS-507, p1965) 
Luau Hulas (Hula Records HS-514, p1967)

 These two albums exemplify excellence in execution of traditional music. These albums are tied for this position, because they are equally so inspired that neither could eliminate the other, so I am placing both on this list of historically significant albums in Hawaiian music. Their contents together constitute a set of basic repertoire for hul–standards, if you will. All songs on both albums are performed specifically for hula dancers, according to the conventional “2-1-1-2.” Two vamps open the track, one vamp closes the track;  the first and final verses are sung twice, and all verses between are sung once. Lyrics, translations, and desriptive notes for most songs are printed on the back cover of the album jackets. These albums are textbooks for performing hula ku’i songs in the hula context. And on top of that all is the leo ha’i voice of the incomparable and peerless Genoa Keawe. Priceless.

Nā Mele Ho’oheno:
A Musical History of Kamehameha Schools
(Kamehameha Schools KS-1001-2, p1997)

The Kamehameha Schools is a unique educational institution endowed by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, heiress of the vast land holdings of the ruling Kamehameha dynasty. The musical traditions of this storied institution include choral singing and arranging of Hawaiian-language mele Hawai’i. The annual Song Contest is noteworthy for the mandatory participation of every student in the school. This double-CD compilation documents a legacy of musical practice initially brought to Hawai’i by Protestant missionaries and refashioned on Hawaiian terms. And because the tracks span four decades, from 1954 to 1996, we hear evidence of a living tradition of choral singing and arranging that has evolved. Extraordinary.

The Sunday Manoa, Guava Jam
(Hula Records HS-543, p1971)

The Sunday Manoa

While there are many significant artists who could easily occupy the #1 spot, artists of excellence often achieve their standing by excellence of execution according to accepted conventions. What Guava Jam brought to the table was a combination of daring musical innovation, professionally-honed musicianship, and fortuitous timing. It was a perfect storm that landed in a perfect vortex.

The Sunday Manoa was a group started by Peter Moon, an ace guitarist and ‘ukulele player who brought a flair for driving rhythms and flashy improvisatory licks from the world of rock and pop music to Hawaiian Music. The group went through several personnel changes before Peter Moon teamed up with brothers Robert and Roland Cazimero, both of whom brought particular preferences and aesthetic sensibilities with them. Robert possessed a soaring tenor voice; Roland brought a rhythm guitar style infused with an aggressive strumming vocabulary not heard before in Hawaiian music. Together the team took a handful of well-known standards like “Kawika,” “Heha Waipi’o,” “Ka La’i ‘Opua”and pushed them to new musical limits, by applying musical language that was authentically part of who they were as musicians, but doing so on repertoire that linked them to other eras and generations. This struck a spark of resonance among listeners who had been brought up outside Hawaiian music, and were searching for vehicles to reconnect with ancestral traditions. The Sunday Manoa bridged the gap musically on behalf of the sonic experiences of generations estranged from the manaʻo of those who came before. Their musical daring made Hawaiian music sonically relevant to generations of new  listeners.

The Sunday Manoa was not the first group of musicians in Hawaiian music who brought daring musical innovation to the table. But Guava Jam was the first album that successfully drew Hawaiians back to Hawaiian music in droves. And the rest, as they say, is history.


These are my picks for the Top Five Albums of Historical Significance in Hawaiian Music. There are glaring gaps. Shouldnʻt revered slack key player Gabby Pahinui be included? Shouldnʻt Bruddah “Over the Rainbow” Iz be included, in recognition of the attention his unassuming track brought to Hawaiian music? Shouldnʻt Hawaii Calls be acknowledged for its long-running radio shows and the dozens of LP recordings produced under its auspices, by a whoʻs who firmament of musicians? Shouldnʻt the Royal Hawaiian Band be acknowledged for its stewardship of a royal institution? Would any or all of these artists be included if the list were extended to a Top Ten? In the end, the decision to put forth a list of five albums required decisions on how I was going to measure historical significance. What you see here is how I decided. It may not be what or how you would decide. Letʻs talk story!

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3 Responses to Top Five Albums of Historical Significance — My Picks

  1. Perhaps it’s impossible to have a list because of the uniqueness of the contributions. I love your selections, and I’d also include Palani Vaughan’s modern and topical compositions, and his celebration of King Kalakaua over the course of several albums.

    • amykstillman says:

      Thanks Anne. Which of the five recordings would you remove in order to make room for a Palani Vaughan album?

      • Your choices make perfect sense. Palani Vaughan, like all the worthy others, will have to stand outside the list of five, and perhaps Ia ‘Oe E Ka La, Vol. 1 could scramble for a place in the top 10

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