Fri, 12 December 2014
By now you have heard at least half of A Merry Hawaiian Christmas, featured here twice and ranking #14 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i. But I have held back the one song from that album that is so iconic that it is still heard on local Hawai`i radio every day during the holiday season more than 50 years after its release.
For the unindoctrinated, there is a local Hawai`i language referred to as “pidgin” – a combination of English, Hawaiian, Chinese, and other languages that came to Hawai`i with its many “settlers.” (Note that while locals call the language “pidgin,” that is not, in fact, the name of any language. It is the technical linguistic term for any new language anywhere that was created locally by its people and which likely would not be spoken outside of that region. And, more accurately still, a new language should rightfully only be referred to as a “pidgin” for the first 25 years of existence. As Hawai`i pidgin is nearly 100 years old, it should more appropriately be called a “creole.”) Pidgin began to gain prominence on stage, radio, and TV in the 1950s and 60s with such hosts and comedians as Kent Bowman and Lucky Luck. But it was “Numbah One Day of Christmas” – a pidgin version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” – that put pidgin on the map. And Sonny Kamahele was just the guy to put across this comic version. Featured all too infrequently on the Hawaii Calls radio show, this was Sonny’s moment to shine.
In this local rewrite of the more than 200-year-old tune, not only were the locals’ favorite things substituted for partridges and turtle doves, but you will also hear some of the essential elements of pidgin syntax (such as the use of “one” in place of the indefinite articles “a” and “an”).
Sonny was a beautiful human being and my friend. For those of us who knew and loved him, this makes the hearing of “Numbah One Day of Christmas” all the more special. One month a year is simply not often enough to celebrate his music, but it is the perfect performance for this season when so many of us are seeking anything that might make the cold, dark days a little more Sonny.
The song was composed in 15 minutes in 1959 based on memories of Christmas from one of the composer’s childhood days in Anahola on the island of Kaua`i – a time and place where they really did covet televisions.
Trivia: “Numbah One Day of Christmas” was co-written by one of Sonny’s fellow members of the Hawaii Calls cast. Do you remember which one? (Difficulty Rating: Medium if you know which Hawaii Calls cast member hailed from Anahola. Easy if you’re information literacy skills are well honed and you are near an iPhone, iPad, or computer.)