#2 - Teresa Bright -  A Bright Christmas

When writing about the selection ranking #3 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i, I asserted that The Brothers Cazimero blazed a new path in contemporary Hawaiian music – successfully melding tradition and innovation – to create a new style and sound unlike anything attempted previously. I also mentioned that such innovation – in the face of staunch traditionalism and the offense and injury they would surely leave in their wake – carries with it an element of bravery. In this regard artists like Teresa Bright owe a debt of gratitude to Robert and Roland for an album like A Bright Christmas would not have been possible just a few years earlier before Robert and Roland set the stage and took their lumps from the kupuna so that those who followed wouldn’t have to (or, at least, not quite as severely). 

Teresa burst on to the local music scene in the early 1980s while still a student at the University of Hawai`i. She released three albums with then partner Steve Mai`i – the last of which yielded Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award Song of the Year “Uwehe, `Ami, and Slide.” After splitting from partner Mai’i, Bright took a nearly five year hiatus from recording while quietly launching her solo career before reemerging like a butterfly from its cocoon with the 1990 classic Self Portrait which earned her two more Hōkū Awards (for Album of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year) – at which point Ms. Bright’s career was living up to her ambitious name. Self Portrait was audacious in its simplicity – some tracks featuring as few as two musicians, a template with which she was familiar from her duo days. But it was the arranging combined with her voice – which simply can do no wrong – which captivated the hearts of local fans. Teresa was just the artist to usher in the new decade for Hawaiian music. 

After the follow up, Painted Tradition, in 1994, only a year later – only two albums into her solo career – Teresa went into the studio to work on her first holiday-themed release, A Bright Hawaiian Christmas. The release was everything fans had come to expect. Possessing a voice that excelled at jazz and pop as well as traditional Hawaiian fare, the first Christmas album moved easily back and forth from the rockabilly swagger of “Jingle Bell Rock” to the surprising “Po La`i E” (“Silent Night”) which is at first softly jazz before a gospel choir emerges and we are transported to vespers at a New Orleans church. It was a beautiful album from top to bottom. 

But then, only five years later, Bright gave her fans another Christmas gift with a second holiday album. Entitled A Christmas Season’s Delight, the second album fulfilled the seemingly impossible promise of surpassing the beauty of the first with a power and majesty all its own. From the jazzy waltz-time “What Child Is This” with the vibes leading the way to the Bossa Nova-tinged “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” with full orchestra featuring a lush string section to the astounding “Carol of the Bells” conceived a la The Carpenters and featuring a choir of seemingly infinitely overdubbed Teresas singing all of the parts a capella, A Christmas Season’s Delight was one of the finest holiday albums of all time – not merely in Hawai`i, but rivaling many far more expensive productions from the mainland. It is right up there alongside classics from Barbra Streisand, Diana Krall, and Lena Horne and far surpasses anything any of her contemporaries (like Gloria Estefan or Mariah Carey) ever did for the season. 

Because time is the ultimate enemy of the recording industry, neither A Bright Hawaiian Christmas nor A Christmas Season’s Delight are available any longer in their original form. But the best selections from both releases were gathered into a single collection, A Bright Christmas, which was released as recently as 2009 and which is available for streaming from such services as Spotify or Rhapsody or for purchase from iTunes or Amazon.com. I do not usually agree with producers when they cull something they refer to as a “best of,” but in this case Teresa and her crew really did choose the best selections from across the two dozen available to them – including the five songs you here in this set at Ho`olohe Hou. 

For the purposes of this survey of the great Hawaiian music CDs intended for the holidays, instead of ranking either of the original releases (both would have easily made the list), I have instead ranked the newer collection – because it is still available for your enjoyment – and reserved that additional spot for another deserving CD. (It is difficult to say which of the other two dozen would not have made the cut, but I would not assume it was the current #25.) So we might say that Teresa Bright has doubly earned this elite position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.   

And we also have to imagine that an album would have to be truly great to best either of these two from Teresa and reach the coveted #1 position on this countdown. 

Next time: #1 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… 


Direct download: 2_Christmas_-_Teresa_Bright.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 6:12am EDT

#4 - Kuana Torres Kahele - Hilo for the Holidays

Kuana Torres Kahele is a force of nature. Seemingly perpetually on tour somewhere, you turn around and suddenly there is a brand new CD from his camp replete with brand new compositions from his pen. And you’re thinking… Didn’t I just buy your new CD? And with each release – either on his own or with his aggregation, Nā Palapalai (a rotating collective of Hawai`i’s finest musicians but always with Kuana at the helm) – he repeatedly reaches the top of both the Billboard World Music and iTunes charts. 

The question audiences should be asking is… Does Kuana ever sleep? 

It would appear his aim is world domination, but even the most successful Hawaiian music CDs do not sell anywhere in the neighborhood of those from Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, or Justin Bieber. No, more accurately, Kuana’s goal would appear to be to make a Hawaiian music lover out of as many people as he can in the short time God gives us on this planet. A veritable Santa Clause of Hawaiian music, Kuana’s workshop is constantly in session. 

Like Keali`i Reichel’s Maluhia which ranks only one position lower on this countdown, Kuana’s Home for the Holidays is the perfect blend of traditional Christmas fare and new original lyrics. The title song will be a classic (if it isn’t already), and the addition of local Big Island touches to “Home for the Holidays” (his nod to “Numbah One Day of Christmas”) will bring a smile to the faces of Hawaiians and Hawaiians-at-heart missing “home” at this time of year. He reprises the rarely heard “Here Comes Santa In A Red Canoe” (composed by the too rarely spoken of Johnny Kamano who will be honored here at Ho`olohe Hou at some point for his contributions to Hawaiian music). And Kuana proves that he has the heart of a child by throwing away all care in his version of The Chipmunks “Christmas, Don’t Be Late.” The Hawaiian lyric is not a translation as such (it rarely is), but rather an improvement as it puts the true meaning of Christmas back in what was a song for children with its nod of thanks to Jesus for the bounty He gives us in this season and all year long. 

It probably goes without saying that Hilo for the Holidays garnered the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Christmas Album of the Year, and the accolade is well deserved. But the album would be a worthy addition to your holiday CD collection even if it had earned no awards, and despite its very recent release the instant classic merits this position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.  You can hear the entire delightful album on such streaming services as Spotify or Rhapsody or download it to your iPhone or iPod from iTunes or Amazon.com. 

Next time: #3 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… 


Direct download: 4_Christmas_-_Kuana_Torres_Kahele_-_Hilo_for_the_Holidays.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 6:36am EDT

#5 - Keali`i Reichel - Maluhia

While December 21st will be much like any other day in Hawai`i in terms of average daily temperature or the length of the day (in terms of sunrise and sunset), for many in the Northeast the winter solstice can be the saddest day of their year or their happiest – and, occasionally, both. It has already been cold for weeks here – sooner than in recent years – and the winter solstice is often called the “shortest day of the year” in terms of sunlight – awakening in the dark and a sunset well before 5pm. (Scientifically speaking, it is, in fact, the longest day of the year around the world since this is the day the earth is furthest from the sun in its elliptical orbit and, therefore, the decreased gravitational pull means that the earth rotates more slowly – the day actually being about 24 hours and 30 seconds long, your watch becoming a little more wrong every day, the earth catching it up when the days shorten to 23 hours 59 minutes and 30 seconds over the summer to come that we all eagerly anticipate.) And while it was completely unplanned – Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i having been compiled in November – Keali`i Reichel’s Maluhia is the perfect album to warm these cold, dark days. It is the winter solstice album from Hawai`i. 

Kumu hula and master chanter Keali`i Reichel did not burst on to the Hawaiian music scene but, rather, snuck in furtively in 1994 with Kawaipunahele, a pre-Kickstarter self-funded CD that took Hawai`i by quiet storm. And there is a thread that connects every one of his mega-successful, multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award-winning releases since. It is something indefinable. I might even go so far as to say “magical.” You listen and a peaceful tranquility falls over you – even the up-tempo numbers managing somehow to slow your heart rate. 

In this way Maluhia – Reichel’s first holiday offering (and, I suspect, it certainly won’t be his last) – is thankfully like his previous work. The title means “peace,” “quiet,” “tranquility,” or “serenity,” and this is not merely marketing hyperbole. One could argue that he chose a title and then worked to fulfill it. But I think it is simply that Reichel knows no other way. He is the embodiment of peace and tranquility, and therefore – without having to try – the embodiment of this season. For nine seasons now since its release, my family has lowered its collective heart rate – ever rising with the madness of holiday shopping, the hustle and bustle of combining work and play, cookies baked on a deadline, and Christmas lights that worked yesterday but failed the morning after – with Maluhia. 

Combining traditional Christmas hymns with new original lyrics from Ben Vegas, Keola Donaghy, and Puakea Nogelmeier, Reichel struck the balance so many seek at this time of year – a yearning for the past, a hope for the future. My favorite is the cover of The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” in which popular group Ho`okena plays the role previously played by a choir of a thousand overdubbed Carpenters. But the Christmas miracle here is “Nū `Oli” which immediately sounds like a choir of a thousand angels but which, in fact, follows The Carpenters template – only four voices overdubbed seemingly infinitely, Keli`i getting an assist from Sky Perkins Gora, Nālei Kanoho Harris, and Maila Gibson. 

Maluhia was nominated for a whopping seven Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards in 2007 and yet somehow lost to a far less deserving album, Caz Christmas (the Brothers Cazimero’s third holiday release and nowhere near as fine as either of their two previous efforts). But it certainly warrants this high position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.  You can hear the entire peace-inducing album on such streaming services as Spotify or Rhapsody or download it to your iPhone or iPod from iTunes or Amazon.com. 

Next time: #4 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… 


Direct download: 5_Christmas_-_Kealii_Reichel_-_Maluhia.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:49am EDT

#6 - Makaha Sons - Christmas Day in Hawai`i Nei

I wrote here previously that it was difficult to write about Hapa and their holiday album because while the album certainly has merit on any number of counts, I am not a fan of Hapa. Conversely, anything I write about the Makaha Sons might be just as easily dismissed as these gentlemen have been my friends for over 20 years. Perhaps this is why listening to their Christmas Day in Hawai’i Nei is like spending the holiday with old friends. 

Sometimes I feel like the Forrest Gump of Hawaiian music – being there (perhaps accidentally) for many pivotal moments for local Hawai`i musicians. For example, I was there when Moon, John, and Jerome performed in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. – the first Hawaiian music group to do so – for the annual Kamehameha Day lei draping in 1993. The event was closed to the public, so Jerry told me to carry his guitar and he would tell everybody I was his roadie. I was there when they bowed at Carnegie Hall in 1994 (the performance which became part of their release On The Road – Live). But I was not merely in the audience. I was on stage opening for them, and I was backstage with them the rest of the time. I remember sitting in their dressing room, sharing with Moon a mele inoa that I had written for the birth of a friend’s granddaughter. As a Hawaiian, Moon might have admonished me for attempting to write a song with such little foundation in the Hawaiian language. But as a Hawaiian language teacher and a gentle spirit, he suffered me gladly and gave me an important lesson in directionals (iho, aku), and he proceeded to structure and edit until I had a song suitable for a gift. And then we went to one of New York Chinatown’s finest restaurants and jammed until the wee small hours. 

The last time I saw them – in New Hampshire in 2009 – was the last time I would see John Koko. John was everybody’s friend – that guy who lived to make sure that everyone smiled at least once a day and belly-laughed as often as humanly possible. He would do anything to make that happen – including making himself the butt of the joke (literally and figuratively). At Christmas especially, I always ask why God always seems to take the best and brightest from us too soon, and I pray for our collective loss. 

Most of the Hawaiian music-loving world knows the Makaha Sons of the stage – aiming to please, quick with a joke, but deadly serious about their music, their harmonies, and the use of the Hawaiian language. Those were their hallmarks. But off stage, it was a slightly different version of the boys – the music coming second, life and love coming first, waxing philosophical and spiritual on the topics nearest and dearest to their hearts, always leaving you thinking about your own life, your own direction, your own purpose. And this is why Moon retired from the Makaha Sons in July of this year – to help other young creative people discover their direction and purpose. The group did not merely exist to make music. Together, Moon, John, and Jerome had a mission, and they continue to evolve to fulfill it and will not rest until they do. 

It is difficult to listen to Christmas Day in Hawai`i Nei – or any Makaha Sons album, really – without thinking about those times, life and its hardships, and battles fought (and often lost). While the album is filled with joyous moments, for me there is a hint of melancholy – bringing thoughts of life the way it could have been. And, at the same time, as I listen, I hear the hope that I can right the wrongs I have done and change my direction. After all, this is what the holidays are about. 

Not merely because they are my friends (and I will always speak about John in the present tense), but because their musicianship and love for their fans, friends, and family is unparalleled, the Makaha Sons’ Christmas Day in Hawai’i Nei ranks #6 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.  But judged on a far more personal rubric, the album ranks #1 in my heart. You can hear the entire beautiful album on such streaming services as Spotify or Rhapsody or download it to your iPhone or iPod from iTunes or Amazon.com. 

Next time: #5 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… 


Direct download: 6_Christmas_-_Makaha_Sons_-_Christmas_Day_in_Hawaii_Nei.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:09am EDT

#7 - Willie K. - Willie Kalikimaka

How do you write about Willie K.? You can’t. You simply cannot. It’s like trying to describe the damage a tornado leaves in its wake. It’s like trying to describe the many colors in a flame. It’s like trying to describe the speed of cars whizzing around the track at Talladega. If you cannot describe any of these, then you cannot describe the speeding, flaming tornado that is Willie K.

A man who has proven that he can conquer every realm in entertainment – including film – over the last 25 years, Willie’s specialty is anything with strings.

He’s an amazing guitar virtuoso, a Hawaiian Jimi Hendrix; he’s Gabby Pahinui, Andres Segovia and Eddie Van Halen rolled into one. Willie can mimic seemingly any style, moving easily between screaming Stratocaster, sweet slack key and jazzy, almost baroque acoustic 12-string.”

- The Honolulu Weekly

But while he is constantly reinventing himself, we don’t mean between albums. We mean between one track and the next on the same album. And Willie’s stylistic restlessness is a gift for audiences. He is the ultimate crowd-pleaser.

This is why Willie’s 1999 holiday release, Willie Kalikimaka, epitomizes the phrase “something for the entire family.” From the gentle Hawaiian elegance of “Away In A Manger” to the rockabilly good fun of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” on which his `ukulele leads the way to the solo acoustic version of the too infrequently performed Kui Lee classic “A Song of Christmas,” Willie shows his many sides – the tender, the serious, the playful. His version of “O Holy Night” is a staple of local Hawai`i radio in this season and should be considered among the greatest versions of the song ever recorded anywhere. And who else has the chutzpah and network of famous friends to get none other than Willie Nelson (a part-time Maui resident) to duet with him on ““What Child Is This?”

Few local artists have had the career longevity – and fan base – to produce two or more holiday albums. Only Teresa Bright, Na Leo Pilimehana, and the Brothers Cazimero come to mind. But in 2010 Willie released a second holiday album which is arguably better than the first. If you have the opportunity, I strongly encourage you to check out Willie Wonderland as well.

Willie Kalikimaka is one of my personal favorites – possessing from beginning to end the rare ability to warm my often cold heart and put me a more holiday frame of mind when I find myself suffering from the melancholia that often sets in at this time of year. So even if Willie Kalikimaka hadn’t garnered the 2000 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Christmas Album of the Year, it would still warrant this position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.  You can hear the entire beautiful album on Rhapsody or download it to your iPhone or iPod from iTunes or Amazon.com.

Next time: #6 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… 


Direct download: 7_Christmas_-_Willie_K._-_Willie_Kalikimaka.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:41am EDT

#8 – Amy Hānaiali`i – A Hawaiian Christmas

It has been so many years now since Amy Hānaiali`i burst on to the local Hawai`i entertainment scene that many of us have forgotten that – like Melveen Leed two decades before her – Amy started out as a pop and jazz vocalist. (Her first album, 1995’s Native Child released under the name Amy Gilliom, was more of a mix of pop and jazz and Hawaiian than her later more Hawaiian fare). And like Melveen before her, Amy’s pop and jazz roots give her a unique approach to Hawaiian music. Along with Hapa and Keali`i Reichel, Amy’s early collaborations with Willie K. were critically important in reigniting the Hawaiian music scene in the 1990s. Moreover, despite having a lineage steeped in Hawaiian culture (her grandmother is hula master Jennie Napua Woodd of both the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and New York City’s famed Lexington Hotel Hawaiian Room), Amy is not like anything that came before. She sings and composes in the Hawaiian language, but listening to Amy does not evoke images of Genoa Keawe, Lena Machado, Leina`ala Haili, or Iwalani Kahalewai.

In short, Amy is her own woman and a true artist.

This is what made her 2007 release, A Hawaiian Christmas, such a welcome addition to the canon of holiday music from Hawai`i. It, too, was like nothing that came before. Listen to her take (in the Hawaiian language) on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (taken in a jaunty and joyous 6/8 time signature rather than the usual 4/4), the sweet steel guitar of Bobby Ingano on “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (also sung in Hawaiian), the Brazilian backbeat on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” or her lush and lovely “Silent Night” so regal that it really does signal the coming of a King.

Amy Hānaiali`i’s A Hawaiian Christmas more than warranted the 2008 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Christmas Album of the Year, and so, too, its place on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.  You can hear the entire beautiful album on such major music streaming services as Spotify and Rhapsody or take a copy home or gift it to family and friends by downloading it in MP3 format from iTunes and Amazon.com.

Next time: #7 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i…


Direct download: 8_Christmas_-_Amy_Hanaialii_-_A_Hawaiian_Christmas.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:52am EDT

#10 - Hapa - Hapa Holidays

Lest I be accused of unabashedly liking every artist, song, and recording I feature at Ho`olohe Hou or not using the entire rubric in determining which recordings or artists merit such attention, a newsflash: I am not a fan of Hapa. Despite having the privilege of opening for Hapa in my hometown of Blackwood, NJ earlier this year, from the group’s first incarnation and first album, the eponymously titled Hapa in 1992, I have not been a fan, and none of their nearly dozen releases in the more than 20 years since have convinced me otherwise. Surely you’re asking yourself, “Why?” (especially if you are a Hapa fan). I have written many times in this space that there is no clear and agreed upon definition of “Hawaiian music” – even by ethnomusicologists. (Ethnomusicologist and kumu hula Dr. Amy Ku`uleialoha Stillman explored this topic in a series of panel discussions in 2011 when she was Dai Ho Chun Distinguished Scholar and professor in residence at the University of Hawai`i – Manoa.) While we can attempt to define “Hawaiian music” by its sounds, instrumentation, arrangement, or lyric content, the prevailing wisdom is that what makes music Hawaiian is not solely content but, rather, a feeling. And while Hapa has been one of the most commercially successful groups of all time from Hawai`i, when I listen to them, I do not hear or feel the Hawaiian. I have considered my position on this group endlessly because it feels – even to me – disingenuous – that as a musician, I can say that I do not like Hapa but cannot put my finger on precisely why. Hapa found resounding success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds of distance and culture – their leader, Barry Flanagan, not a Hawaiian but a haole raised in Bergen County, New Jersey, falling in love with Hawaiian music and making it his life’s work. This makes my criticism more curious still when you realize that I am also a haole raised in Camden County, New Jersey – a really long stone’s throw away (or a really short drive) from Flanagan’s home – and I also somehow fell in love with Hawaiian music and also chose against all odds to make it my life’s passion. If nothing else, this at least makes me appear fair – picking on my own – but I am not so out of touch that I do not fully realize that my dislike for a group rooted in my home state to an outsider likely reeks of petty jealousy. 

For the record, I am tremendously proud of Barry Flanagan as an outsider to Hawaiian culture being accepted into its sacred inner circle and being permitted and encouraged to pursue Hawaiian things, and I aspire to the same. I just don’t like his music. 

Then how, you are no doubt asking yourself, did Hapa’s holiday release, the cleverly titled Hapa Holidays, rank so high on a list judged single-handedly by a guy who claims not to like them? Simple. Because my day job for the last 25 years has been in the field of research in the measurement of human potential. In short, I train people on how to judge things. So I like to think I am able to put my feelings aside and use the entire rubric in order to objectively judge something myself. With regard to Ho`olohe Hou, I do not merely present music I like. I present music that is culturally relevant and historically important. And Hapa is. If Hawai`i experienced a first musical renaissance in the 1970s, it went into remission for over a decade. Arguably, there was a less often spoken about second Hawaiian music renaissance in the 1990s – a tide that swept in such contemporary legends as Keali`i Reichel and Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom. But Hapa was at the crest of that wave – somehow gaining not only local Hawai`i favor, but worldwide acceptance, not merely for themselves, but for Hawaiian music in general. They cut a new swath in an uncharted jungle. They made it hip and cool to like Hawaiian music whether you were in New Jersey or Texas or Montana. Would George Winston’s series of slack key recordings on his Dancing Cat label had fared so well if Flanagan’s guitar hadn’t blazed the trail before? Perhaps not. 

So, in no backhanded attempt to improve my chances of ever opening for Hapa again, I can honestly say that there are times when I sincerely desire to hear a cut from Hapa Holidays – usually an instrumental at which Flanagan excels. While we could argue all day long whether his brand of slack key guitar is “traditional” or “Hawaiian,” it is an enjoyable listen, and legions of fans agree. While the lineup of Hapa has changed over the years, listen to founder Flanagan with then partner Keli`i Kaneali`i gently rock “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Flanagan’s soulful solo on “Iesu me ke Kanaka Waiwai,” and the almost classical approach to “Joy To The World.” Few can touch Flanagan when it comes to technique with six strings. 

No, I am not a fan of Hapa. But Hapa Holidays was important – as was the group’s debut release – in giving Hawaiian music worldwide exposure and opening doors for the artists that would follow. And so it earns its rightful place on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.  You can find Hapa Holidays on such major music streaming services as Spotify and Rhapsody as well as for download to your iPhone or iPod at iTunes and Amazon.com. 

Next time: #9 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… 


Direct download: 10_Christmas_-_Hapa_-_Hapa_Holidays.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:12am EDT

#11 - Na Leo Pilimehana - Christmas Gift

Groups in all places and in all genres come and go. So the fact that 2014 finds Na Leo Pilimehana celebrating their 30th anniversary together with all three original members – Nalani Choy, Angela Morales, and Lehua Kalima – intact is an accomplishment in itself. The fact that they have turned out one cherished recording after another with nary a dull moment among them is a testament to their vocal chops and impeccable taste in selecting songs and musical collaborators. 

Sure, the group has evolved over time. Their first album, Local Boys which featured the radio hit for which the LP was titled, was typical 80s fare from Hawai`i. The vocals were sweet and clear, but the arrangements may have suffered a little bit. (However, despite the keyboards indicative of the era, their version of Andy Cummings’ “Waikiki” from that LP has endured and remains a staple of local Hawai`i radio.) But by the 90s Na Leo (as they are affectionately known, or sometimes simply NLP) hit their stride with such collaborators as Zanuck Kapala Lindsey – leading to such hits as “Saving Forever” (co-written by Lindsey and group member Lehua Kalima), “Flying with Angels,” and their tremendously popular cover of Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” In an era which saw such powerhouse women’s vocal trios as Wilson Phillips, Destiny’s Child, TLC and En Vogue, I choose Na Leo every time. And this was not a phenomenon contained to Hawai`i. I could turn on the radio in my then home of Philadelphia and hear their “Poetry Man” at almost any hour of the day. 

The group moves seamlessly through a variety of material which allows their many facets to shine like the jewels they are – from pop covers to The Beatles to originals to a capella to traditional Hawaiian to ­hapa-haole to doo-wop and R&B. But on their 1998 holiday release, Christmas Gift, they a show a side their fans rarely see – taking on an ethereal, almost Celtic Woman-like aura and ethos. When Nalani, Angela, and Lehua sing “O Holy Night” or “Ave Maria,” I must stop everything and simply listen, and I become a Believer all over again because I believe that they Believe too. There is no other way they could sing these lyrics with such conviction. The album also features a far better version of the Robert Cazimero holiday composition “A Christmas Wish” than he performed previously with his brother, Roland. While the combination of the voices of Robert Cazimero and Na Leo may seem magical, somehow together they make the hope for peace, love, and joy a very real possibility. 

Na Leo offered a follow-up to their Christmas classic as soon as three years after this one – the aptly titled Christmas Gift 2 in 2001. And while it is surely fine, the first is still the best and warrants this position – and, arguably, a much higher one – on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i.  You can find Christmas Gift and Christmas Gift 2 on such major music streaming services as Spotify and Rhapsody as well as for download to your iPhone or iPod at iTunes and Amazon.com. If you have trouble finding the original, it may be because it was more recently repackaged and rereleased under the title Hawaiian Holidays: Christmas with Na Leo. But in my humble opinion, the original title was more fitting as the album was truly a gift to the world.

Next time: We finally break the Top Ten on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i… 


Direct download: 11_Christmas_-_Na_Leo_Pilimehana_-_Christmas_Gift.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:32am EDT

#12 - Natalie and `Iolani Kamauu - Love & Peace and Unity

I had to think hard about this, but there have not been many husband/wife duos in the history of the Hawai`i entertainment scene. There have been mother/daughter duos, father/son team-ups, and plenty of sister/brother collaborations. But I had to reach back over a century – all the way to Toots and July Paka – to think of another husband/wife pairing who made Hawaiian music together. (The dubious side of the Paka’s story, of course, is that despite choosing to perform Hawaiian music, Toots Paka was a Broadway actress who was not of Hawaiian descent and had never even been to Hawai’i. This in itself is not a crime, but Toots told her audiences and the media that she was Hawaiian. The lack of authenticity in her singing and hula belied her assertions.) 

This makes Natalie and `Iolani Kamauu one of the few (if not the only) husband and wife duos in the history of Hawaiian entertainment to make and release music together. And the entire Hawaiian music-loving world rejoices that they did. Despite being from a family steeped in hula lineage (her parents are kumu hula Howard and Olana `Ai), Nat’s voice has a pop sensibility reminiscent of a Nohelani Cypriano, but chooses to perpetuate her culture by singing most of her repertoire in the Hawaiian language – offering new compositions as well as beloved traditional fare served up in a contemporary way courtesy of `Io’s arranging talents. Since splashing on to the local music scene in 2005, Nat – with most able instrumental accompaniment from husband `Io (previously of the group Kawaiola with Trevor Maunakea, Kanamu Akana, and Alden Levi) – has released a new CD on average every three years. The notable exception was the year 2009. Despite releasing her second full length CD only a year earlier, for the 2009 holiday season Nat and `Io gave the world their Christmas gift: Love & Peace and Unity. (Yes, the title is written correctly. The Kamauus have made a distinction between the ampersand and the word “and” – choosing to use both in the title.) 

On Love & Peace and Unity, rather than translate, the couple finds the “Hawaiian” in these songs through husband Iolani’s arrangements. The repertoire runs the gamut and lives up to the expectation of “something for the entire family.” One moment Natalie is caressing the sacred “Away In A Manger” with tremendous sensitivity, then the couple gently huff and puff until they blow the roof off of the church with “Santa, Bring My Baby Back To Me,” their answer to such R&B holiday joints of the 60s as “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” And Nat and `Io are the only artists from Hawai`i ever to tackle “Count Your Blessings” (the Irving Berlin chestnut from the 1954 film classic White Christmas which Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sang to each other). `Io rearranged the usual 3/4 waltz-time as a 4/4 ballad – giving the song even greater poignancy and the couple more time to linger over each phrase. Finally, Natalie offers up one of the finest renditions ever of my favorite Christmas song, “I Wonder As I Wander,” with a soulfulness that proves that Nat can sing anything – her wide range relying not on a falsetto because she really can sing that high in her full voice with no loss of volume or quality. 

As the newest release from Hawai`i to earn a spot on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i, you will find Love & Peace and Unity on such major music streaming services as Spotify and Rhapsody as well as for download to your iPhone or iPod at iTunes and Amazon.com. 

Next time: #11 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i…



Direct download: 12_Christmas_-_Natalie_and_Iolani_Kamauu_-_Love__Peace_and_Unity.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 6:14am EDT

#13 - Local Divas - Christmas

From the 1960s through the 1980s, four ladies dominated the Waikiki showroom scene: Melveen Leed, Carole Kai, Loyal Garner, and Nohelani Cypriano. Each held court in their respective hotel showrooms, and this can lead to everything from friendly rivalries to petty jealousies. But in the case of these four outstanding women with a tremendous sense of humor and hearts of gold (remember the Carole Kai Bed Race?), they were dear friends. This might not happen in New York City, L.A. or Las Vegas, but it can happen in the land of aloha.

In 1997 the four ladies joined forces for a series of events under the collective moniker Local Divas – an ironic name if ever there was one for these humble women were anything but divas. Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist Steven Mark best described the unique gifts each brought to the table: “Kai’s Vegas-influenced brassiness, Leed’s country-jazz stylings, Cypriano’s romantic lyricism and R&B, and Garner’s own hearty power.” Garner contributed her heart to the group in spades as leader/arranger as well which could not have been easy given that each was a lead vocalist before Divas was formed but would now have to sing harmony a la Diana Ross and The Supremes. But each would have their turn being Diana. Putting four superstars together could result in musical disaster, but for their efforts the group was awarded Entertainer of the Year honors at Johnny Kai’s Hawaii Music Awards in 2000. The group would release two CDs – one which mirrored the set list of their live shows, and another a holiday effort – before Loyal Garner’s untimely passing on November 15, 2001 of colon cancer. In Loyal’s honor and in the spirit of “the show must go on,” on December 19, 2001 the remaining three ladies went through with their “Local Diva’s Holiday” at the Hawai`i Ballroom of the Sheraton Waikiki. But the group could not endure their loss beyond this, and that holiday program shortly after their leader’s death would be the group’s last for more than a decade until their New Year’s Eve 2011 reunion at the Hilton Hawaiian Village – another star-studded tribute to Loyal.

Oddly, Local Divas’ Christmas was released on January 1, 1998 – or after the holidays. But it is a joy-filled romp featuring all four singers in the lead and hampered only by its 80s-flavored arrangements (a remnant of trying to do a Waikiki showroom extravaganza with the least musicians possible, which in that era usually meant a bevy of keyboards, in this case handled ably but excessively by David Kauahikaua). In selecting songs for this set, with your indulgence I focused heavily on Loyal’s contributions to the CD because I believe they are among the album’s most poignant. I had the privilege and honor of opening for Loyal in 1994 at Carnegie Hall for the concert entitled “A Portrait of Hawai`i’s Music.” I spoke to her about her song “Island Feeling,” a huge local hit in Hawai`i a decade earlier. She wrote it for a nephew who went away to the mainland for college and couldn’t stand being away from home. Perhaps this is why when Loyal sings “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” – a version which rivals those by Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald – I believe her with every fiber of my being.

Local Divas’ Christmas has been out of print on CD for nearly a decade and has never been re-released in the MP3 era. So I hope you have enjoyed hearing a few of the better selections from it again after so many years. Despite a sound stuck in another era, I believe it warrants its position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i if only because these are the only Christmas songs ever recorded by the incredible Loyal Garner.

Next time: #12 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i…



Direct download: 13_Christmas_-_Local_Divas_-_Christmas.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:22am EDT

#16 - Ho`okena - Home for the Holidays

Winner of the 2001 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Christmas Album of the Year, Ho`okena’s Home for the Holidays is almost perfect. It is Hawai`i’s equivalent of the first holiday album by The Carpenters, and just as the brother and sister duo had a follow-up holiday album that didn’t quite measure up to the perfection of their first, so, too, did Ho`okena. Once you achieve a high water mark in musicianship and production, why try to top it?

Of course, the earlier incarnation of Ho`okena that contributed to Home for the Holidays was larger and even more star-studded than its current incarnation which has reformed as a trio. The current threesome – bassist Chris Kamaka, multi-instrumentalist Horace Dudoit III, and slack key and falsetto master Glen Smith – were previously a quintet with William “Ama” Aarona and founding member, kumu hula, and composer Manu Boyd. It is that five-part harmony that was the signature sound of the group and which warrants the comparison to The Carpenters who – despite being a duo – would overdub their voices in harmony until there were 8, 12, or even 16 virtual Carpenters. While Ho`okena’s musicianship has never been in question, for me it has always been their vocal prowess and intricate vocal arrangements that made the group a standout in contemporary music.

But it is also the song selection that made Ho`okena’s first holiday outing an instant classic to my ears – almost all songs that The Carpenters tackled on either of their two holiday albums. They range from the sacred songs that speak to the true meaning of the season – listen to Boyd’s lead vocal on “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and their uniquely Hawaiian take on “The Little Drummer Boy” – to favorites about home and family – such as Mel Torme and Robert Wells’ “The Christmas Song.” To date, they are still the only Hawaiian music group ever to tackle “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” turning the 6/8 waltz-y classic into a 4/4 cha-lang-a-lang romp. And, of course, there is one of the too few renderings of a holiday classic from the pen of Kui Lee, “The Song of Christmas.”

(Of course, Ho`okena would eventually tackle the ultimate holiday classic from The Carpenters, but it would not be on their own album. But we will save that for later in the countdown.)

Ho`okena’s voices in their unique church choir-type harmony, their Hawaiian spin on holiday classics, and the reality that somehow we can hear their aloha warrant a spot for Home for the Holidays on Ho`olohe Hou’s 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i. You can check out the entire album on Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming music services or by purchasing the MP3 version from iTunes, Amazon.com, and practically anywhere MP3s are sold.

Next time: #15 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i



Direct download: 16_Christmas_-_Hookena_-_Home_For_The_Holidays.mp3
Category:90s and 00s -- posted at: 5:44am EDT