“Got Palaka?” is the second single from my new album ‘Song for Waimea’. This song was inspired by the ubiquitous palaka shirt that is so closely associated with Waimea, the paniolo, and upcountry living in general. It is what I like to call “the real Hawaiian shirt”.
The palaka shirt has an interesting history and one that is an intersection of ranching, plantation life, and rural living. So in this way it really connects many of the authentic lifestyle experience of the local people of Hawai’i, a stark contrast to the commodified image of the person sitting on the beach sipping a mai-tai. So what is the palaka shirt and how did I write this song?
If you are not already aware of what the palaka shirt is, I recommend this article here. It is a pretty comprehensive summary of how the palaka came to Hawai’i and it makes more sense to point you to this article than to have me paraphrase or summarize it. The only thing I’d like to add is the association of this shirt with the Parker Ranch cowboys. It is my understanding, and this may not be true, that the word “palaka” actually derives form a Hawaiianization of the word “Parker” and that the shirt received this name based on its close association with the cowboys from Parker Ranch who commonly wore these shirts. An alternate theory would be that “palaka” is a derivation of the word “plaid”. Regardless, I think what is important is that culturally the palaka shirt is associated with the hard working rural people of Hawai’i rather than the tourist driven resort life.
So how did this song come about? Well like many things around my musical life it comes back to my mentor Braddah Smitty. Since he was a former member of the well known Hawaiian group “The Sons of Hawaii” he would regularly wear the palaka shirt when he performed. The wearing of this shirt was almost like a badge of honor signifying that you were a part of the musical culture that Eddie Kamae made so famous. There was a shared repertoire and a style of playing that was closely associated with the Sons of Hawai’i. It was a combination of hard strumming, rhythmic, up tempo party jams, and slow, melodic, wistful ballads. The music was played with passion and emotion and emphasized the ability to improvise on the spot yet also play with a very strict structure. Songs could also change key and tempo at any time and many songs were never played the same way twice. It was in this musical environment that I was introduced to performing professionally on stage through my relationship with Braddah Smitty around Hawai’i Island. It was a challenging and eye opening experience and one that laid the foundation of the musical knowledge I have today.
So one day after sitting in on a number of jam sessions with Braddah Smitty, he asked me a simple question “hey boy, you got palaka?”. I said I did and so he instructed to meet him at such and such address with my palaka and ‘ukulele to sit in with him at a private party. This started a relationship of about four years in which I was regularly performing with Braddah Smitty. And like I said, this was like a crash course in playing Hawaiian music in the old style.
After Smitty died in 2012 I would still wear my palaka shirt when playing out from time to time as wearing this shirt connected me to that experience and connected me to the music of Smitty and the Sons of Hawaii as well. My overall musical repertoire was maybe not exactly in line with the typical Sons of Hawai’i songbook, but I still felt that I was indoctrinated into that style and it had become a part of my musical DNA. And of course I still feel obliged to bust out the occasional “Sons” song from time to time.
Each time I would wear my palaka shirt I found people asking me what this shirt was and why I was wearing it. It soon became clear to me that there were too many people who didn’t understand what this shirt was. So some years ago I had this idea that the story of the palaka shirt needed to be told through a song. And I had this idea that this phrase “got palaka?” would be the title. There was something so deep about this simple two word combination. By the simple act of having your own palaka shirt you were signaling something. You were saying, I am of the people, I understand the plight of the plantation worker and the rancher, and I not above any of them.
Ironically I was in Connecticut on the east coast where a majority of this song was written. It was while visiting my in-laws out there I had a lot of free time on my hands and I started playing around with this phrase “got palaka” and started putting some chords together. I knew I wanted the song to have a kanikapila style feel to it. I wanted it to be something that you could sit on the back porch jamming and have everyone take a good solo on the ‘ukulele, slack key guitar, or steel guitar, or whatever you were playing. So I built the song around a pretty typical jam style chord progression with the I-V7 then to the I-IV-I with the walk down to the VI and that moves through the circle of fifths (you music people with know what I’m talking about!).
I also wanted the song to have a repetitious chorus that had a sing-along feel to it. Something catchy that was easy to memorize. Now I don’t write pop tunes at all, so that wasn’t my intention, but I just wanted something that was fun, kinda quirky, but also had a deep story to it. So as I started to build the verses I wanted to honor both the cowboy, the plantation workers, but also all the people that just wear the palaka as everyday dress.
I am really happy with how the song came out. When I set out to record it I wanted to make sure that there was a strong twelve string rhythm to start it off as an homage to Braddah Smitty who so famously played his big twelve string holding down the rhythm. I hope you enjoy the song, and I hope it inspires you to go out and pick up your own palaka, “the real Hawaiian shirt”!