The Golden Voice of Hawaii

alfred apaka
With little fanfare and almost no mention in mainstream media, one of the most significant re releases in the history of Hawaiian music occurred over the summer. On July 24th Universal Records released a remastered version of the seminal album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” originally released in 1963. This album by the great Alfred Apaka was for years only available on vinyl and from a time starting in the 1990s as downloadable mp3s. By releasing this remastered version, which is available on Amazon and iTunes, Apaka’s round, clear baritone is captured in its full glory. Many classics of the Hapa-Haole era such as “My Isle of Golden Dreams, “Old Plantation”, “Far Across the Sea”, and “Hawaiian Love Call” are found here, showcasing the sound that helped establish Hawaii as a tourist destination around the world.

For those of you not familiar with Alfred Apaka he is perhaps the most talented pure singer to ever grace the stage here in Hawaii. Apaka was born into a musical family, his father Alfred Sr. being a talented singer himself who was taught by his his aunt Lydia Aholo, the hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani.(source) Alfred Jr. became part of this musical legacy learning from his father and starting his own group called “Alfred Apaka and His Hawaiians.” Soon Alfred was noticed by the influential orchestra leader Don McDiarmid and offered the position of lead vocalist for the “Royal Hawaiians.” (source)

This opportunity exposed Apaka to new audiences throughout the 1940s enabling him to tour the U.S. mainland, perform with Ray McKinney, be featured on the influential “Hawaii Calls” radio program and also perform at the Moana Hotel with the “Moana Serenaders.” (source) But it was a luau performance at Don the Beachcomber’s that he was seen by Bob Hope. This served as his big break as he was soon to be featured on national TV and radio along with Hope and Bing Crosby and later on the Ed Sullivan show. (source) Here you can see a performance of Apaka from his first appearance on the Bob Hope show in April 1952 singing “Beyond the Reef.” As you can hear from the applause he was a hit and well received.

Soon Apaka was signed by talent agents Joe Glaser and Jay Faggen in hopes he could compete as a crooner to stand along the likes of Bing Crosby and Perry Cuomo in the burgeoning easy listening and pop standards market. (source) Destiny had other ideas for Apaka though as he was taken under the wing of businessman and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. (source) Having missed the resort boom in South Florida and Palm Springs, Kaiser was determined not to do the same in Hawaii. (source) Having built the Kaiser Hawaiian Hotel (later renamed the Hilton Hawaiian village) in Waikiki, Kaiser was looking for a top star to headline his Tapa Room entertainment lounge. Kaiser found that person in Apaka who performed there starting 1955. Here is video of Apaka performing courtesy of the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Soon Apaka began recording on the Decca and ABC record labels and his popularity was steadily growing as his performances were the main attraction in Waikiki during the exploding tourist market of the 1950s. It is well documented that America had a new found fascination with all things Hawaiian, and now with an established entertainment market, all the big record producers from the mainland were coming to Hawaii hoping to make a big buck off of the premier stars of the Waikiki lounges. And here was Apaka with an established fan base, notoriety and a set of widely accepted and heard recordings. Apaka was now poised for his big national coming out party. As Deon Kane harpist with Honolulu Symphony related in an interview, Alfred was a strikingly handsome man, with a world class voice and an accomplished showman (source), and there was no doubt that Apaka would become a star in the now popular American lounge music scene along the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

What was up next for Apaka was a nationally televised performance with all the promotions and sponsorships one could want to ensure exposure. But what was to happen is one of the great tragedies in 20th century American music. In January 1960 while practicing handball at the local YMCA Apaka suffered a sudden heart attack at the age of 40 and died.(source) This became known as the “The Day Hawaii Cried” (source) as Hawaii lost one of its great talents who could stand along side the greats of his profession and even surpass them much like Duke Kahanamoku did some 50 years earlier. And much like Duke helped establish Hawaii in the eyes of mainland America after becoming a Territory, so was it looked upon for Apaka as Hawaii looked to establish itself in its newfound statehood.

Fortunately there are 6 albums of Apaka material around for us to enjoy. And finally his last album “My Isle of Golden Dreams” is finally available in its remastered form. Whether you are a fan of “hapa haole” music or not, everyone can enjoy the pure vocal musicality of Apaka’s voice on this album. While the term “hapa haole” and the validity of its usage is topic for another blog post, what Apaka represented is a Hawaiian man who was looked upon to stand among the luminaries of the most popular musical form in America. We can only imagine what would of came of Apaka as he moved into the pop standards market of all the greats and had the opportunities to perform in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and the other great musical metropolises of the era.

So while it is unfortunate that many were unaware of this important release, those who are paying attention can hear the influence of Alfred Apaka all over Hawaiian music. Whether it is the complex scripted stage shows still popular at the hotel luaus, the standarized harmonized trios at the tourist bar or even the soaring falsettos performing in high end theatres across Japan, all who perform Hawaiian music today owe their livings to Alfred Apaka Junior.

And it was the great Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole who was able to sum up Apaka’s influence best when being interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin shortly before his death. It was at the ceremony to reveal a statue of Apaka in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Hotel when this icon of Hawaiian music said “He was definitely one of my biggest inspirations, maybe the biggest. He’s the first guy people think about when they think of Hawaiian music. The red carnation lei, the spotlight on the ukulele player in the middle, the hula dancers coming out every once in a while…he invented all that.” (source)

In that sense Apaka is a true embodiment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. He created something new and fresh and put it on stage in the early years of Waikiki’s growth for all the world to come and see. It is just unfortunate that he couldn’t return the favor and take it out to all those who didn’t get a chance to see it. As another great of Hawaiian music Eddie Kamae said, “He was a classy Hawaiian person, he really made Hawaii look good around the world. He had the personality and the talent to compete internationally. He opened the door for Hawaiian musicians, not just Hawaiian music, to be taken on the level of Mainland acts.” (source)

So yourself a favor, pick up some of Alfred Apaka’s music, readily available on iTunes, Amazon and other major music outlets and take in the smooth, timeless baritone of Alfred Apaka Junior, the Golden Voice of Hawaii.

The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 7: This Is Getting Big

By the 1940s Hawaiian music had become an established genre in music circles throughout the world. From its beginnings as an isolated chant based musical form based on its Polynesian cultural roots and through the adaptations brought on by the influences from cultures from around the world, the music of Hawaii became its own distinct sound. You can read the first six parts of this blog series to trace this development.

So at this point we come to an interesting crossroads where it is hard to differentiate between what was influencing Hawaiian music and how Hawaiian music was influence other musical forms. In my last blog post I laid out my theory that both American Jazz and Blues and Hawaiian music, while both having existed mutually exclusive from each other, began to coexist by the 1930s. The musical interaction now resulting from increased touring and exposure by Hawaiian musicians allowed the two forms to borrow from each other and evolve simultaneously. This sets up the next shift in the landscape of Hawaiian music, as American music starts to expand itself as a form into something that is called Big Band music.

Really when we talk about Big Band music, we are referring to an expansion of the Jazz and Ragtime sounds of the 1910s and 1920s into something that involved a larger orchestra and a greater variety of musicians. The string ensemble of bass, guitar, ukulele, banjo and steel guitar, now included violins and other string instruments, a brass section and percussion. Sometimes people refer to this as “swing” music. Whatever the case may be we do see a shift occur in the 1930s and into the 1940s in which an emphasis is placed on a bigger sound with extended soloing to support dancing and live performance.

So how did this influence the music in Hawaii? Much like I discussed in my last post looking at jazz and ragtime influences, with the advent of Hawaii as a exotic vacation destination and the need to support the growing tourist markets, Big Band music was what was played at hotels and restaurants not only in Hawaii, but in Los Angeles and Hollywood as well. People were looking to immerse themselves in this new foreign culture, and Big Band music was a very accessible and familiar way to do that.

You cannot underestimate the influence of the popular radio show “Hawaii Calls” when we look at this new interest in Hawaiian music. Broadcast from the Moana Hotel in Waikiki this weekly radio show reached over 750 stations throughout the world at its peak. People tuned in from all over the country to get their Hawaiian music “fix.” To dream of these faraway islands and imagine escaping to its palm lined white sandy beaches. WWII had familiarized and opened up Hawaii to those on the mainland and people were very interested in feeling the laid back island lifestyle that Hawaii represented.

Singers like Alfred Alpaka, John and Pua AlmeidaNina Keali’iwahamana became household names in America. People were exposed to other artists such as Martin Denny, Hilo Hattie, Arthur Lyman and Ed Kenney. This helped shape the musical form known as hapa-haole music and clarify its characteristics. Lush strings, steel guitars, jazzy chord voicing and soaring vocals became the veritable sound of what was Hawaiian. While some elements were stripped down form the big band music it was based on (gone was the jumping horn section) and other elements were emphasized (mainly the vocal being at the center of the performance), it still had its roots firmly planted in the jazz, ragtime and big band sound it came from.

Over the course of its run from 1935 to 1975 the Hawaii Calls radio program broadcast over 2000 episodes which reached over 700 stations throughout North America, the Pacific Rim and even to Europe. It helped launch the career of hundreds of musicians, hula dancers and lounge performers who would continue to perform in the hotels and tourist sectors of Hawaii for years to come. This influence is still alive today as any tourist coming to Hawaii has become to associate “Hawaiian” music with this sound. Whether it is Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” or Elvis” “Blue Hawaii” all these songs owe their existence to the Hawaii Calls radio programs. Next to the Kamehameha Schools music program, it is the single most important and influential source of Hawaiian music and musicians in the entire world.

You can read more about Hawaii Calls from the broadcaster himself Web Edwards in this excerpt from the program of a performance at the Hawaii Theatre someone reproduced on a music forum.

Through the popularity of the first recordings of Hawaiian music in the 1920s, the exposure of Hawaii through servicemen passing through in the 1940s to the popularity of the Hawaii Calls radio program created a massive tourist industry in Hawaii that is still going strong today and remains the number one industry in Hawaii. As this industry has grown, so has the demand for music that is “Hawaiian.” People want something that is familiar, likable and easy to enjoy. By incorporating elements of Jazz, Ragtime, Blues and Swing, a unique musical genre called “Hapa-Haole” music was created. These songs, usually easy going in nature with song topics centered around the beauty of Hawaii and the relaxed lifestyle supposedly found here, created a high demand for musicians in and around the Waikiki area who could supply this music. Highly versatile singers were desirable and ones that could not only play the well known songs from the Hapa-Haole genre, but popular songs of the American Songbook as well, as people were nostalgic for the songs of their homeland while far way in the islands.

Musician and Singer Don Ho systemized and standardized this type of performance. By the 1960s after statehood was established in Hawaii, the tourist industry had become completely commercialized. By adding even more layers of approachable pop elements, such as light strings and organ, into the arrangements, Don Ho represented all that this new emerging tourist industry wanted.

So while the original intention of the Hawaiian musicians of the 1940s into the 1950s was to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries, by synthesizing Jazz, Blues and Swing into their music, by the 1960s the music of Hawaii was anything but boundary pushing. To soothe the demands of the tourist market, the music became homogenized and watered down. The distinguishing elements of Hawaiian music, the syncopated rhythms, the bouncy improvised steel guitar and the poetic double entendre imagery of the Hawaiian language were replaced with pop-based string arrangements, simple universal themes of love at a faraway place and the crooning vocals typical of a Las Vegas nightclub musician. This led to other convoluted musical forms such as tiki music and exotica that blurred the lines between something uniquely Hawaiian and based on the root forms native to the Polynesian area with something created and perpetuated from an outsider’s viewpoint with an emphasis on musical and cultural elements not felt or experienced by the native Hawaiian or kama`aina individual.

The years from the 1940s to the 1960s were an exciting and dangerous time for Hawaiian music and its musicians. As interest in Hawaii grew and demand for things Hawaiian exploded, the music reached a tipping point in which it teetered on the edge of become a mockery of itself. The distinct sound created here had been absorbed and adapted by American musicians and now Hawaiian musicians were adapting that new sound, which they had a hand in creating and developing in the first place, into their own music. Hawaiian music was caught up in a maelstrom of its own creation in which it was in danger of losing its identity through the demands of a highly commercialized tourist industry that wanted to commodify the Hawaii culture for its own consumption.

All this time Hawaiian musicians were simply interested in working and supporting their families. Being a new state and isolated from the consumerist and capitalistic ways of the American public, the Hawaiian was not aware of this commodification that was occurring at the expense of their Hawaiian culture. At home and in the schools and governments, demands to become more American distracted the people of Hawaii from nourishing and developing the unique characteristics that gave Hawaii its worldwide appeal in the first place. And unfortunately as victims of their own isolation and innocence, Hawaii was very close to losing this completely as the American commercial monster is often too big for any native culture to bear.

But as with anything, often it is at the breaking point that the most important changes and developments occur. My next blog post will look at how a select group of Hawaiian musicians, searching for their identity in the complex web of American commercialization, discovered their roots and thus their soul. I will look to establish that as a world wide consciousness began to unfold, fighting the established norms of homogenization that were trying to take over the world, cultures and folk identities of the people took root once again in Hawaii. I will look at how next the true moment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries began to express itself. It is often in the moment when all the lines are blurred and no boundaries are present, that true breakthroughs can occur and be felt the strongest. EO!


A Great Voice of Hawai`i Rediscovered



Besides an impressive lineage of instrumentalists, composers and dancers of hula, Hawai`i boasts an even more astounding history of world class male vocalists. Their heyday was found in the lounges and luau shows of Waikiki in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the more noteworthy are Alfred Alpaka, Bill Lincoln and Gary Aiko. Before the movement towards a more traditional slack key based sound the male crooner was a sought out and highly respected type of performer. One individual that is often over looked is Kalani Kinimaka. One big reason for this is the lack of recorded material available by him. Fortunately for us this changed recently when an entire album of material was discovered after his death in 2011. It is currently available on iTunes as well as on reputable Hawaiian music websites like

This album was recorded in 1980 with talented guitar player Henry Ka`ahea and featured a mix of traditional Hawaiian tunes, hapa-haole classics and some pop covers. What you will find are some of the greatest vocal recordings in the history Hawaiian music. His voice is strong in the deeper registers yet reaches a feathery delicacy is the high ranges. His vocal phrasing is inventive and well thought out, showcasing his subtle vibrato and smooth tonality. Whether it is the love-lost yearning of “Ka Makani Ka `Ili Aloha” or the bouncy playfulness of “Jamaica Farewell” Kinimaka is equally at home. HIs voice reaches its apex in the classic Hawaiian love song “Pua Lilia.” And in listening to this recording I am left to wonder if my mentor Braddah Smitty was at least partly inspired by Kinimaka’s delivery.

All this is framed by the truly astounding nylon string stylings of Henry Ka`aheo. His spanish guitar provides the perfect backdrop to the vocals, providing complex chordal support for the fine vocal delivery. The solos are tastefully picked representations of the melody with an appropriate amount of decoration to leave you wanting more. The flamenco-esque flavors of his playing take the songs somewhere beyond a typical hapa-haole tune or traditional Hawaiian piece into somewhere beyond. The rendition of “I’ll Remember You” is a great example, as this version has now become my favorite recording of this classic Kui Lee tune. I would highly encourage you to take a listen to this album if anything for the remarkable version of this song.

I had recently posted about my top 5 under the radar Hawaiian music albums of all time. This one wouldn’t qualify as it remained unknown until it was discovered a few years back.  Having been originally recorded in 1980 it got me wondering what other recordings are out there that haven’t seen the light of day? If something of this quality can stay undiscovered, the possibilities for more are intriguing. I am just glad that this album made its way to my ears. So I ask all those out there to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries and try to dig deep into your vaults and bring out any unreleased recordings. There is a large enough Hawaiian music fan base that would love to hear some of these hidden gems from the past.