Jana's Top 5 Hawaiian Albums

Aloha, Stereophile Readers! I write to you from my childhood home on the tropical island of Oahu—my birthplace and present vacation spot until the start of CES. As Stereophile's resident Hawaii-native, I felt inspired to make a list of Hawaiian music albums. Here's a quintessential mix of five old and new favorites from the 50th state, in no particular order:


1. Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: Facing Future (1993)
This is a good place to start if you've never checked out Hawaiian music before. (Or if you're looking for something that'll sound great on your electrostatic speakers!) You've probably heard Israel Kamakawiwo'ole AKA "Bruddah Iz" sing his world famous medley of "Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" before. This album holds a special place in my heart because it was released the year I was born. And because you can't go a single day in Hawaii without hearing at least one of these nostalgic Bruddah Iz songs on the local radio.


2. Gabby Pahinui: Gabby (1972)
Old school. Gabby (born Philip Kunia Kahahawai) played a major part in the cultural movement of the Second Hawaiian Renaissance in the '70s. In 1946, Gabby recorded the first Hawaiian song with slack-key guitar and laid the foundation for Hawaiian slack-key guitarists for generations to come. Fun fact: in Bruddah Iz's album Facing Future, he pays homage to Gabby by saying "Kay, this one's for Gabby" before playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World."


3. The Sunday Manoa: Cracked Seed (1972)
The Sunday Manoa was founded by guitarist Peter Moon, and included a bunch of musicians at various points in time, including two of Gabby Pahinui's six sons: Cyril and Bla, and Robert and Roland Cazimero—before they went on to be the Cazimero Brothers. (As you can see, the Hawaiian music community was pretty deeply intertwined.) Cracked Seed includes Peter, Robert, and Roland, with Gabby playing steel guitar on a few tracks.

1216janatop5.jake.jpg 4. Jake Shimabukuro: Nashville Sessions (2016)
This isn't exactly Hawaiian music, but Jake Shimabukuro is a local Hawaii boy and internationally acclaimed virtuoso at the ukulele, a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete. He has a unique approach to music, and his ideas often sound likes one you'd hear on a guitar or piano, rather than on an ukulele. He continues to modernize and widen the scope of ukulele possibilities in his latest album.


5. The Beamer Brothers: Honolulu City Lights (1979)
Think: Nick Drake with a side of pineapple. Drake's album Five Leaves Left was released a full decade prior, and I have a hunch that Keola and Kapono Beamer (the Beamer Brothers) were fans of his. They were experts at making Hawaiian music more accessible by melding it with contemporary music. Fun fact: The Carpenters heard the title track, "Honolulu City Lights" while vacationing in Hawaii, and later released their own cover of the song in 1986.


Mahalo, thanks for reading. I hope this selection of Hawaiian music brings paradise to you. Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau'oli Makahiki Hou! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Kwanza, and a Happy New Year!

antonmb's picture

Thanks for posting this Jana. My wife and I have fallen in love with the island of Hawaii and with Hawaiian music, especially slack key. I love to dig through the racks at a little shop in Hawi when we visit and last year brought home ”Gabby." We also discovered John Keawe, and in February have tickets to see Jake Shimabukuro. I'll be sure to explore the rest of your list.

seikosha's picture


I had a question for you on your Netherlands post. Can you tell me what the music was playing in the beginning of your video?


Jana Dagdagan's picture

Hi Seikosha! It's just something I made in Ableton for the video, not a commercial track.

2_channel_ears's picture

to prime me for a trip in a few months to the Big Island.

Rootmann's picture

Any list of album from Hawaii that doesn't have The King of Slack
Key Guitar, Ledward Kapana should not be printed. Come-on Jana.... You gotta admit that's the truth!!!

Mark Tarone's picture

Great post Jana. Love the topic, and all five artists are worthy top fivers. Five is an awfully short list; so, here are a few more albums / artists to check out for those who are curious. I'm a 24 year Honolulu resident and have worked in the music industry for 15+ years.

John Cruz - 'Acoustic Soul' (1996 - traditional Hawaiian, Americana, blues - timeless, all-time classic)

Olomana - 'Like a Seabird In The Wind' (1976 - acoustic picking & beautiful harmonies)

The Peter Moon Band - 'Cane Fire' (1982)

Ernie Cruz, Jr. - 'Portraits' (2001 - acoustic - beautiful vocals and song presented in stellar fashion; lost Ernie Jr. this year - unexpected and shocking loss - truly wonderful person who lifted many)

John Cruz - 'One Of These Days' (2007 - acoustic & electric - traditional Hawaiian, Americana, blues featuring an all-star band backing John including Reggie McBride, James Gadson, Greg Leisz, Paulinho Da Costa, Glenn Worf & Nir Z)

Mark Tarone's picture

While on the subject of Top Hawaii Music, here are two videos / songs that should be included on any and all lists :o)

Hawai'i Aloha
by Mana Mele - engineered by Kelli Heath Cruz

Every artist in the video is worth a look & listen from the opening sax by Reggie Padilla to cherry picking by Imua Garza to the vocals by Kuana Torres Kahele and on and on.

Permanent Holiday
Music by Mike Love and Sam Ites - great artists and special people. Video & audio by HiSessions.

Analog Aecad's picture

Thank you for highlighting these Hawaiian artists. Your choices were spot on (and really good coming from a young person.) As one who experienced that period, thanks for including the Beamer Brothers. IMHO they don't often get the credit they deserve for being at the forefront (if not the leaders) of the emergence of contemporary Hawaiian music from the "hapa-haole" style of the Waikiki hotels.

For those who might be interested I recommend their early albums, "Hawaii's Keola & Kapono Beamer" and "The Best of the Beamer Brothers." The recordings while erratic still showcase their instrumental skills and helped to popularize "slack-key" guitar playing.

Keep up the good work!

SaltyYogi's picture

Great picks Jana, thanks for the post and getting us started. For those up for streaming, check out KPOA too. Get the local weather and surf reports!