"Pōmai Duets" - Behind The Mele

About the Songs and Composers




PARADISE ISLE (with Joan 'Pudgie' Young)

Words & Music By: Sam Koki

"Paradise Isle" is the first of many songs in this collection from the subgenre of Hawaiian music often referred to as hapa-haole (meaning "half-foreign" or "half-Caucasian"), a type of song which speaks of uniquely Hawaiian people, places, things, and virtues but written in the English language for the appreciation of a wider audience.

But this particular hapa-haole song Pōmai and duet partner Auntie Pudgie Young have chosen to open with poses a conundrum: Was the song written for the film? Or was the film named for the song?  The song can be heard in the 1937 Monogram Pictures film Paradise Isle in which composer Sam Koki makes an appearance. The film was released on July 21, 1937, while Koki's recording of the song was not released until September 1, 1937. More interestingly still, the flip side of this 1937 Decca disc - a song entitled "Ebb Tide" - boasts that it is "From the Paramount Picture Ebb Tide." But no such film attribution for "Paradise Isle."

Either way, Koki's song of love in the moonlight under tropic skies evokes the perfect mood for a collection which largely focuses on romance Hawaiian style. And as Sam Koki lived and worked on the west coast in the 1930s (including a lengthy stint at the 7 Seas night club on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles), this is one of three songs in this collection likely not composed Hawaiʻi.

When Pōmai asked Auntie Pudgie to choose a song for the project, she unhesitatingly replied "Paradise Isle." "It is one of her favorite songs to sing, and she really wanted to have a recording of her singing it," Pōmai says. (Despite that Auntie Pudgie is a legend of the local Hawai`i music scene, she has rarely found her way to a recording studio.) But despite its undeniable beauty, the original song suffered from its brevity with only two verses. So Pōmai decided to compose two additional verses. "The third verse is me singing to her my idea of what her paradise isle might be," Pōmai adds, "while the fourth verse is her singing to me her idea of what my paradise isle might be."

At Waikiki you let your music flow
Hula maids dance to and fro
All done in Hawaiian style
In your paradise isle


The mellow sounds of your steel guitar
Heard under tropic stars
Making it all worthwhile
In your paradise isle


LEI OF LOVE/OUR LOVE AND ALOHA (with Reginald Davis)

Words & Music By: Henry Kaimimoku and Leolani Blaisdell

In Hawaiʻi, the most precious gift one can give is the lei. Even though the life in the flowers that comprise that lei is fleeting, the making and giving of a lei is an unparalleled honor. A lei is worn close to the heart, and if one wears the lei before gifting it, then they are gifting a part of their spirit, as well. Composer Henry Kaimimoku captured this emotion with an economy of words in the oft-performed but seldom-recorded classic "Lei of Love." Despite its local popularity, the song has only been recorded twice before: First by Peter Ahia (on his debut LP, Peter Sings, in 1977) and again by Cody Pueo Pata (on the 2001 CD release E Hoʻi Nā Wai).

How often is parting from a dear one in Hawaiʻi accompanied by the giving of the lei? The perfect companion to the first song in this medley, "Our Love and Aloha," composed by Leolani Blaisdell, takes us back to the days before jet travel when tourists arrived and departed on the Matson Lines’ grand sailing vessels and speaks of that day when one leaves Hawaiʻi - a painful day as anyone who has ever visited Hawaiʻi's shores knows well. But leaving wearing a lei lets us linger in paradise just a while longer. Copyrighted in 1958, this poignant song of parting was first recorded by Bing Crosby (Return To Paradise Islands, 1963), then next by Waimea-born and Tucson-based performer Ernie Menehune (Back To Aloha Land, 1964, the title of this LP aptly co-opted from one of this song’s lyrics), and finally by venerable and enduring Kauaʻi-based performer Larry Rivera for whom it became a sort of theme song throughout his career.

"I have always been a loyal fan of Peter Ahia and fell in love with 'Lei of Love' when I heard it back in the '70s,” Pōmai says. "And having Reginald Davis play guitar in the Pōmai Serenaders over the last several years has allowed me to appreciate and covet his rendition of 'Our Love and Aloha.' We’ve been singing this medley of songs for the last five years, so it was a no brainer to include this mele in this project."


I KONA (with Gary Haleamau)

Words & Music By: James Kelepolo

Kona, Hawai`i

According to conversations with Hawaiian music historian and composer Keith Haugen, "I Kona" is one of countless Hawaiian mele (song or poem in the Hawaiian language) which has many different variations on the lyrics and two or more variations of the melody and harmonic structure (or chords). According to hula master and composer Kimo Alama Keaulana, the true composer of "I Kona" is unknown, and the most commonly performed version (made so popular by slack key guitarist and vocalist Ledward Kaapana in the late 1970s that the group he led actually changed its name to I Kona) dates to the 1920s and may even share a tune with another Hawaiian song ("Nuʻuanu" by James Papa). This is not in keeping with the conventional attribution to James Kelepolo who (according to the United States Federal Census) was not even born until 1929. The version attributed to Mr. Kelepolo only surfaced in the 1980s on a recording by hula master George Naope who claims to have received the lyrics and music directly from Mr. Kelepolo.

Regardless of the source, all variations on the song have in common a love of the Kona district on the east side of the island of Hawaiʻi which both Pōmai and duet partner Gary Haleamau have called home. "While contemplating a suitable song for Gary Haleamau and myself, I knew it had to be a song about Kona as Gary's roots run deep in the pahoehoe," Pōmai says. "It was also fitting and necessary to include all four verses of the song as credited to James Kelepolo by Uncle George Naope." Garyʻs soothing falsetto is perfect for this classic song.


LIKE A SEABIRD IN THE WIND (with Russell Paio)

Words & Music By: Jerry Santos

1970s Hawaiʻi folk-rock duo Olomana were among the few truly innovative artists to usher in a new era often referred to as the “Hawaiian Music Renaissance” – forging a new genre called "contemporary Hawaiian music" by successfully combining  elements of past and present and composing songs in English and Hawaiian and occasionally (as is the case with "Seabird") both. (It is not commonly known that "Like a Seabird in the Wind" was also the title of the group's 1976 debut LP as the title does not appear on either the front or back cover or even on the disc itself. It appears inconspicuously on the cover's spine.) The group's music still endures - as popular on local radio as ever. But few who have followed in Olomana's footsteps have tackled this particular tale of coming of age and a fleeting love (the notable exception being Nā Leo Pilimehana and their version from the 2000 CD release A Pocketful of Paradise).

"When I first heard Russell Paio sing this song a few years ago, it made me realize what I can only call 'truth in singing,'" Pōmai says. "The connection between the written lyric and vocal 'truth' touched me very deeply. I knew if Russell were going to be a part of this project that I would demand he do this song." And that is exactly what happened.


ʻO MAKALAPUA (with Wehilani Ching)

Words & Music By: Traditional (From a chant by Naha Hakuʻole Harbottle)

Makalapua means "unfolding flower" and was one of many affectionate nicknames for Hawaiʻi's last reigning monarch, Queen Lydia Kamakaʻeha Liliʻuokalani. As with so many Hawaiian songs, the origins of this mele inoa (or "name song," a song honoring a special someone and which refers to them by name as opposed to other veiled poetic references) are disputed to this day. The mele is rooted in the ancient chant form. The queen herself claimed that her hānai (an informal system of Hawaiian adoption) mother, Kōnia, composed the chant. Some credit David Nape (composer of such Hawaiian chestnuts as "Pua Mohala" and "Old Plantation") with both the words and the music as it is very much in his style. And others still claim that it was a composed as a gift for the queen the night before her birthday celebration by a trio of contributors – one of these being Naha Hakuʻole Harbottle, grandmother of Pōmai's duet partner here, Wehilani Ching. The first appearance of the song in print seems to be Hawaiian language newspaper Ke Aloha ʻAina on January 16, 1897, and the music may have been adapted from the hymn "Would I Were With Thee."

"Convincing Aunty Wehi to participate in this project was not as easy as I thought it would be," Pōmai says. "She was extremely cautious to say the least as we had not been in contact for over 30 years. After weeks of me pestering her, she finally gave in on the condition that she be able to record 'Makalapua.'"

Regardless of its origins, the song remains a favorite for all singers of Hawaiian songs and has been recorded countess times. The song employs common Hawaiian poetic technique - drawing once again upon the imagery and importance of the lei, here given as a gift for their beloved queen.  Although there are as many as four documented verses, here Pōmai and Auntie Wehi sing only the first verse and the refrain as has become the custom.


HĪNANO (with Hiram Olsen)

Words & Music By: Sol K. 



Another love song in the hapa-haole tradition, "Hīnano" was composed by Hawaiian music stalwart Solomon Kekipi Bright (who also composed such Hawaiian classics as "Sophisticated Hula," "Hawaiian Cowboy," and "Lovely Sapphire of the Tropics"). With a career spanning more than six decades, Sol began his career as leader of Sol K. Bright and His Hollywaiians who recorded countless sides for the Victor, Brunswick, Decca, and Columbia labels.

Determining when some Hawaiian songs were written can be an archeological endeavor since the date a song was published may not coincide with when the song was written. (Many Hawaiian composers never published or copyrighted their songs at all.) "Hīnano" was copyrighted in 1961, but there is a much earlier recording of the song by Bill Aliʻiloa Lincoln dating to the late 1940s (on the Bell Records label). Utilizing the common poetic device of comparing a loved one to a flower, in this case the song speaks of the hīnano, a white flower of the pandanus tree. But "Hīnano" is also a very popular name throughout French Polynesia. So it is entirely possible that Uncle Sol was singing of a Tahitian sweetheart.

As Sol Bright lived and worked on the mainland (including stints at the Fairmont Hotel and Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco) during the period when his composition was first recorded, this is the second of the three songs in this collection likely not composed in Hawaiʻi.

Pōmai's duet partner, veteran entertainer Hiram Olsen, suggested recording "Hīnano." "And I was glad he did," Pōmai adds, "because it had been a favorite of mine for a long time. The chord patterns and melody lines are catchy and memorable."


HOME KAPAKA (with Kaʻala Carmack)

Words & Music By: Milla Petersen & Maddy Lam

Composer Maddy Lam's ʻohana (or "family") lived at Kapaka, a town near Hauʻula on the north shore of the island of Oʻahu along the road to the area the Hawaiians call Kuilima (or which the tourists call Turtle Bay). Kapaka is the Hawaiian word for "tobacco" - the town taking its name for the crop once grown there. But the song is about neither tobacco nor farming. It is a mele pana (or "place song") which speaks of the beauty of the sights, sounds, and hospitality of this area. The song was first recorded in the 1960s by Ms. Lam's dear friend, Kahauanu Lake, and more recently by Natalie Ai Kamauu (Eia, 2012). And, as a bit of trivia, this is the second time Pōmai Brown has chosen this song for a CD in which he was involved - the first time for the 2000 CD release Hawaiki Nui which Pōmai produced.

Pōmai arranged this song a little differently than usually heard for this duet with Kaʻala Carmack. "Kaʻala chose this mele because he enjoys singing it," Pōmai says. "But because so many artists have chosen to record this song previously, we put a slight twist on it by using slight chord substitutions at the beginning of each verse while maintaining the proper melody line."


BEHAVE HULA GIRL (with Kaipo Asing)

Words & Music By: Sammy Fain and Ralph Freed           

The third song presented here which was not written in Hawaiʻi, "Behave Hula Girl" was not even written by a Hawaiian! It is one of many songs (like "Sweet Someone" and "Drinking Champagne") which have their roots in Nashville country or even Broadway but which have been adopted by the Hawaiians over time as their own. "Behave Hula Girl" was composed by the team of Sammy Fain (whose best known song would likely be "I'll Be Seeing You") and Ralph Freed (who wrote "How About You?" for the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical Babes on Broadway as well as the English lyric for Prince Leleiohoku's composition "Kāua I Ka Huahuaʻi" which would become known as the "Hawaiian War Chant"). The song was a huge hit for R&B singer Billy Ward (formerly of Billy Ward & His Dominoes) from his 1959 LP Pagan Love Song.

But how did a song with such dubious origins find popularity in local Hawaiʻi entertainment circles? Pua Almeida discovered the tune and issued his own version featuring a Benny Saks arrangement and the steel guitar of Billy Hew Len. That was also when the song lost the comma in its title (as it is direct address, after all: "Behave, Hula Girl").

Pōmai's duet partner here is a gentleman with a flair for a comic tune, Kaipo Asing, a master of ad-lib and improvisation when it comes to hapa-haole songs. "He can literally take a song from one extreme to the other via his outrageous vocal range," Pōmai adds. Kaipo selected this swinging tune as it suits his personality perfectly – upbeat, fun and inviting. But as with "Paradise Isle," Pōmai felt the song was a little short. And, so, as with "Paradise Isle," Pōmai took the liberty of composing an additional verse:

Behave, hula girl, when you swing and sway
You make my heart skip a beat, takin' my breath away
Graceful hands telling me your story of love
While moonbeams light up the night with twinkling skies above


You gave me a chance at love and romance
You mesmerize
The way that you swing it around and around
You make my temperature rise


You have now become
The center of my world
Until you see it that way
Oh, behave, hula girl


PUA LĪLĪLEHUA (with Elaine Ako Spencer)

Words & Music By: Mary Kawena Pukui and Kahauanu Lake     

The Hawaiians have hundreds of names for the winds and rains that grace each district of each of their islands. Līlīlehua is a reference to the wind and rain which grace the Pālolo Valley nestled between Mānoa and Kaimuki in Honolulu on the island of Oʻahu. Of course, līlīlehua is also the Hawaiian word for the blossom of the Texas sagebrush. Such is the beauty of the Hawaiian poetic technique known as kaona which manifests itself (when it manifests itself) in layers of multiple meaning. A flower blossom is invariably a poetic reference to an otherwise unnamed special someone, while at the same time the mere mention of wind and rain is typically a not-so-veiled reference to love-making.

"Pua Līlīlehua" is an incredible first outing as a composer by now legendary Hawaiian musician Kahauanu Lake (with an assist from his friend and mentor Kawena Pukui). And although kaona is very personal - the true meaning often known only to the composer and the subject for which the song was composed - we can safely presume Uncle "K" composed this for the woman who would become his wife, hula master Maʻiki Aiu Lake.

The song first appeared on the same 1960s Kahauanu Lake Trio LP which first gave us "Home Kapaka" (which is also included in this collection). Duet partner Elaine Ako Spencer chose this classic love song for the project, and Pōmai created the unique arrangement. "Auntie Elaine and I share a very similar vocal range," Pōmai says, "so it was not at all difficult recording with her. I did take a few liberties in the arrangement of chord progressions as well as poetic license with the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, and I sincerely hope that the presentation will not offend our esteemed kumu (or "teachers")."


LOVELY HULA GIRL (with Gary Aiko)

Words By: Randy Oness | Music By: Jack Pitman

Another hapa-haole standard well loved and often performed by Hawaiʻi's singers, "Lovely Hula Girl" comes with its own outstanding pedigree. The composers are each legends in their own right: Oness is responsible for such swingers as "Hoʻomanawanui," while Pitman is responsible for such chestnuts as "Behold Lāʻie," "The Sands of Waikiki," and the still popular "Beyond The Reef." But when Pitman (born in Canada but who relocated to Hawaiʻi to pursue his love of Hawaiian music) found himself playing piano in Oness's band at the Elks Club in Honolulu, Pitman began contributing the tunes to Oness's lyrics - resulting in such now classic collaborations as "The Kumu In A Muʻumuʻu," "Hawaiian Hula Eyes," and "Lovely Hula Girl."

You might call the Pitman/Oness catalog Gary Aiko's "milieu." He recorded three of their compositions on his most recent CD (Poina ʻOle ʻIa) in 2012. But "Lovely Hula Girl" has long been one of Gary's signature songs since he first recorded it on his debut LP (Gary Aiko Says Mai Poʻina ʻOe Iaʻu) in 1977. Gary chose to record this song again with Pōmai but differently than the first time around – with only the jazzy piano backing – in the hope, Gary says, "that it will lure any unsuspecting hula dancer within listening range to perform without hesitation."


TAVAKE TE MANU (with Malala McMoore)

Words & Music By: Alec Salmon & Makea Nui Ariki

Although the original composer of this song comes from Tahiti, the Cook Islands version of the lyric heard here is courtesy of the Queen of Rarotonga, Makea Nui Teremoana Ariki. “Tavake Te Manu” speaks of the red-tailed tavake bird and its precious feathers which are so highly prized throughout the South Pacific. The dance that accompanies the song was one of the highlighted performances of Tavana's Polynesian Spectacular during its run at the Banyan Court of the Moana Hotel in Waikīkī when Pōmai was a regular cast member. "Bandleader Malala McMoore led a 20-piece Polynesian band back in the 60s and 70s that radiated the musical mana (or "spirit") of an entire Polynesian village," Pōmai says. "I chose this song as I knew it would suit perfectly the gravely baritone vocals of my Sāmoan mentor, Malala McMoore."


MAKA HILAHILA (with Sam Kapu, Jr.)

Words & Music By: John Powers

"Maka Hilahila" represents the perfect marriage of composer and performer. The composer was John Powers about whom little is known as this would seem to be his one and only composition. (It only takes one good one!) The artist was Don Ho and The Aliis who brought a new flare for production and performance to the local Waikīkī music scene of the 1960s.

Literally translated as "bashful eyes," the mystical "Maka Hilahila" has rarely been recorded outside of the Don Ho and The Aliis ʻohana. Since the first recording by Don and his group (on their second Reprise Records LP in 1966, Don Ho Again!), the song has been recorded three more times by different incarnations of The Aliis and once more by a graduate of The Aliis, Danny Couch. But the song surely belongs in the loving care of Sam Kapu, Jr. who for years called Ho a friend and mentor (having appeared in Ho's stage shows at the Polynesian Palace of the Cinerama Reef Hotel and the Kaiser Dome of the Hilton Hawaiian Village as well as on Ho's short-lived TV show for ABC).

"There are certain songs that just go with certain voices," Pōmai says. "This song is a perfect example. I initially thought that there was a recording of Sam singing this song in some lost archive somewhere on this planet. But I was wrong! He has never recorded this song before. So I insisted he record it on this project." And what a perfect fit it was! In Pōmai's unique arrangement, the image is of two suitors vying for the attention of one mysterious lady.


HAOLE HULA (with Marlene Sai)

Words & Music By: R. Alex Anderson

Although not the first hapa-haole song, "Haole Hula" might be the quintessential example of the genre - poetically and romantically describing all of the charms of the sights, sounds, and smells of Hawaiʻi. But we could expect no less from the same composer who also gifted the Hawaiian music-loving world with such gems as "Lovely Hula Hands," "White Ginger Blossoms," "Lei of Stars," "Blue Lei," "Soft Green Seas," and about 100 more classic songs. (Uncle Alex is also responsible for the Bing Crosby holiday classic "Mele Kalikimaka.")

Anderson composed "Haole Hula" for the Don Blanding-penned show Hula Moon which debuted at the Princess Theater in Honolulu in 1927. For the performer of Hawaiian songs, "Haole Hula" also represents a sort of inside joke. Hawaiian music neophytes likely don't realize that when Anderson writes "Oh, when I hear the strains" in the first verse, he is actually name-dropping the titles of classic Hawaiian songs - "Alekoki," "Penei Nō," and "Ē Lili`u Ē."

As it turns out, "Auntie Goofy" (as friends and ʻohana lovingly refer to Marlene, a nickname Don Ho bestowed upon her during their early days toiling in obscurity at Don’s mother’s place, Honey’s, in Kaneʻohe) was a personal friend of the composer. So she chose to revisit this song for the second time in her recording career. Marlene first recorded "Haole Hula" on her third LP, Magic Moods of Waikiki, for the Sounds of Hawaiʻi label in 1963. So it is only fitting to bring a five-decade career full circle by sharing the song with Pōmai.


KA MAKANI KAʻILI ALOHA (with Ocean Kaowili)

Words & Music By: Matthew Kane

Composer Matthew Kane gifted the Hawaiian music-loving world with many a classic including "Molokaʻi Nui A Hina," "ʻAina Kaulana" (often referred to simply as "The Molokaʻi Waltz"), "Pua Carnation," and the classic love song heard here. The literal translation of the title is "the wind that snatches away love," but that is only the beginning of the story of a song which - like others in this collection - presents us with competing legends. But one which seems to have persisted speaks of a husband deserted by his wife and, not knowing how to win her back, turns to a Hawaiian high priest (or kahuna) who instructs the lad to cast a love potion into the waters where they spent time together. And, in the oft-forgotten verse (which is not sung here), she indeed returns.

One of the oldest compositions in this collection, the first recording dates to 1928, and the vocalist on that early session was a gentleman named Sam Kapu - father of the Sam Kapu, Jr. heard earlier here in his duet with Pōmai on "Maka Hilahila."

This song was chosen at the request of duet partner Ocean Kaowili. "It really didn’t matter which song Ocean decided to record as he could make 'Twinkle, Twinkle' sound amazing," Pōmai says. (And while this might be empirically provable, the opinion in this case might be a little biased as Pōmai and Ocean are dear friends for many years and frequent musical partners - appearing together on weekend evenings at sunset at the House Without A Key of the Halekulani Hotel in Waikīkī.)


ALOHA ʻOE (with Danny Kaleikini)

Words & Music By: Queen Liliʻuokalani

Given the tragic ending of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the imprisonment of its last reigning monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani, it is not surprising how many mistakenly believe that "Aloha ʻOe" was the queen's farewell to a kingdom - to her people. But that is simply the legend ascribed to what is really a love song.

As with many of the mele in this collection, the origins of "Aloha ʻOe" differ depending on the source. But it is - at its core - a description of real-life events that the queen witnessed while on a horseback riding excursion. The lyric "one fond embrace" speaks to this inspiration - a stolen moment between clandestine lovers in her traveling party. (Alternate versions of the legend name the lovers, but is there any way to corroborate this information so long after the fact, and to what end do we dare embarrass the protagonists?) As one version of the legend goes, the queen began humming the tune on the ride back from Maunawili Ranch up the Pali Trail, and the tune was so catchy that the rest of her riding party joined in. But according to other sources, the tune is not original - a common practice of the period being to borrow tunes from other western songs (often hymns).  Musicologists cite that parts of the verse resemble "The Rock Beside the Sea" by Charles Crozat Converse, while the melody eerily resembles the chorus of George Frederick Root's "There's Music In The Air."

Queen Liliʻuokalani was a prolific composer credited with hundreds of songs. Regardless of its origins, "Aloha ʻOe" is her most well-loved and enduring composition and arguably the most beloved song of the Hawaiian people - making it a fitting farewell to the listener from Pōmai and his duet partner Danny Kaleikini who is known as Hawaiʻi's "Ambassador of Aloha." "It is only appropriate that Danny sing a song of aloha, and what better song to record than the queen’s own 'Aloha ʻOe'?" Pōmai posits. "The intent behind my arrangement was not an 'Aloha ʻOe' of sadness but of joy. If one can only imagine someone needing to leave a particular place but, for one reason or another, leaving is unattainable at that point in time… Until, one day, something miraculous happens and they attain the knowledge, education, and ability to leave. Wouldn't that be a joy to see them at last go - a sort of graduation? As I would not deign to alter the queen's lyrics, instead I have imposed the kaona on the arrangement."


Liner notes by Bill Wynne and Pōmaikaʻi Brown


For more information about the artists who participated in this collection, check out the limited edition CD which includes biographies of all of Pōmai's guests artists along with their pictures and autographs.