Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hapa-haole Songs


I am on a ukulele kick this month, so how could I leave out the contributions of hapa-haole songwriting? Hapa-haole is a Hawaiian term meaning mixed blood, usually Hawaiian heritage mixed with something else (usually Asian or mainlander). And it is an appropriate term for this type of music, which was most prevalent during the first half of the 20th century.

Hapa-haole music has predominantly English lyrics with a few Hawaiian words/names thrown in to make the songs seem more exotic. Hawaiian influence is heard in the melodies, with big interval jumps, but the mainlanders did not stray much from the normal song structure and lyrical clich├ęs of their times.

In my opinion the best music was written before the 1950s, and it is uncanny how you hear the mainland influences of the time, based on when the music was written. For example, early hapa-haole songs have a ragtime feel, while later music progresses through jazz, blues and eventually big band themes.

And there were some prolific composers that wrote a lot of this music, including R. Alex Anderson, Sonny Cunha and Johnny Noble.

But my favorite songwriter from this era is Harry Owens, a vaudeville band leader and former musical director of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Orchestra. He is most famous for Bing Crosby’s Academy award-winning song “Sweet Leilani”. He wrote hundreds of other hapa-haole songs, many of which are still popular within the ukulele community. Check out “Princess Poopooly” on Youtube sometime. Here is a sample of the lyrics:

The Princess Poopooly has plenty papaya and she loves to give it away. Now all of the neighbors they say: “Oh me-a, oh my-a, you really should try a little piece of the Princess Poopooly’s papaya.”

Now Princess Poopooly’s not truly unruly to pass out papaya each day. For all of the neighbors the say, “She may give the fruit, but she holds on to the root, and so she has the root and the fruit to boot.”

You get the picture, I am sure…

Anyway, things have changed quite a bit since the middle of the last century, and Hawaiian-influenced music is no exception.

Popular Hawaiian since the 1960s has seen influences from many cultures, and blends reggae, rock and folk feels into the genre. The term hapa-haole has fallen by the wayside, and all of this music is now lumped into the category of “contemporary Hawaiian music.”


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