I had intended to review this album of “hapa haole” songs during the more appropriate summer months, though maybe you can use them to keep you dreaming of palm trees this winter. According to Erich Sylvester “a hapa haole song is primarily in English with some words and phrases in Hawaiian.” His band, Hot Steele and Cool Ukulele, specializes in these prewar Hawaiian novelty songs. The sort of tin pan alley offshoots that took off in the twenties and distinguished themselves from the traditional Hawaiian records that were also popular.
Titles include widely recorded hits like “I Want to Learn to Speak Hawaiian,” and “Makin’ Wicky Wacky Down in Waikiki.” The oldest, “Maui No Ka Oi,” is dated 1897, thought the majority are from the late 1930s. The album closes with “Becky, I Ain’t Coming Back,” a Yiddish novelty in the form of a tourist writing home and refusing to leave the islands. Just enough accent is used to clue you in to the song’s origin.
The clever lyrics are presented clearly and warmly over a band of steel guitar, bass, and ukulele. The group creates an instant ambiance. Like many tourist destinations Hawaii maintains a perpetual element of nostalgia for the tourists that cam before. Sylvester’s model is the sound of hotel ballroom bands of the ’30s to ’50s, though this stripped-down presentation seems more fitting to the small cafes of today. I can’t imagine an appropriate venue not booking this band. Which is based, not in Hawaii, but San Francisco.
Aside from Sylvester, the artists vary track to track, with four different virtuoso steel guitarists represented on the album; this adds a lovely variety, as the playing of each is unique, while never sounding anything but Hawaiian. There were only a couple licks on the whole record that reminded me that these early Hawaiian records, and the steel guitar would have a profound impact on country music and western swing. Fans of novelty tunes, steel guitar, or anyone just looking for something a little different will find a mini vacation in this album.