Reviewed by Johan Palme on 14th December, 2019
By 1978, the Hawaiʻian folk revival was slowly losing the immense, culturally impactful steam it had half a decade earlier. The Sons of Hawaii, the premier folk music performers of the era, had lost its original creator and mentor, the slack key maestro Gabby Pahinui, who had embarked on a successful solo career, then retired from recording. They now bore the name of star ukulele player Eddie Kamae writ large on album covers. And then, they went ahead and recorded a Christmas album.
It sounds like a recipe for a phone-in, lazy album that fans will later pick out as a symbol of irrevocable decline. But that’s emphatically not the case here. This is an ambitious project with a TV special tie-in, a boy choir, the fantastic vocalist Diana Aki and a harpist onboard. The deeply researched historical purity of the famous “five faces” album is long gone, although Christmas Time opens with a re-recording of “I Love Christmas” off that album. Instead, very much unlike the consistent and playful canon-displacement of Noelani Mahoe’s equally feted Hawaiʻian folk album, we get a mixture of deeply earnest Christian worship songs and a swathe of originals of every shade and nuance. Two of the best are wholly secular numbers, perhaps paradoxically written by a Christian minister, recent band addition Dennis Kamahaki: “Christmas Memories” is whistful country, and “Dear St Nick” a fine-limbed calypso song.
For some, this kind of eclectic genre infusion would go against the ethos of authenticity that underlies folk revival. But Hawaiʻian music has always partly consisted of mixing and adapting; Dennis Kamahaki, 25 years the junior of Eddie Kamae, is just adding the kind of music he’d have heard growing up in the fifties and sixties to the recipe, just as Eddie Kamae would add cool jazz or rumba. It makes for an ambitious, if spotty collection, full of unusual flashes of brilliance.