Noelani and the Leo Nahenahe Singers – Hawaiian Christmas 8.0

Reviewed by on 18th December, 2017

There’s probably no genre of Christmas music copied as widely, among people with no connection to it, as Hawaiian music.

Or, well, genre is not really the right word. It’s a trope – throw in a lap steel guitar, a ukulele, a few tired references to Christmas palm trees and a few plastic tiki statues on the cover, and suddenly you’re apparently “Hawaiian”. And so you get strange curiosities like Yngwe Stoor – a Swedish singer who built a semi-successful career singing about being a sailor on Hawaii at Christmas, over and over again. And which artist hasn’t recorded a version of “Mele Kalikima”, made famous by Bing Crosby? In fact, the whole faux-south seas thing is such a prevalent trope that there’s even a specific term for partly Hawaiian music created for the tourist market.

So prevalent is this trope in Christmas music that it completely overshadows actual Hawaiian music, you know, the kind recorded on Hawaii by Hawaiians. And so something as pioneering and important as Noelani Mahoe’s Christmas album gets basically forgotten. This album is anything but the kitschy trope. Noelani Mahoe is a folk revivalist, whose music is a vital link that preceded and made possible the Hawaiian revival of the subsequent decade. Just the year before, she was the first musician from the islands to play Pete Seeger’s Newport Folk Festival.

And so her Christmas album is mostly sung in Hawaiian, not English. There’s no lap steel guitar at all, and the slack-key guitar is much more prevalent than the ukulele. The originals, in so far as they talk about food and culture, do so with actual dishes, clothing and events rather than things a tourist might experience. There are no palm trees. And yet, that makes it sound like much less fun a record than it actually is – sprightly, inventive and irreverent, it’s everything “Hawaiian” kitsch is not.

The record available on the streaming services includes two lesser bonus tracks at the end. (They inevitably include a lap steel in their arrangements, as if to prove a point. And the reissue has palm trees and ukuleles on the cover. Sigh.) Anyway, stick to the first twelve songs.

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Nowhere near fake kitsch

Noelani's Hawaiian Christmas uses qualified, seriously-written folk-revival settings, but it's just so joyful. In a way, it's playing around with European and mainstream American material, treating it as a source of fun - like mainstream artists would with Hawaiian music, but without the creeping stereotypes. It's a real eye-opener and a treat to listen to.

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