UKULELE MUSING 50, 21 DECEMBER 2019: “MELE KALIKIMAKA,” A Bit of Western Swing from America’s Westernmost State.
This wouldn’t be a serious ukulele posting this Christmas season without taking a look at that old favorite (chestnut?) Hawaiian holiday song, “Mele Kalikimaka”—the “thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day!” This lively song, from our Yellow Book, is, however, a bit more “Hawaiian sort of” rather than “Hawaiian actual.”
Our song was written in 1949 by Robert Alex Anderson (1894-1995) and takes its title from the Hawaiian phrase “Mele Kalikimaka” meaning “Merry Christmas.” The phrase, despite its island sound, is actually fashioned directly from English and was first coined and published in Hawaii in 1904. Since the Hawaiian language follows a different phonetic system than English, it’s not possible to render a pronunciation that is really close to “Merry Christmas.” Standard Hawaiian does not have the “r” or “s” of English and it doesn’t use consonants at the end of syllables or in clusters. So, without those alphabetical tools, the closest approximation to “Merry Christmas” evolved as “Mele Kalikimaka.” Here’s a fun explanation of how this linguistic filtration works:
A Linguist’s Explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0h-gbeI0AFQ
One of the earliest recordings of “Mele Kalikimaka”, 1950, was by Bing Crosby with the Andrews sisters—with more of a “western swing” rather than “hula” beat.
This is the classic interpretation followed by, needless to say, hundreds of other cover artists over the past seventy years!
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJhYrC8Rq8w
And, of course, Don Ho: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mele+kalikimaka+don+ho
While our song falls squarely in the hape haole musical genre—that is, a song about Hawaii in English rather than from Hawaii in Hawaiian—it does have island cred because Anderson was born in Hawaii and settled there after college at Cornell and service in World War I. He was an electrical/mechanical engineer and had a successful business career along with being an avid songwriter. Not surprisingly he specialized in Hawaiian-themed songs and, aside from “Mele Kalikimaka,” his best known of more than two hundred songs is “Lovely Hula Hands.”
Hula Hands: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yYSaXdUcrg
A graduate of Hawaii’s Punahoa School and Cornell University, Anderson was considered the “most Hawaiian” of the hapa haole composers and was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 1985.
Here is a rare recording of him talking about his work:
R. Alex Anderson himself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FvMXys3Ffw
Not just a composer, Anderson was a fighter pilot in World War I, was shot down over enemy territory, and made a daring escape from a German POW camp. The 1935 Errol Flynn movie, “The Dawn Patrol,” was based on this adventure!
So, let’s have some fun with a few interpretations of this traditional Christmas—or should we say “Kalikimaka”—greeting from Hawaii. Notice also how the Hawaiian steel guitar sounds a lot like the pedal steel guitar of country and western music.
Puppini Sisters with Ukuleles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8iMXqHr774
The Long beard Brothers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EWLBJTVpiQ
Bette Midler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV_BGqgbxdc
And, of Course, Ukulele: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMBQu7aO_XI
So, may you and yours have a Merry Christmas, “Mele Kalikimali, or whatever this year—and Stay Tuned!