Harry Kaapuni & His Royal Polynesians
Aloha Hawaii






Aloha Hawaii is the debut of the highly ephemeral Hawaiian ukulele band of leader Harry Kaapuni. He and His Royal Polynesians come up with renditions of eleven Polynesian songs, some of them incredibly famous, others hidden gems of the genre. In regard to Harry Kaapuni, two other acts come to mind immediately: Rex Kona & His Mandarins as well as Alex Keack. All three acts deliver coherent microworlds within the boundaries of their albums, but that's not the sole reason why I mention them, for there is also a more saddening fact: not much is known about any of them, all three delivered one debut (Harry Kaapuni, however, came up with a second album: Blue Hawaiian Waters) and faded away into obscurity afterwards, despite their obvious talents and vivid takes on classic material.


Keack, for instance, even created ten unique, never heard before compositions. Regardless of their exotic style, not only are there missing facts about the band leaders, but their band mates as well! In terms of Harry Kaapuni & His Royal Polynesians, I couldn't even tell you how many people he gathered around him, let alone their names, for the backside of the LP doesn't give any informations thereabout. I'm guessing that they formed a trio, but it's hard to say, for Aloha Hawaii is an intimate string-based album, and it contains a few stylistic surprises as well.


The band wants to offer variety, but at the same time is limited by their instruments: ukuleles, steel guitars and acoustic guitars are the only ingredients of the album. And yet, the sunny blue skies of Aloha Hawaii aren't boring or dull. The eleven renditions are mostly great even for Exotica listeners who tend to shy away from such deliberately reduced instrumental setups. But don't worry, the first string of tracks actually provides for a varied and highly entertaining listening experience, with clear signs of fatigue and repetition on side B. Still, even that side cannot be panned entirely. Read more about one of the most surprising entries of a wide field that is flooded with similar artifacts of likeminded bands below, and why Harry Kaapuni & His Royal Polynesians must not be forgotten … even though they were never really known!

The album launches with Red Sails In The Sunset, a popular song written by Hugh Williams in 1935. The listener is greeted by golden ukulele twangs, an accompanying second ukulele and acoustic guitar backings. This is a sun-laden hammock-compatible take whose lavish feeling rises throughout the song, for example when one of the ukuleles is delivering polyphonous chords of the phantasmagoric kind, or when the song fades out with a a typically warped Hawaiian lick which is then accompanied by soothing glints of the ukulele that mimics vibraphone droplets, showing that the reduced instrumental setup doesn't limit the timbres and colorful sound waves.


Hawaiian War Chant is next and lets an upbeat Surf Rock flavor rise. Dark bass guitar bursts underline the gorgeous steel guitar layers and a purple-glowing chorus that gleams vivaciously. The tonal quality of this short skit is astonishing, the various patterns of the strings are superb and the stereo effect is skillfully applied. This is a happy song in which the band manages to combine kitsch and tradition in a cool way. A favorite! Another song by Hugh Williams follows: Harbor Lights lets the dreaminess re-enter with galloping guitar slaps, sizzling-hot ukuleles and deliciously bedazzling strings. Even a short pizzicato section is interwoven, and once the ukulele starts to warble near the end of the song, one can feel the frolicking aura that isn't out of place in this easygoing ditty.


A real gemstone follows: Hawaiian Holiday is a proper Rock song thanks to the erupting euphony of the yellow shimmering strings and the varied textures of the several guitars, but it is Harry Kaapuni's incomprehensible vocals that put this Surf Rock song to another level. We're four songs into the LP and even though there were no mallet instruments, horn sections or exotic percussion used on this album, the variety of the material is breathtaking! The following Luau Lei relies on the established formula of a care-free sunday afternoon in Paradise, the way certain guitars are played is once more astonishing. The melodies themselves are ephemeral and even syrupy, but the many textures and counteracting half tones on certain backing strings offer welcome microscopic glimpses of improvisation and in-your-face ornaments that break the streamlined Easy Listening spell for mere moments.


The last track of side A is Drowsy Waters by Jack Ailau, and it is here where the narrow scope of the band becomes apparent for the first time, as it is a dreamy ukulele- and steel guitar-filled song with an expected drugged sustain of the strings, but this composition is too whitewashed and average. A rare dud.

Side B starts with one of the best known Hawaiian anthems, the Hawaiian Love Song, and by now, the variety and the amount of surprises begin to wear thin, as there is nothing of particular interest in this song. The guitars are yet again played in many timbres, but nothing remains stuck after the previous tracks. This doesn't need to be seen as a disadvantage, though, for it serves the concept of consistency very well; the seconds-long entanglement of the final strings, at least, is delicate and dreamy.


While Kula Ha is a fast-paced skit that starts lackluster at first with its acidy steel guitar strings, but presents a mellifluousness with an auroral mellowness coming from the right speaker, To You Sweetheart Aloha is kitsch by the numbers with another galloping guitar scheme and saccharine romance. This take is too sweet for my taste, something I've already stated in regard to Alfred Apaka's performance of the song. But finally, there is this special moment: Hawaiian Starlight is a magnificent Rockabilly song with reverberated bass guitar drops, a screeching main melody and wonderful chord sections that sound both rough and balmy. Here, Harry Kaapuni & His Royal Polynesians show their skills properly, and the nocturnal Surf Rock attitude is an important counterpoint to the daylight breeze of the previous material and the final mandatory take on Aloha Oe that doesn't offer anything beyond the realms of clichés and sugar-sweet tongues (of the guitars, that is). I'm sorry, but after shedloads of interpretations of Aloha Oe, I'm searching for the mocking, alienating and lively – in short: alternative – takes, and the band doesn't deliver in this regard and plays this classic to the point. In a blind test comprised of 400 Aloha Oe versions, I'd be lost. An appropriate outro of a surprisingly vivid album.

Aloha Hawaii by Harry Kaapuni & His Royal Polynesians is an unexpected gem in the flood of Hawaiian ukulele albums made by trios and quartets. The songs are all perfectly sunny and dreamy, catering to an audience who prefers the dreamy scent of the genre. But the band really shines on Surf Rock and Rockabilly songs where the action and reaction of the band members form a vivifying concoction of liveliness and fun. These are the strong tracks that make this album stand out. Think of Hawaiian War Chant or the fantastic Hawaiian Holiday, the one and only song that introduces incomprehensible vocals by Kaapuni.


When the band plays it cheeky and sneaky, the players break free of the narrowing Easy Listening structures. But even in those tracks where these structures are still active, short glints of an interesting tonal variety and enigmatic guitar riffs turn these dreamy tunes into something special. Red Sails In The Sunset, for instance, features a virtual faux-vibraphone. It isn't there, but its qualities are skillfully mimicked by the strings of a commonplace steel guitar. The same can be said about the many textures in Luau Lei that make the melody all the more exciting. It is never clear in which way the next tone of the melody is played and how the accompanying chords change in temper. Harry Kaapuni & His Royal Polynesians remain unknown to this day, next to nothing about the people involved in the process of creating Aloha Hawaii is known, but if you want to consider an Exotica LP without multi-instrument curlicues, this album full of fresh and clean Hawaiian compositions is quite a great pick. It is only available on vinyl at the time of writing, but its beautiful cover alone is worth the purchase. 


Update August 5, 2013: 
Reader Robert Bowman from Florida has sent me an email in which he points me to an enlightening thread at SteelGuitarForum.com. There, a steel guitarist named Eddie Cunningham claims to be responsible for playing his signature instrument on both of Harry Kaapuni's records. This is entirely possible and further proof of the session musician-heavy 50's and 60's. Either Cunningham is playing next to Harry Kaapuni on a second steel guitar, or Harry Kaapuni is a marketing-related moniker and in fact Eddie Cunningham himself! Whatever the truth may be, my thanks and gratitude go out to Robert Bowman for enlightening me… while causing further questions and contemplations. 


Exotica Review 093: Harry Kaapuni & His Royal Polynesians – Aloha Hawaii (1960). Originally published on Jul. 14, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.