Sam Makia
The Fabulous 50
th State 





Hawaiian steel guitarist Sam Makia promises big things on his album Hawaii: The Fabulous Fiftieth State (its stereo incarnation being known as Hawaii In Stereo), considering its liner notes, emphasis mine: "You will hear the music that is actually played in the Hawaiian Islands." You know what? This seems to be true if one takes a closer look at the tracklist, but first and foremost, let me talk about the reason of the album's existence and the people involved during the process of its creation, as both fields of information can potentially cause much joy, all the more so when one is faced with the flood of thousands of rather dull Hawaiian albums.


Naturally, Hawaii: The Fabulous Fiftieth State, released in 1959 on Kapp Records, is created to make a few bucks, but it is also an infotainment kind of album. In the same year, Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States which triggered an endless wave of Hawaiian music, much of it hastily pieced together and recorded in an hour or so in order to profit from the growing market of tourism accessories and the yearning of people for this beautiful group of islands. Sam Makia and the people at Kapp Records try to present a mixture of well-known and soon-to-be classics as well as curiously ephemeral traditions that are rarely considered on other LP's, among them the quirky Kuu Ipo Ika Hee Pue One, but more about this track and all the others in a moment.


There is another reason this album is interesting for the Exotica connoisseur who dove deep into the genre's treasures: composer and arranger Frank Hunter is involved and even mentioned on the front cover. Primarily known for his gorgeous masterpiece White Goddess (1959) which features unique cuts and interpretations of the mystical-tropical kind and rounds the divine physiognomy off with a rarely heard ondioline, Hunter is responsible on Makia's album for the symphonic strings. They appear on the majority of the material, while the remaining tunes are perfect Hapa Haole takes played by Sam Makia and his Makapu Beach Boys, comprising of one ukulele player and one flutist. Some songs furthermore add a lush percussion mixture of bongos and kettle drums; most of the time though, the ukulele is used as the rhythmic device.


Sam Makia's steel guitar licks encapsulate the typical Hawaiian elasticity and warped sustain, Hawaii: The Fabulous Fiftieth State is focused and coherent in its overarching form, but also surprisingly varied and keen on introducing new textures. It is rare to see ukulele-focused structures ennobled with strings, a subsequent example being Santo & Johnny's Hawaii (1961). I will take a closer look on Sam Makia's 13 tracks, 16 songs and three medleys below. Is it, at the end of the day, simply another pale Hawaiian album, or does it have that certain something, at least partially so?


Sweet Leilani by Harry Owens is as good a point of origin as any in the case of Sam Makia’s ode to Hawaii. His steel guitar licks oscillate resiliently, his Makapu Beach Boys accompany the dreaminess with sun-dappled ukulele licks and alto flute airflows, the peacefulness of the backdrop inherits the tropical heat of each instrument’s decay phase. Even so, it is Frank Hunter’s orchestra which slowly fills the nothingness with both polyphonous Space-Age droplets and more romantic-saccharine legato washes. The tune then morphs into the well-known formula of carefreeness. The problem: the coolness and easygoing interplay at the beginning wanes. Surprisingly enough, the following tune The Hawaiian Wedding Song rectifies this observation.


Charles E. King’s honey-sweet sunburst ballad comprises the same ingredients in different forms, for example the ukulele as a rhythm device next to paradisiac flute figures and Makia’s malleable steel guitar. It is, however, the infusion of the gorgeously multi-colored and positively histrionic orchestra strings that ameliorates the Hawaiian soil. They almost swallow their more whimsical stringed brethren, texture and quantity coalesce and still allow a bold feeling of faithful Hawaiiana.


While the traditional ditty Maui Chimes turns out to emanate the most effervescent effulgence in an upbeat rhythm with a wealth of new textures – for instance the electric piano-resembling (!) steel guitar prowess and a bubbling bongo beat – even though Frank Hunter's orchestra remains silent, it is Leo Robin’s and Ralph Rainger’s Blue Hawaii which reintroduces the listener to the symphonic-spacey strings and assigns the flute to play the main melody, with Sam Makia joining with his steel guitar and its seemingly morphing surfaces. The gorgeous Waipio cannot compete with Arthur Lyman’s luring interpretation off Hawaiian Sunset (1959), but works nonetheless thanks to its feisty bass guitar-coated rhythm which schleps itself forward in close proximity to the mellifluous flute tones, rhythm ukuleles and Makia’s rather hatched and less gleaming chords.


The following King Kamehameha (The Conqueror Of The Islands) by Johnny Noble and Ted "Rito" Fiorito is another arrangement that does not depend on Frank Hunter’s orchestra and rather builds its uplifting midtempo erection with sunny rhythms and a greatly working unison of the steel guitar with the flute, the latter of which wafts in the background and is only allowed to shine in the last 30 seconds of the song. The island feeling works particularly well here, as harmless this song may be, it truly captures a Polynesian aura. Harry Owens second song of side A is also the last one: To You Sweetheart, Aloha is a rather lackluster tonality-related addendum to the opener Sweet Leilani, with Makia’s steel guitar seemingly counteracting against the dichotomously jejune yet soothing susurration of Hunter’s strings. Only the balmy flute melody and the final steel guitar riff with its distensible glissando are beyond all blame.


Side B is loaded with three medleys and already starts with the first two of them. The kick-off encompasses Ernest Kaai’s, Johnny Noble’s and Ray Kinney’s Across The Sea and the traditional Mai Poina Oe I’au, the first tune launching with the most glaringly dreamy concoction of Frank Hunter’s strings that reappears in vivacious colors throughout the tune, with the rhythm ukulele and alto flute gyrating gently around their thickness, whereas Mai Poina Oe I’au floats seamlessly into the string washes, and oh my, their impetus is even doubled! The result is an auroral medley where the strings rule over the island. A wonderful hybrid!


Up next is Johnny Noble’s and Prince Leliohaku’s Hawaiian War Chant which is united with the traditional Hana Lei. The former usually serves as a showcase for drums, and indeed, kettle drums are used, but bongos are entirely neglected. The flute plays the main melody, Sam Makia accentuates it with wondrous steel guitar textures, the orchestra strings whirl exhilaratingly, the tempo is swinging. Hana Lei then slows down the sizzling heat, injects supreme string mirages in the Space-Age tradition and unites them with the expected flecks of Hawaiiana, namely the rhythm ukulele and Sam Makia’s curiously reduced steel guitar strumming.


The following traditional Kuu Ipo Ika Hee Pue One is a less-considered piece in the realms of Exotica or Hapa Haole, and from the top of my head it seems to be the only instance I know of at the time of writing this review. It is a vintage facsimile of the Hawaiian music movement. Naturally, the orchestra is mute, this one is all about the triad of flute, steel guitar and ukulele, with an added bass. The steel guitar mimics driblets and lofty breezes, the flute almost contains a Pagan purity – an oxymoron in itself! –, and the rhythm ukulele submerges into the warm panorama. The third and last medley follows: Alex Anderson’s Lovely Hula Hands meet the traditional Anapau, the former being transfigured to ethereal realms above Hawaii thanks to the magnanimous amount of strings and careful steel guitar accompaniments, the latter then relying on the string side of life as well, but here Sam Makia and Frank Hunter wind up the presence of the steel guitar and ukulele, presumably to stress the link to the traditional aspect of the song.


The penultimate Kaimana Hila–Kalena Kai is another traditional tune that is elevated by symphonic strings, infinitesimal traces of yearning tones in minor and a further carved out melancholy by the strings in higher regions, with the finale unleashing the mandatory Aloha Oe, thank you very much. On the plus side, Aloha Oe makes great use of the flute which lessens the feeling of listening to a stereotypical arrangement by the number. Frank Hunter and his orchestra remain silent, this one’s rhizomes are all spread below the reddish soil, with the dreaminess being maintained and nurtured by a few final ukulele licks and steel guitar twangs. Aloha Oe is the nonnegotiable tune and key to Hawaii, but non-essential for Sam Makia’s LP.


Sam Makia's aural sightseeing tour through Hawaii is no über-important release to have, but the little music history-related blurbs and collaborative particularities make it an interesting LP notwithstanding the flood of similar steel guitar-laden, ukulele-underpinned works. I for one am glad to see – or actually hear – another dose of Frank Hunter's orchestra, an arranger and composer who could have had a stellar career in the world of Exotica if he only had decided to deliver additional compositions or interpretations beyond his opus White Goddess that target the needs of the intended audience. Alas, these dreams will never come true, but may Kapp Records be praised for uniting their household composer with Sam Makia. Music history-wise, Sam Makia's incarnation of Hawaii is one of the first published LP-length artifacts after the official celebration of the Golden Islands as the fiftieth state. This fact alone does not make the music particularly enchanting, I am just stressing that the surrounding circumstances are astute, portentous and charged with history.


Hawaii: The Fabulous 50th State aka Hawaii In Stereo is at times shimmering in blazing colors thanks to the strings. In its quiet moments, it is equally enchanting due to the inclusion of the flute, a common instrument on Exotica records, sure, but not necessarily mandatory in regard to Hapa Haole material. Only the two songs by Harry Owens, Sweet Leilani and To You Sweetheart, Aloha, are a tad too bland and chintzy, everything else is okay at worst and sun-soaked at best; the medleys are particularly successful in their coalescence of fluffy string washes à la Hollywood and that traditional trio sound of the Makapu Beach Boys. Sam Makia's Hawaii does not reach the level of instrumental and stylistic variety of Johnny Pineapple’s Hawaiian Holiday (1965), but comes pretty close, even without a dedicated choir. Thankfully, the album has been digitally reissued in 2011 by Smith & Co. and other distributors or labels and is readily available on Amazon MP3 and iTunes, though some of the versions sound rather muffled and have replaced the original artwork with stock photography. This behavior which constantly occurs when classics are reissued is the toxic waste of our times in terms of aesthetics, in my opinion. Well, at least someone thought about an official re-release, and for this I am glad. 


Exotica Review 207: Sam Makia – Hawaii: The Fabulous Fiftieth State (1959). Originally published on Apr. 27, 2013 at