Sam Makia
Lure Of Hawaii






The Lure Of Hawaii is not your typical Hawaiian album for a change, an assertion I cannot stress enough in regard to the flood of thousands of similarly named and themed LP’s. Arranged by the Hawaiian steel guitarist Sam Makia, backed by a collective of session musicians called His Islanders and released in 1961 on Riverside Records, the luminary injects his knowledge as a conductor into the 12 traditional songs without overloading or hurting their original minimalism. Traditional Hawaiian music, also known as Hapa Haole, is usually played by two till three musicians and necessarily comprises of a steel guitar and a ukulele, with the third ingredient being optional; sometimes it is flutes, a mallet instrument or careful percussion accompaniments.


On Lure Of Hawaii, the listener gets all of these instruments and more: a clarinet is prominently featured on side A (and virtually neglected on side B), the percussion is based on bongos, congas, kettle drums and even timpani, a vibraphone makes a short appearance, and last but not least a few birdcalls and field recordings round off the verve, pushing the scenario away from the beach into the underbrushes and coppices of a near forest. The balance between faithful interpretations of Hawaiiana and their amelioration via bigger schemes is a double-edged sword, but Makia sails around those cliffs of audacity. There is one particularly good reason to check out Lure Of Hawaii: the majority of the roster of tracks has never been considered by Hollywood and keeps its innocent aura, yet receives a Hollywood-like treatment by Sam Makia. Many of the tunes on this album are therefore comparably unique, even die-hard genre fans will probably only spot them on this very album which, I might add, is much closer to proper, classic Exotica climes than the title might let you believe. Hawaii is calling… and this time, it even calls the many Exotica fans who are wary of or uninterested in “those ukulele ditties”.


The only Hapa Haole-based benchmark when it comes to percussion prowess appears as a tradition itself: Johnny Noble’s take on Hawaiian War Chant which serves as the base for many an artist and conductor to break out of the narrow boundaries and inject huge doses of bongos, congas or even orchestral timpani to the otherwise mellifluous-mellow steel guitar airs. Sam Makia does exactly that as well in the opening spot. The drums are dark and pumping, but as soon as birdcalls and warbled Pagan flutes enter the scenery, the mood shifts from threatening to delightful. The well-known steel guitar, played by Makia himself, is naturally on board, ukulele licks rhythmically accompany the sunny scenery, and the inclusion of clarinets and tambourines adds further symphonic layers to the arrangement. The splendidly chirping birds and adjacent field recordings boost the tropical thicket. Sam Makia’s interpretation of Hawaiian War Chant remains one of the greenest Hawaiiana artifacts!


Edward Kay’s following Tahiti Sweetie may carry a certain reduction in its title already, but the instrumental pool remains basically the same. With the omission of the birds, the prominent clarinet is still on board and is even in the spotlight, with the steel guitar being used for two-tone accents most of the time, only unleashing its typically Hawaiian glissando in a bridge or two.


The simple-titled Hawaii is another one of many shanties which puts the clarinet to the forefront, but adds a delightfully gorgeous gallimaufry of steel guitar globs played by Sam Makia. The chord structures gleam in vivacious colors and even emanate traces of euphonious Space-Age star dust. The traditional Wai O Minihaha then features a particularly interesting arrangement: the Hawaiian steel guitarist and arranger not only introduces bold bongo blebs for the first time on the record, he also integrates a sleazy four-note Spy Jazz melody on the guitar that resembles – no, foreshadows – Monty Norman’s famous cinematic theme. A curious and unintended addition, but a creepy and tense surprise. The comparably gelid sparks next to this theme are eminently galactic, whereas the warm steel guitar chords mean business as usual and take the tune back to Hawaiian horizons with the help of the clarinet.


Whereas the take on Bert and Murray Tannen’s Hawaiian Moon focuses on the stereotypical interplay between steel guitar and ukulele and only gains scents of nocturnal shimmers via the – intrinsically mandatory – clarinet, it is the gorgeous closer of side A called Maui Girl that changes the islands and is almost more Caribbean than Polynesian due to its superb anacrusis of sun-dried catchy chords. Naturally, Sam Makia makes a course correction. The clarinet coils are particularly complex and lively on this piece.


Side B launches with Alfred Unauna Alohikea’s Hano Hano Hanalei, an uplifting upper midtempo ditty with mountainous, wondrously crisp ukulele licks in the spotlight, whereas Lili Ue is an equally superb but dichotomously nervous-poeticizing phantasmagoria loaded with bongos and flute tones next to the steel guitars and ukuleles. Not only is the clarinet neglected, the segments of the song are ever-changing and diverse, few and far between. Ahi Wela-Moani Keali then opens with a slowly growing paradisiac flute passage with a jingle-like quality, before the same instrument plays gently quavering legato tones in front of a bongo backdrop that is illumined by distant steel guitar twangs. This tune breaks the Hapa Haole corset, almost resembling the Exotica takes of a Jazz quartet. A wonderful inclusion!


While Sam Makia’s interpretation of Edward Kay’s Lure Of The Island unleashes specifically luminous and warm-hearted steel guitar chords with a second guitar, a ukulele bolstering the background and a flute work that is once more strikingly Polynesian and insouciant, Vana Vana takes the cake with a bongo and kettle drum thicket and savage mumblings which subsequently lead to a smoking-fast timpani-driven steel guitar extravaganza. The flutes are celestial and almost glaringly bedazzling, making the signature element of the tune, namely the tempo, almost of secondary importance. The best tune of side B and very far away from Hapa Haole. The closer Ua Like is a pre-Ambient take with gently twirling bass flute airflows, vibraphone twinkles and a languorous aura that is ultimately soothing. A superb closer to a much better second side.


The Lure Of Hawaii lives up to its title. What sounds like a continuation of the Andre Kostelanetz formula (Lure Of The Tropics, Lure Of Paradise, Lure Of Spain…) is actually much less about fully fleshed out orchestra schemes than augmented Hapa Haole material. Indeed, one notices on every track that Sam Makia is not just a mere steel guitar player, but also a conductor and – most importantly – arranger, for both his ear for textures and knowledge of density in tandem with the larger amount of musicians allows him to oscillate between the designed minimalism of Hawaiian traditions and the slightly more pompous alterations. These come in the shapes of birdcalls, field recordings, exotic drums, clarinets, vibraphones and flutes, the latter of which are perfectly normal and accepted in Hapa Haole material, but usually not played in such different ways. The flutist is skilled and plays the signature instrument in a stellar way.


Especially side B bursts at the seams. Whether the alto flute is used to enchant, to expose a pristine faux-Paganism or to expand the good-spirited hectic, it always works well. Sam Makia’s steel guitar chords are also noteworthy, for they unchain cavalcades of colors, warmth and Space-Age helixes. Last but not least, the greatness of the material makes the album worth anyone’s while, I believe; even those listeners who do not like the Hawaiian timbre could be in for a pleasant surprise. With the exception of the opener Hawaiian War Chant, the presented material is truly rare and seldom considered. With the larger percussion schemes applied to many a tune, Lure Of Hawaii is a great album and sits right between the reductionist traditions of Hawaii and Exotica’s overabundance of foreign instruments. The album has not yet made its way to the shores of the island of reissues, but eBay might help you out in the meantime. 


Exotica Review 240: Sam Makia – The Lure Of Hawaii (1961). Originally published on Jul. 20, 2013 at