Hal Aloma
Sweet Leilani






Sweet Leilani is a so-called Hapa Haole album by Hawaii-bred steel guitarist, composer and singer Harold David Aloma aka Hal Aloma (born 1908, year of death kept private) which is released in 1959 on Dot Records. The name dropping of the Hapa Haole style is already a good enough reason for people to turn it down, for this most traditional of all modern Hawaiian music styles is usually played by trios and narrowed down. A steel guitar, a ukulele, hints of percussion or bass accents and worst of all, the incessant appearance of the same old tracks is, to many Exotica fans at least, all there ever is to say. Luckily, Sweet Leilani differs for various reasons: first, Hal Aloma’s little band – which is unnecessarily blown out of proportion by being called an orchestra – comprises an unnamed but dedicated mallet instrumentalist whose ubiquitous vibraphone or glockenspiel vesicles add many a sunburst and moonglow to each scenery.


Second, the album is recorded in New York, with Aloma having been a regular resident there. It is henceforth interesting to note that the flavor of the bustling city permeates the otherwise poeticized carefreeness that reigns on this LP. At least occasionally, tendencies of pre-Surf and gentler Rock constructions (cool vocals!) are united with truthful Hawaiian ingredients. Third, Aloma comes up with two of his own compositions that are scattered on side B, and finally, the variety of the presented material is a bit larger than usual while still retaining the constricted style range of paradisal Hapa Haole. Sweet Leilani is a great starting point to both the Exotica genre and the typical intricacies of Hawaiiana. Much additional insight is given below.


Harry OwensSweet Leilani opens the album in a particularly hot fashion and is one of the most laid-back versions to ever surface on an Exotica record. Everything feels slow as molasses, but Hal Aloma has planned this point of origin all along. Everything is super-dreamy and clearly hammock-compatible. The steel guitar riffs emanate yellow color washes, the vibraphone is charged with soothing sparks and glittering flecks, and the rhythm ukulele schleps itself forward in a bedazzled state. This opener is one of my favorite Hapa Haole interpretations: varied, transforming, aglow. From daylight to moonlight: Frank Loesser’s and Alfred Newman’s Moon Of Manakoora sees the vibraphone cascades floating downwards in adjacency to a ukulele shrubbery and Hal Aloma’s oscillating steel guitar splinters. The vibe is clearly in focus, inheriting a moonlit glow that illumines the whole aura. In a somewhat surprising but welcome twist, the bandleader decides to shy away from the limelight, ameliorating the Hawaiian soil with darker chords that seem to hide in subterranean cavities only to then break free in slightly more energetic coils. The atmosphere remains amicable and well-balanced. This is truly a band effort, with all instruments being equally balanced and arranged.


After the beautiful ambience of the first two interpretations, the genre-bending structures are again widened, and decidedly so: Gus Kahn’s and Harry Warren’s Honolulu not only features a comparably smoking-fast rhythm structure by means of the rhythm ukulele and classic hi-hats, but also cheeky Honolulu shouts by the band. The vibraphone plays in high tone regions, sparkles much more effervescently than before and sees itself intertwined with a crunchy, short-paced steel guitar strumming. If there is anything wrong with this cheerful ditty, it is the all too glitzy vibes which do not exactly fit with the sun-soaked aura of the tune, but this is a matter of taste, and I probably lack exactly that.


While Bill Cogswell’s, Johnny Noble’s and Tommy Harrison’s My Little Grass Shack is a ukulele-and-steel-guitar arrangement based on a swinging uplifting beat with polyphonous twangs, a great interplay between the stringed devices as well as the complete omission of any mallet instrument, Charles E. King’s Song Of The Islands is a beautiful afternoon serenade with spacial yet warm steel guitar licks and spiraling glockenspiel twangs. It glitters and glints in coruscating colors and shuttles between Space-Age and old-fashioned Hawaiiana. Johnny Noble’s and Ralph Freed’s Hawaiian War Chant then finishes side A with a bang via an excitingly formula-breaking pre-Rock tune loaded with savage chants, an acidic guitar darkness, glissando-heavy piano placentas, short burst of droning drums and a much more effulgent chorus on the wonky steel guitar. This critter rumbles and tumbles along with an ever-changing pattern of segues, making this tune the most exciting and modern cut. A delightful surprise and one of the best interpretations of this Hapa Haole gold standard.


Side B continues to cover the futuristic concept of crossover synergies by uniting the Polynesian spirit of the islands with the New Yorker eclecticism. Leo Robin’s and Ralph Rainger’s Blue Hawaii starts in a fashion similar to the opener Sweet Leilani off side A and features twinkling breezes of glockenspiels with great technicolor steel guitar washes whose physiognomy unleashes the archetypical wonky-warped and elasticized footprint of Hawaii, a characteristic trait that is also apparent in Charles E. King’s, Al Hoffman’s and Dick Manning’s Hawaiian Wedding Song; here, Hal Aloma lessens the maudlin mellifluousness via crisply twirling steel guitar slaps and a glockenspiel-vibraphone concoction which resembles the dancing sunlight on the billows near the beach. The main melody is recognizable but awash with golden light, the tones fluorescent and purposefully played over the top.


While Hal Aloma’s own Surf And Sand is an almost psychedelic twangscape with highly elasticized seesaw guitar chords, iridescent glockenspiels and gyres between a lullaby and a dipsomania-caused phantasmagoria, R. Alex Anderson’s Lovely Hula Hands sees the talented writer’s main melody in a perfect shape. Steel guitars and vibes cross-fade permanently, but Aloma and his band make sure that the ornaments do not lead away from the melody rather than fathoming the simple-minded catchiness of Anderson’s classic. Francesco Paolo Tosti’s Malia is anything but a surprise, for it is a serious piano arrangement for orchestras, but transformed here to Hapa Haole. The three-note steel guitar scheme is underpinned by susurrant piano waves and a melancholic soothingness that is awesome. The grandiloquent, slightly ghostly steel guitar heterodynes round off one of the most splendid synergies and show Hal Aloma’s true power in this regard. The closer is his own Hawaiian Moon, a rather uninspired ode to the moon with the ingredients of daylight. The glockenspiels flash through the soundscape and the steel guitars reside in spectral regions, but even if there are delicate Space-Age effects and short chord bursts, the honey-sweet silkiness is more akin to a tropical midday than an enchanted nocturnal beach scenery.


Sweet Leilani is a crystal clear Hapa Haole album and qua its complexion disqualifies itself for a lot of Exotica listeners who are not too fond of the hundredth delivery of Hawaiian classics as played on steel guitars and ukuleles. This state of affairs cannot be falsified or neglected. However, there is that globetrotter sense woven into the material, believe it or not. Recorded in New York instead of Honolulu, there is an energetic aura intrinsic to the album that sets it apart from the competition. The first two tracks Sweet Leilani and Moon Of Manakoora are enormously dreamy and among the best Polynesian interpretations of these classics. These are not the best examples in terms of the album’s synergetic esprit, but they shine nonetheless due to the prominent inclusion of vibes and glockenspiels. These tracks are the cream of the crop in terms of that certain clumsily conceived genre mixture called, ahem, Ambient Exotica.


Genre crackers and surprises are still all over this LP: Hawaiian War Chant is always a benchmark for Hapa Haole albums, for the drum scale is of great importance. While Hal Aloma’s band disappoints here, the bucolic roughness delivers that missing energy level. Likewise, Malia is no dedicated Hawaiian tune, but a literal classic composition whose orchestra string-heavy fundament is exchanged for swooshing piano waves and ambiguous ghostly-shiny steel guitar riffs. Sweet Leilani is one of the very best LP’s of this genre and a good starting point for beginners who want to experience a greater wealth of material, both uplifting and upbeat as well as deeply languorous and magic. The people at Hallmark seem to see things the same way and hence reissued the album digitally in August 2011 and – gasp! – even managed to keep the original front artwork intact, huzzah! The album is available in digital music stores such as Amazon MP3 and iTunes. 


Exotica Review 391: Hal Aloma – Sweet Leilani (1959). Originally published on Nov. 22, 2014 at AmbientExotica.com.