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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Artists offer up a potpourri of new and classic holiday tunes

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Island Christmas CDs are as varied as tree ornaments this season.

There's nearly every strain imaginable, from a family sing-out to Hawaiian harmonies, from reggae-infused yuletide favorites to a jazz-flavored outing.

"ANOTHER ISLAND CHRISTMAS" by The Hongo Family (Randy, Gay and Andrew); Christian Vision.

  • Genre: Hawaiian Christmas; with a couple of secular titles.
  • Distinguishing notes: A family that sings together? Indeed; the Hongos put their stamp on "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" with that precious element of spending time together — singing — and tossing in local lingo, thanks to Dad's songwriting savvy. There are personal entries ("Christmas in Hilo" is an homage to Big Island roots; "Another Island Christmas" upholds holiday cheer and family virtues). Of course, the familiar is re-interpreted — "O Holy Night" (Gay performs the opening verse in Japanese) and "Joy to the World" are particularly refreshing, ringing out the spirit of the season. Plus lyrics, just in case you want to sing along.
  • The outlook: Whether it's vintage carols or resourceful Hongo-style originals, this family serves up a joyous and inspiring roster of songs.
  • Our take: A feel-good CD suitable for background dining music, open-up-present-time mood music, or just plain listening to soak up the tidings of Christmas. One of the season's best.
"The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" by The Hongo Family. Audio sample available in mp3 and RealAudio formats.

"SHAKA KALIKIMAKA" by Imua; 808 Productions.

  • Genre: Hawaiian Christmas.
  • Distinguishing notes: Imua (Albert "Baba" Akiona and Dave "Dunz" Dunaway) offer a charming 10-song compilation of holiday tunes, both original and "covers." "Island Stylin' Christmas" is a memorable anthem, a Dunaway original that borrows quick-hit lines from established tunes ("Mele Kalikimaka," "Numbah One Day of Christmas," "Kanikani Pele"), set to a bouncy, slightly Jawaiian tempo. "Merry Christmas to You" (an Aiona entry) and "Reason for This Season" (by Dunaway) are also catchy. The title song ought to be adopted by Hono-
  • lulu City Lights — Imua has capsulized all that is special about the downtown holiday extravaganza. And listen for the precise, prevalent 'ukulele work throughout: guest strummers are Ben Vegas, Herb Ohta Jr., David Kamakahi and Jon Yamasato.
  • The outlook: It's comforting to know that some local acts are writing original Christmas songs for homegrown audiences. And Imua's got a good handle on feel-good, have-fun sentiments.
  • Our take: A perennial must-have.
"Island Stylin' Christmas" by Imua. Audio sample available in mp3 and RealAudio formats.

"OUR 'OHANA'S CHRISTMAS" by various artists; 'Ohana Records.

  • Genre: Hawaiian Christmas.
  • Distinguishing notes: The mission of this CD is to raise money for Hawai'i Foodbank. The lineup includes contemporary Hawaiian artists, each performing a holiday fave: The Opihi Pickers ("Christmas Don't Be Late," aka "Chipmunk Christmas"), Baba B ("Winter Wonderland"), Zacc Kekona ("Silent Night"), Pound 4 Pound ("A Big Hawaiian Christmas"), Weldon Kekauoha & Tapa Groove ("Merry Christmas"), Vaihi ("The First Noel"). There are 11 titles, each with a local spin. A medley not to miss: Kawaiolaonapukanileo's a cappella chant rendering of "Little Drummer Boy/ Iesu Ka Ho'ola."
  • The outlook: If Santa had a jukebox, he'd include this easy-to-applaud mixed bag. However, the liner notes should have "introduced" each act for listeners eager to seek out other releases.
  • Our take: Acquiring this one will also help a worthy cause.
"Christmas Don't Be Late" by The Opihi Pickers. Audio sample available in mp3 and RealAudio formats.

"HAVE A ROOTS REGGAE CHRISTMAS" by Uptown Rockers (various artists); Kana'i Records.

  • Genre: Reggae Christmas.
  • Distinguishing notes: Butch Helemano is producer of this market-specific Christmas entity; as the ruling reggae icon here, he's able to lure the likes of Sistah Shan, Riki L, Isis and Kaikua to the fold. They put the dance-happy sauce on "Deck the Halls," "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Little Drummer Boy," "Jingle Bells," "Rock Around the Christmas Tree," "We Three Kings" and more. Not for everyone, naturally, but those inclined to romp to reggae will find this one hearty party material.
  • The outlook: Does Bethlehem rock? Get this one and you decide.
  • Our take: It's a Jamaican take on holiday music.
"Deck the Halls" by Uptown Rockers. Audio sample available in mp3 and RealAudio formats.

"A REAL STEEL CHRISTMAS" by Greg & Junko MacDonald; Greg MacDonald.

  • Genre: Instrumental Christmas — on steel drums.
  • Distinguishing notes: The MacDonalds have become prime purveyors of steel drum music; this journey down Christmas lane yields exotic, relaxing flavors to the holiday line-up. Think Hawai'i-meets-the-Caribbean, with reggae and Jawaiian tempos occasionally coloring the instrumentals. The fare includes "Jingle Bells," "Mele Kalikimaka," "Mary's Boy Child," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "O Holy Night." 'Ukulele and guitar strummer Shawn Ishimoto and pianist Pierre Grill contribute.
  • The outlook: A "first" — the marriage of Christmas songs with tenor pan and double second pans.
  • Our take: A sweetly perky take on Christmas.

"BETSY'S CHRISTMAS" by Betsy Curtis; Betsyko.

  • Genre: Christmas with a jazz lilt.
  • Distinguishing notes: Betsy grew up in Hawai'i and went on to study with Hedwig von Trapp, a member of the Austrian family depicted in "The Sound of Music." Here, she tackles familiar holiday tunes ("I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All"), rendered with jazz arrangements and a jazz stylist's flair.
  • The outlook: A bold and admirable effort; "Coventry Carol" sounds more like a sultry and seductive jazz lament, but Betsy makes it work.
  • Our take: Since few jazz artists here reflect on holiday tunes, Betsy may be filling a niche.

"CHRISTMAS TOGETHER" by June Simon and Friends; Golden Bell House.

  • Genre: Traditional and contemporary Christmas.
  • Distinguishing notes: June Simon is a Canadian-born soprano; her ties to local musicians Winston Tam (guitarist) and Pierre Grill (pianist) — the "Friends" — puts her in the Island mix this year. Tam's wistful, romantic guitarwork brings elegance and charm to "Joy to the World" and "What Child Is This," performed without vocals. Grill's "White Christmas" and "Petit Papa Noel" display his precise touch on piano.
  • The outlook: Simon is the focal point of the disc; the Tan omission from the CD cover is an unfortunate omission.
  • Our take: A solemn and soothing alternative to customary holiday fare.

"THE FIDDLERS' CHRISTMAS" by The Gemini Duo; self release (no label).

  • Genre: Classical Christmas.
  • Distinguishing notes: The Gemini Duo (Dand and Duane Padilla, on violins and keyboards) put a classical spin on a 12-song assembly of holiday favorites, ranging from "Silent Night" to "Carol of the Bells," from "Jingle Bells" to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Amazing how the fiddle sounds often sounds like a country instrument, too.
  • The outlook: A splendid and eloquent treatment of familiar fare.
  • Our take: A calming alternative to vocals, in this season of peace and good will.

• • •

One other Christmas CD has been released this season, but a review copy was not available at press time: Kanilau's "Mele Kalikimaka," which features a mix of traditional and Hawaiian titles.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.