When you think of the ukulele, what do you think of? My first thought is “Hawaii.” When you think of Hawaiian music, what do you think of? Naturally your answer might be Hula dancing or Elvis Presley and all the Hawaiian songs he recorded. The point is, if you want to learn how to play the ukulele it is a good idea to know what is and how to play some authentic Hawaiian ukulele songs.
I myself knew very little about the music of Hawaii before I began playing the ukulele. However, I have been teaching ukulele for a few years now and I wish to share some of the beautiful songs I have learned along the way. Here, I have compiled a list of seven awesome easy Hawaiian songs that anyone can play on the ukulele.
All of these songs are very popular and have strong connections with Hawaii. I have included their histories, tips on how to play them, and videos of the songs. However, if you want to look up how to play the songs you can find all of them at Ukulele-Tabs.com.
I hope you enjoy listening and reading about the stories of these beautiful songs as much as I do! In the spirit of Hawaii, “Aloha!”
1. “Blue Hawaii” – Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger
To begin our Hawaiian adventure we will begin with the “king.” Yes, Elvis Presley knew what was good music. He loved Hawaiian songs and recorded many for his film from 1961, Blue Hawaii. However, the song actually dates back to 1937.
The song is a bit difficult to play on the ukulele because it uses chords from G# major. However, my trick to playing this song the “easy way” is simply take off all the sharps from the chords and voila, you will easily have a beautiful song with four simple chords.
2. “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
This song is a classic and a staple in any ukulele players repertoire. It is a two-song medley which was made infamous by the Hawaiian native, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. This particular version became so popular that it has been licensed 111 times to punctuate movies, television dramas, commercials and even websites.
The song utilizes many chords but they are all simple and, with some practice, easy for a novice ukulele player to pick up.
3. “Aloha Oe” – Queen Liliuokalani
Stepping away from the Hollywood influence, lets look at some lesser known, but very traditional Hawaiian music. This song dates back to 1878 and is by the Queen of Hawaii at the time. It is said to be Hawaii’s most famous composition.
The song has a beautiful story. The Queen composed it after witnessing a lingering embrace between a woman in her entourage and a man at the Edwin Boyd Ranch in Maunawili. Because of the songs lyrics, it has become synonymous with “goodbye,” however the queen herself reportedly insisted that it was a love song. She said, “It’s a poem about love and passion, man and woman. It’s much, much more than just goodbye.”
The song is very simple to play only using 3 chords.
This song is an ancient hula standard about a love affair at a Big Island waterfall. The composer and date are unknown however the artist Gabby Pahinui transformed it into an anthem for slack guitar players. Pahinui is known as a “folk hero” of the Hawaiian Renaissance. This is another easy song to play which any ukulele player can strum to!
5. “Hawaii ’78” – Mickey Ioane
This is melancholy song written in 1978. It was written in response to Hawaiian demonstrators clashing with the National Guard at Hilo Airport over land issues, and resort development which was crowding the islands oceanfronts. The song is a slow song and uses only 4 repeating chords.
6. “Waimanalo Blues” – Liko Martin and Thor Wold
This is a fun tune composed in 1974. It was originally called “Nanakuli Blues.” It later became a political protest about the development taking place all around Hawaii. The song is a simple form which uses a nice flat-7 chord in the turnaround. Listen to “Waimanalo Blues”.
7. “Palehua” – Amy Hanaialii Giliom and William Kahailii
This last song is a beautiful piece written in 1998. The song was inspired, composed and recorded right in Palehua. It is an easy song to play using mainly just two chords.
All the information about these songs was taken from the article “50 Greatest Songs of Hawaii” written by Ronna Bolante and Michael Keany and more on them can be found here.
If you are interested in other beautiful songs from these islands I recommend visiting HUAPALA.
Learn more ukulele songs by taking private lessons with a ukulele instructor. Search for your ukulele teacher today!
Christopher S. teaches bass guitar, guitar, and composition in Jamaica Plain, MA. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Humboldt State University and is currently atttending New England Conservatory for his Master of Music degree. Christopher has been teaching students since 2004. Learn more about Christopher S. here!
Photo by Oliver Degabriele