Nothing sets the mood quite like Christmas music. You know the songs by heart: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Merry Christmas, Darling,” “Twelve Days of Christmas”. There’s no need to reinvent such classic holiday staples. Artists like Henry Kapono and Keali’i Reichel know Christmas songs don’t need fixing, but adding a little Hawaiian flavor results in a savory Hawaiian Christmas music recipe. If you’re in the mood for a Hawaiian-style Christmas, these local artists have the vibes and the medleys to ring in the holiday season.
Henry Kapono – Merry Christmas to You
Duo Cecilio & Kapono dabbled in Christmas covers prior with “Christmas Cheer.” It wasn’t until years later when Kapono himself recorded a full-blown Christmas album. Merry Christmas to You is the quintessential Hawaiian Christmas album, and an enduring one. (This year marks its 30th anniversary!) Kapono brings his folk-rock sensibilities and smooth tenor to spin delightful renditions of familiar tunes. The title track is a winner; “Jingle Bell Rock” will have you swinging and dancing around the Christmas tree; and “For the Night” is a sublime showcase for Kapono’s vocal prowess – not that it needs proving at this point. Christmas is as good a time as any to become a Henry Kapono fan if you aren’t already.
Anuhea – All Is Bright
Reggae-pop sensation Anuhea recorded a Christmas EP in 2016 and it’s as vibrant and catchy as her recent work currently rocking the airwaves. All Is Bright could’ve very well been a prelude to 2017’s Follow Me. You can hear it in the EP’s opener, “No Snow,” or in “Come Back to Me This Christmastime,” both songs leaving you awash in their sunshine groove. Her version of “Silent Night” is peacefully enchanting, with verses sung in Hawaiian to immerse you in the culture, while “The Ukulele Christmas Song” will have you busting out your own ukulele as you and your party sings along. Anuhea will definitely have you feeling the warmth of Hawaiian Christmas music.
Kimie Miner – I’ll Be Home For Christmas & White Christmas
Kimie Miner might not have a Christmas album under her belt just yet, but she recorded two holiday singles that definitely leave the prospect wide open. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, recorded in 2013, is the kind of subdued arrangement that defines her utterly spellbinding vocal reverie.
“White Christmas,” too – an acoustic number sung alongside Samoan singer Tenelle – is all vocal work, a duet that lulls you into joining the chorus. Both songs sprinkling with aloha and an air of sultry jazz-influence, Kimie Miner makes Christmas sound better than it already does.
The RAS Family – We Wish You a Merry Christmas
This is arguably the most recognizable Christmas song in Hawaii. RAS Fam’s “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is guaranteed to be playing the radio and especially on sleigh rides and holiday express trains in neighborhoods across the islands; it’s practically a Christmas-playlist staple. (Locals don’t ring bells to signal the holidays. We just play this song.) RAS Family is the name for the collection of artists featured on the album, A Very Reggae Christmas. Reggae superstars Don Carlos, June Lodge, Freddie McGregor, Peter Broggs, and Pablo Black might be local legends in Jamaica, but they’ve got a home just as well here in Hawaii.
Robi Kahakalau & Jeff Rasmussen – I’m Coming Home for Christmas
Robi and Jeff’s cover was featured on Hawaii’s Favorite Christmas Songs for a reason. It’s as classical as Christmas melodies come, replete with the old school vibes of a lost era that only karaoke nights can bring back. You don’t need an excuse to have a karaoke night, especially when it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Kahakalau and Rasmussen’s “I’m Coming Home for Christmas” proves that bygone eras don’t have to be bygones.
Keali’i Reichel – Maluhia
Hula singer-songwriter extraordinaire Keali’i Reichel might be the most overqualified Christmas cover artist. Sweeping Na Hoku Awards and consistently taking the cake at the Merrie Monarch Festival, a Christmas album, then, seems almost too easy. He sure makes it sound effortless, with acapellas and string arrangements that would make Henry Kapono swoon. “Christmas Lullaby” is easily the most affecting track on the album. (Then again, it’s take your pick.) It’ll put those last-minute Christmas shopping plans at ease. If it’s a native Hawaiian Christmas you’re looking for, Keali’i Reichel’s Maluhia is a must have for the season.
Makaha Sons – Christmas Day in Hawaii Nei
The trio of Makaha Sons know exactly how to keep the holidays thrumming, evoking a luau-style symphony in their melodies. The arrangements across “Winter Wonderland/Hawaiian Santa,” “Silent Night,” and “I Love Christmas,” are both energetic and warm – warmth being a thing that Hawaii’s got covered, but Makaha Sons does you a solid anyway. Their solidarity of sound echoes the kind of familial tightness and togetherness that Christmas-time encourages. With the right people and the right grooves, it can feel like Christmas every day in Hawaii.
Amy Hanaiali’i – A Hawaiian Christmas
Amy Hanaiaili’i, alongside fellow artist Willie K., rose to prominence during Hawaii’s superstar era of the ‘90s. Since then, she’s been enchanting audiences with her stunning falsettos and all-around gravitas, and continues to do so with A Hawaiian Christmas. “Hark the Herald” gets a native makeover in “Hamau E Na Kanaka,” while her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is sung so intimately, you’d think she recorded the track just for you. Her rendition of “Ave Maria” is a suitable show-stopper showcasing her vocal power and range. This collection alone is enough to fill the cathedral of a concert. Luckily, Amy is making those Christmas wishes come true with holiday shows and concerts on Maui, allowing fans to experience her gravitas in person.
Willie K. – Willie Kalikimaka
Most Christmas songs tend to be subdued and slowed down. Willie K., however, brings that spring in Santa’s step with infectious enthusiasm. Right off the bat, his “Mele Kalikimaka” is notably upbeat and fast-paced. “Christmas Bells” is a let loose, high-hat swinging jingle, and his version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is so wonderfully playful and wax-fully nostalgic that you feel like a kid again on Christmas morning. Stick around for Willie K’s retro-fied “Little Drummer Boy,” though he’s equally compelling when he slows it down with “O Holy Night.” You can’t go wrong with a Willie Kalikimaka. Even better, he’s co-headlining a Christmas concert series with Amy Hanaiaili’i. Hawaiian music fans are truly spoiled this time of year, but who’s complaining?
Na Leo – Hawaiian Holidays: Christmas with Na Leo
Na Leo wears their crown as the best-selling Hawaiian female group proudly. Their Christmas collection is more than just an answer to Makaha Sons; it’s a vital set of Christmas renditions. There’s something choir-ly about their trio of harmony, which suits Hawaiian versions of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Hosana” just fine. The entire collection charts the whole anticipation of the season: eager to get to Christmas Day, all while savoring every second of the holidays. “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “A Christmas Wish” are automatic favorites, though, in an album full of classical covers, it’s hard to pick just a few.
Whether you’re on vacation or enjoying the surreal bliss of living on the islands for the holidays, Hawaii’s got you covered on the mood-setting front. It may not snow in the Aloha State, but we assure you it still feels like Christmas. We trade in the parkas and mittens for board shorts and slippers, and the classical Christmas tunes for Hawaiian-reggae jam-filled versions. This year, why not make it a Hawaiian Christmas?
Adrian Manuel is a freelance writer. He’s published articles on Thought Catalog, written a flash piece for A Quiet Courage, and submitted feature essays for The Good Men Project and Mamalode. He also runs an entertainment news blog where he reports on film, television, and music. He lives in Maui.