Finding the Mele in Kalikimaka: Hawaiian Christmas Music and Wine Pairings

Thanksgiving is officially in the books and the Christmas madness is in high gear. In every store and street corner, one must fight the bevy of busy patrons procuring their holiday treats, trees and trinkets. Stressed and overwhelmed? My reliable method of relaxation during this bustling holiday season is the strategic alliance of a refreshing vinous beverage and festive Christmas tunes.

In this post, I briefly ponder the fascinating musical heritage of Hawaii, while recommending a few wine and Christmas album pairings that will help you to celebrate the season in [Hawaiian] style. Fear not; we have many more options from which to choose than Mele Kalikimaka.

Speaking of Mele Kalikimaka, I have ascertained from good authority that this is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day. [Thank you so much, Bing.] But why? The phrase was introduced in 1904 as a phoneticization of the English words "Merry Christmas" into the Hawaiian alphabet. After all, everyone needs a proper holiday greeting. The term mele in fact means a "song or chant" in Hawaiian, making this post a fitting quest to find the very best songs of Christmas.

In Hawaii, we are extraordinarily blessed with a rich and vibrant musical culture. Similar to the culinary traditions of Hawaii, as I briefly explained in this post, music has experienced a fusion of ideas, styles and traditions that reflects Hawaii’s broader cultural and ethnic diversity. Although local artists have integrated a variety of outside influences, the music nonetheless remains uniquely and authentically Hawaiian.

Hawaiian Christmas music is a fun and relevant seasonal exploration of this broader musical narrative. And as a bonus, you will receive a few gift recommendations for that melomaniac friend or office curmudgeon that needs a dollop of festive aloha cheer.

Hawaiian Ethnomusicoligical Musings

Music plays a central role in the Hawaiian narrative. In fact, for centuries it played a very literal narrative role, as the ancient Hawaiians relied upon oral traditions to share and preserve their history, religion and genealogies. This was often accomplished through meles, a poetic form of song or chant that paid tribute to ancient gods, recounted stories and legends, reflected the daily life of the Hawaiian people and celebrated the beauty of their island home.

The Inevitability of Musical Mingling

The Nineteenth Century in Hawaii was marked by immigration, assimilation and acculturation. In the 1820s, missionaries from New England discovered new Pacific souls that needed to be saved. Their Protestant hymns, translated into Hawaiian, became commonplace in Hawaiian communities. This melodic style was integrated into Hawaiian music across the islands and can be heard in many of the Christmas selections this time of year.

As a destination of excitement and opportunity, steamships began to bring wandering travelers from across the globe. As Hawaii transitioned to a plantation-based economy, immigrants came to Hawaii seeking employment in the sugarcane and pineapple fields. These immigrants, from countries as far off as Puerto Rico, Portugal, China, Korea, Japan and the Philippines, among others, carried in their suitcases the instruments of their native homes. This diversity of musical traditions contributed new sounds and styles to the cultural pulse of the islands. Meandering the neighborhoods, one would find a harmony of sounds and styles echoing from homes and family gatherings.

Similar to the fusion experienced in its culinary culture, Hawaiian music never ceases to evolve. It is a reflection of Hawaii itself: a melting pot of ethnicities and traditions that enrich the overall culture of the islands. Yet Hawaiian music nonetheless remains faithful to the history, traditions and culture of its indigenous people. From rock to reggae, Polynesian influence and culture still stands strong.

Amidst this backdrop we find slack key guitar, a quintessential Hawaiian musical form with growing international popularity. One of my favorite local styles, the history and culture of slack key guitar represents this broader Hawaiian musical narrative.

The Vaqueros Variable

In the 1830s, King Kamehameha III had a bovine dilemma. Introduced to the islands as a gift to King Kamehameha I in the late Eighteenth Century, and under his protection, cattle got cozy in their new island home, primarily on the Big Island and Maui. By the 1830s, their royal treatment had resulted in a dangerous, untamed nuisance. The solution: cowboys. The King enlisted Mexican and Spanish cowboys, or vaqueros, from California to train Hawaiians in horse-handling skills and how to control the growing herds of cattle on the islands. These vaqueros became known as paniolo, a Hawaiian adaptation of the word Español.

Music was an essential component to the paniolo lifestyle. It expressed companionship with fellow cattlemen, celebrated legends told on the trails, and relieved the loneliness of working in the remote open country and grazing grounds. In the evenings around the campfires, the vaqueros would gather together and play their medleys, accompanied by the beloved guitar of their native homes. The Hawaiian paniolos, intrigued by the new instrument and style, learned these tunes and techniques through observation and imitation. It was free, it was flexible; it was paniolo.

When the vaqueros returned home, they gifted the guitars to their paniolo companions. Now in the hands of the locals, paniolos re-tuned the guitars to suit their own traditional Hawaiian songs and chants, usually by loosening or "slacking" the strings. Slack key guitar, or kīhō'alu, was born.

Slack key guitar is a synthesis of traditional Hawaiian vocal styles with elements of Spanish and Mexican guitar music learned from the vaqueros. The loosened strings, open chords and other techniques mimic the yodels and falsettos characteristic of ancient chants and meles. Although the foreign cowboys provided new instruments and styles, kīhō'alu still reflects the same indigenous themes, stories and values of its island heritage. Like the meles preceding it, kīhō'alu is the musical expression of what we observe, value and respect. It harmoniously places history, culture and the natural world into musical form. It’s soul is narrative, inspired by these beautiful islands and the people in them. It is uniquely and authentically Hawaiian.

This wonderful musical tradition is on full display during the Christmas season, with a variety of albums that will flavor your holiday playlist. Below I recommend my favorite albums, along with some wines to pair. Because if you are going to be listening to Christmas music, you might as well be drinking too! Disclaimer: music is better heard than explained; don't rely upon my in-eloquent rambles! I provide links to all of the albums and artist websites; listen, enjoy, repeat.

Hānaialiʻi: the Voice and the Vine

Amy Hānaialiʻi Gilliom’s A Hawaiian Christmas, winner of the 2008 Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Christmas Album of the Year, has been a consistent favorite of mine for many years. The album's traditional Christmas carols are sung in English and Hawaiian with wonderful, unique arrangements for ukulele, steel string, slack key and more. It also features Jeff Peterson, one of my favorite local musicians, on guitar and ukulele.

On a cool December evening when the storm is raging, this album can be placed on repeat with a bottle of 2014 Hānaialiʻi Merlot. How could I pair with anything else?!

This Merlot is true to Napa form: big, bold, alcoholic and drinks like a Cabernet Sauvignon. Wonderful spicy and oaked flavors of black cherry, currant, blueberry, chocolate and vanilla. Velvety on the palate and a great, lingering finish. It fits the American palate brilliantly, and is great paired with some dark chocolate. When the weather outside is frightful, this Hānaialiʻi duo is just the remedy.

Elegant Yuletide Serenade

Keali’i Reichel, one of Hawaii’s most popular and prolific singer/songwriters, offers fresh and exciting music that is true to his Hawaiian heritage. His music, chant and hula represent the very best of Hawaii’s traditional and contemporary music genres.

Reichel's Christmas album, Maluhia, is a beautiful representation of his style and music. Classic hymns, such as Silent Night and O Holy Night, are interspersed with traditional Hawaiian medleys, such as the breathtaking opening choral piece, Nu Oli. The perfect combination of old and new, English and Hawaiian.

"He aloha kānaka i ke au maluhia"
We share love and compassion in the season of peace

This album needs a refreshing and elegant wine to enjoy the full experience. A comfortable seat with a relaxing view overlooking the ocean and a crisp, sophisticated white wine is just the right combination. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc from Joseph Phelps is perfect for the occasion. One of my absolute favorite Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs, this wine has an expressive bouquet of lime, stone fruit, grass and herbs. Fresh and impeccably balanced, with bright acidity, pleasant minerality and a lingering finish. A classic that matches the moment in sophistication and style.

Kīhō'alu Christmas by the Sea

The slack key instrumental album Kohala Christmas is simultaneously fresh and familiar. It presents many well-known Christmas tunes in the gentle, dreamy twang of slack key. The intimate style and sound of kīhō'alu is a wonderfully peaceful and soothing acoustical take on Christmas classics like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, We Three Kings and O Holy Night. It is the perfect Christmas album for relaxing at home or, more ideally, by the ocean. In either case, it is best enjoyed with a vinous beverage.

Not enough to satisfy your slack key proclivities? One of my favorite compilation albums, Slack Key Christmas, contains Christmas classics from the biggest and best legends of slack key. I frequently have this album on repeat to assist in the doldrums of the work day.

To pair with these calming acoustic medleys, I want a wine that is refreshing and reminiscent of place. I want to feel the salt air and cooling breeze with each sip. The Basque Country, in northern Spain, produces just the white wine that encapsulates the gently-rolling ocean waves and Basque sea breezes. 

A blend of local varietals (Hondarribi Zuri, Hondarribi Beltza and Mune Mahatsa), the Gorrondona Txakoli bursts from the glass with wonderful aromas of lemon citrus, floral, and minerality. Salinity, a hallmark of the Basque region, brightens the flavors and harmoniously fills out the palate. Crisp and refreshing with zesty acidity and bright citrus flavors, this is perfect for sipping, slack key, and staring off in silent contemplation at the vast, glimmering ocean.

What are your favorite Christmas albums? Do you pair them with wine or a more festive holiday beverage? Let me know!

Mele Kaikimaka!