by Kenny Berkowitz
If four discs of hula kitsch sounds like a lot, well, it is. But the good news about the new Hulaland: The Golden Age of Hawaiian Music box set is that it’s not too much, even if there are multiple versions of “Hawaiian War Chant” (Andy Iona & His Islanders, Ken & Bob, Jo Stafford [listen to Stafford’s version below]), “My Little Grass Shack” (Dorothy Lamour, Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant), and “Ukulele Lady” (Hilo Hattie, Ethel Merman).
Like any self-respecting hula collection, this one has plenty of chestnuts from steel guitarists such as Sol Hoopii, King Bennie Nawahi, and Tau Moe, gathered on discs called “Hawaiian Classics 1920–1940” and “From Hollywood to Honolulu 1931–1957.” But because Hulaland is targeted at “the tourist, not the purist,” and because it’s co-curated by Robert Armstrong of R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders, there’s a wide range of music from the mainland too, with the whole surfboard tilted toward eccentricity.
That means unlikely early appearances by Gracie Allen (“Honolulu”), Louis Armstrong (“On a Coconut Island”), Betty Boop (“Betty the Hula Dancer”), and Slim Whitman (“Hawaiian Cowboy”), topped decades later by the tiki-crazed excess of Arthur Lyman (“Jungle Drums”), Martin Denny (“Banana Choo Choo”) and Santo & Johnny (“Adventures in Paradise”) on “Splendor in the Grass Shack 1958–74.”
Then, bringing it home, there’s “Hawaii Goes Eclectic 1925–57,” with oddball classics given retro-contemporary versions by Armstrong (“Pidgin English Hula”), Ken Emerson (“Hapa Haole Hula Girl”), Orville Johnson (“I Wonder Where My Little Hula Girl Has Gone”), Janet Klein (“Yiddish Hula Boy”), and Ian Whitcomb (“Honolulu Stomp”).
From start to finish, the box is packed with uke. Though many of the players aren’t credited, they’re clearly at the heart of the mix, inviting you to chug along on rhythm.
And the three ukers who are listed—Jim & Bob (playing a uke/guitar duet on “Sweet Georgia Brown”), Roy Smeck (“Crazy Uke”), and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (“Sweet Leilani”)—offer stunning, staggering, jaw-dropping awesome licks, setting the bar so high it’s never been surpassed.