Saturday, December 12, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Mele Kalikimaka" /
Bing Crosby &
the Andrews Sisters

Really?  Yes, really.

No more snarky dysfunctional holiday songs, I promise.  I finally got some Christmas shopping done today, so I'm getting into the seasonal spirit. And with the weather here in New York in the 60s -- so weird for December -- this dreamy vintage song seems all too appropriate.

Background: This gem was written in 1949 by Robert Alex Anderson, who despite the Anglo name was born in Honolulu (shades of The Descendants -- and naturally the guy was a Punahou School alum, because, you know...).

In the wake of World War II, the Hawaiian fad was quite a thing, triggered by returning GIs who'd fought in the South Pacific. My own dad was a supply sergeant in Honolulu throughout the war -- talk about hardship duty. In the 1950s, there were Trader Vic-style Tiki restaurants on every suburban strip; pu pu platters were served at cocktail parties; women wore flowered muumuu dresses and men loud Hawaiian shirts. So when Der Bingle teamed up with the Andrews Sisters in 1950 to record this smooth little number, it's no surprise it became a seasonal novelty hit.

This song just makes me happy. There's the perky lilting melody, carried along by Hawaiian guitars and ukulele (until the big band thing crashes in in the bridge). It's been covered by everyone from Bette Midler to KT Tunstall, but IMHO you can't beat the original, if only because of Bing's effortless but warm vocals -- seriously, like butter. And the Andrews Sisters, too, harmonizing as if it's second nature -- who needs auto-tuning when you actually have faultless pitch?

There's not much to the lyrics -- mostly clichés strung together. "That's the island greeting that we sing to you / From the land where palm trees sway," "Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright / The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night." But hey, you won't get any argument from me. I've seen those Hawaiian night skies and they are a thing of beauty.
So what does "Mele Kalikimaka" mean?  Well, imagine that you've got a phonetic alphabet (as the Hawaiians do) with no r's or s's. "Mele" is the closest you can get to "Merry," and "Christmas" inevitably gets reduced to "Kalikimaka." (Okay, that one does throw in some extra l's and k's. Go with it.)
It's dead simple, really. But if you have to have a Christmas without snow, sleighs, or reindeer -- as increasingly it seems we are going to have to do -- then bring on the leis and the ukuleles. Substitute a pu pu platter for the roast goose and a mai tai cocktail for the grog, and we are good to go. 

1 comment:

wwolfe said...

The Blue Hawaiians do a good version of this, on their very enjoyable "Christmas on Big Island" album.