Her Royal Highness Queen Liliuokalani (Lydia Kamaka'ehal) was the last reigning sovereign of Hawaii and the composer of more than 165 songs. Composing music was an activity she pursued as an avocation, in addition to writing important an history of her people, knitting, and other diversions from her brief, tumultous reign as queen. These activities became the main focus of her life after she was finally deposed from her throne in 1894, although the earliest and most important of her songs, the love song "Aloha Oe," was written in 1890 when she was "Princess Liliuokalani." If you are Hawaiian, "Aloha Oe" is part of your culural identity, and outside of Hawaii this simple, haunting tune has likewise become among the most beloved, frequently played, and recorded popular songs around the world.
Although certain additional numbers among Queen Liliuokalani's many melodies have remained traditional favorites on the islands, the outside world has shown little curiosity about her output outside of "Aloha Oe." One correction to that state of affairs has come along in a modest release on Honolulu-based Wa Nui Records, Songs of Liliuokalani, as performed in arrangements by the Gaillard String Quartet, a group recognized as Hawaii's foremost chamber ensemble. Although it plays the standard bearded and bewigged Western string quartet literature, the Gaillard String Quartet also specializes in playing traditional Hawaiian songs with which it spices up its programs. These are always given in arrangements, as with Queen Liliuokalani's music the published tradition does not reflect the performance tradition. Printed as standard sheet music for voice and piano, or just the melodies alone with chord symbols, Queen Liliuokalani's music is most often sung by groups of singers to the accompaniment of guitars, ukelele, and a mixture of traditional instruments. The arrangements employed by Gaillard String Quartet do make use of Western musical devices deriving from her time, such as the slithery chromatics favored by German composers of string quartets late in the nineteenth century. To reflect the peppy, rhythmic profile of certain Queen Liliuokalani songs, the Gaillard String Quartet also adopts some of the swing-oriented idiom string quartets used in the 1930s and 1940s when performing pop material.
The major setback in Wa Nui Records' Songs of Liliuokalani is that the words -- all in Hawaiian and all important in understanding the meaning of her songs -- are lacking. Nevertheless, for the non-Hawaiian this is a very easy listen and is ideally suited to formal luaus, or dinner parties, of the kind that might normally be serviced by a string quartet or other salon ensemble. This album was also supported, and recorded, by Hawaii Public Radio, and as such provides a challenge to the Jesse Venturas of the world -- in this case, public radio did fulfill a significant need in the community through making available these traditional numbers in high-quality recordings for the Hawaiian public to enjoy -- money well spent.