songs that heal the heart

Robert Pennybacker
February 12, 2019

There’s a feeling deep in my heart

Stabbing at me just like a dart,

It’s a feeling heavenly.

     - Waikiki by Andy Cummings

One of the most healing things I do, and I don’t do it nearly enough, is taking in the Hawaiian music trio and hula dancer at Halekulani’s House Without a Key. After a few minutes of the beautiful three-part harmonies, graceful moves, and unobstructed view of Diamond Head at sunset, the knot in my stomach uncoils and the kink in my neck disappears. Live Hawaiian music may just be the perfect tonic for what ails us in the 21st century.

Kelly Boy DeLima, who performs at House Without a Key on a rotating basis with his daughter Lilo and son Kapena, agrees that Hawaiian music has the power to heal. He feels that the power rests in the kaona, or hidden meaning, in classic Hawaiian songs.  Listening to these songs is a visceral experience that transcends language. “There have been countless times when I’ve performed a Hawaiian song, in Hawaiian, and tourists from places like Wisconsin who know nothing of our language are moved to tears.  They know exactly what the song is about. They know it in their hearts,” says DeLima.

Different genres of American music touch people’s hearts in different ways. With Hawaiian music, it’s something softer and warmer. It comes from a sense of longing for home — home as a physical place, as a state of mind, as embodied by memories of a simpler time in one’s life, or all three.

Before Marlene Sai’s iconic recording of her uncle Andy Cummings’ classic Waikiki, Cummings explained to his niece how he came to write the song. “He told me he was snowed in [while] in Lansing, Michigan while on a promotional tour for Hawaii,” says Sai. “He and the other Hawaiian musicians were trapped for days and had no idea when they would be able to return to their families. So he wrote a song about a place, home, that at the time he was missing so desperately.” On the surface, the song is about Waikiki, but on a deeper level it’s about longing for a special place you’ve left behind:                                

I see memories out of the past

Memories that always will last

Of the days that used to be.

For Kelly Boy DeLima, Cummings’ Waikiki brings to mind the Waikiki where he grew up — a residential neighborhood rather than a tourist mecca. It was where DeLima’s grandmother used to sing Hawaiian songs to him. “Her singing gave me great comfort,” says DeLima. “It gave me the feeling that everything was going to be OK.”

I, too, grew up in Waikiki, on the Kapiolani Park side near La Pietra – Hawaii School for Girls. I have fond memories of my grandparents, my mother (then a single mom), and my siblings and I walking to the Queen’s Surf restaurant for the dinner buffet and a Hawaiian music show. I didn’t realize it at the time, but some of the greatest pioneers of  20th century Hawaiian music performed for us: Cummings, Gabby Pahinui, Nona Beamer, and many others.

Queen’s Surf was torn down in the late 60s and my grandparents and mother have since passed away. But whenever I hear Waikiki or any classic Hawaiian song, I return to that very special time and place in my life. A time and place that made me feel as though everything was going to be OK. My heart melts then feels much, much lighter.  It’s proof that you can go home again, if only for the duration of a song.

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