Although it wasn’t a state until 1959, Hawaii, the Aloha State is known for its incredible beaches, beautiful weather, and amazing surfing spots, but did you know that it can also boast to have produced some of the most famous musicians in the world? From ukulele players to pop stars, Hawaii’s musical wealth spans multiple genres and generations.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 18 of the greatest and most famous musicians from Hawaii and explore their lives and careers. Let’s get started with one of the most iconic Hawaiian musicians, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
1. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1959-1997)
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose name means ‘the fearless eye, the bold face,’ was a musician and activist who fought for Hawaiian sovereignty.
Still Gulf in Hawaiian music, he was named “The Voice of Hawaii” and his fame has done a lot for making Hawaiian instruments like the ukulele more popular in recent times.
Both of his parents worked at the famous Waikiki nightclub, and his uncle was the famous musician Moe Keale.
Kamakawiwo’ole is most famous for his iconic ukulele rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” which has been featured in many blockbuster soundtracks.
2. Jack Johnson (1975-)
Raised on the North Shore of Oahu, Jack Johnson is a musician, filmmaker, and at one time a professional surfer. He is also an environmental activist, working to clean oceans.
Known for his soft rock acoustic pop music, his debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, topped the charts.
In 2012, Johnson did a 7-show acoustic tour of the Hawaiian Islands, which included an opening performance for a speech given by the 14th Dalai Lama.
3. Bruno Mars (1985-)
Of all the musicians from Hawaii, Bruno Mars is the most famous and one of the best-selling musicians of all time, with eleven Grammys to his name.
He was born in Honolulu to a musical family; his parents met while his father played percussion to his mother’s hula dancing.
He rose to local fame early, becoming known around Hawaii for his Elvis impersonations at age four.
Mars has consistently credited his childhood in Hawaii as an inspiration for his music and style.
4. Bette Midler (1945-)
Otherwise known as “The Divine Miss M,” Bette Midler has won Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys, and Tony awards, a career spanning over 50 years.
Born and raised in Honolulu, Midler was voted “Most Dramatic” in her senior year of high school. Her first ever paid acting role was in the movie Hawaii as an extra.
Some of her most iconic Billboard hits are “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Do You Want to Dance,” and “From a Distance.”
5. Don Ho (1930-2007)
Born in Honolulu, Don Ho was a pop singer and actor who started his musical career after he bought a keyboard at a music store while training for the Air Force in California.
He began his singing career at his mother’s bar, Honey’s, which became a hotspot for entertainment.
Ho signed with Reprise Records and released the hit single “Tiny Bubbles,” began playing major shows across the country, and guest-starred in shows like I Dream of Jeannie and The Brady Bunch.
6. Jake Shimabukuro (1976-)
Famous ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro is a fifth-generation Japanese-American musician and composer born in Honolulu.
He started playing the ukulele at age four, taught by his mother, an accomplished ukulele player and singer in her own right.
He is most famous for his complex fingerwork and the way he uses the simple ukulele to play numerous musical styles, as well as movie soundtrack compositions.
Shimabukuro is also a philanthropist, founding the Four Strings Foundation, which provides instruments and music education workshops around the country.
7. Moe Keale (1939-2002)
Moe Keale was an American musician famous for his ukulele playing and traditional Hawaiian folk music, as well as an actor.
One of the only people born in the 20th century with full Hawaiian ancestry, he learned songs passed down among generations on the ukulele by the age of four.
He used his Hawaiian heritage to act in shows taking place on the islands, appearing on many episodes of Hawaii Five-O, Pearl, and Charlie’s Angels.
8. James Mercer [The Shins] (1970-)
Born in Honolulu, James Mercer is a musician most famous for founding and leading the indie rock band The Shins.
He was born and partially raised in Hawaii because his father was in the US Air Force, but also grew up in Germany and England.
He married his now-wife Melisa Kula on Waimanalo Beach in Hawaii, where Kula was born.
Mercer plays numerous instruments to accompany his indie music, including the harmonica, ukulele, banjo, glockenspiel, and lap steel.
9. Arthur Lyman (1932-2002)
Arthur Lyman was a unique jazz musician who rose to fame for playing the xylophone, vibraphone, and marimba and popularized a style of faux-Polynesian music which was called “exotica.”
Born in Oahu, he was an indigenous Hawaiian and started playing music as a child with his seven siblings and father at USO shows on army bases.
Lyman’s “exotica” music jump-started the cultural craze for Polynesian culture and led to current cultural phenomena like tiki bars and aloha shirts.
10. Mike Starr [Alice in Chains] (1966-2011)
Born and raised in Honolulu, Mike Starr was a rock musician and the original bassist for the band Alice in Chains.
Alice in Chains was formed in Seattle, first a heavy metal band that later moved towards the grunge scene, and was regarded by many as second only to Nirvana as an influential grunge band.
Starr was one of the first celebrities to publicly speak about the devastating effects of drug addiction when he appeared on Celebrity Rehab in 2010.
11. Glenn Medeiros (1970-)
Born in Lihue, Glenn Medeiros started singing at ten, when he would perform on his father’s tour bus around Kauai.
He rose to international fame with his chart-topping hits “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” and “She Ain’t Worth It.”
Medeiros left the music business for education in 2007 and now serves as the principal of a Catholic school in Honolulu.
However, music is still such an integral part of his life that he named his children Chord and Lyric.
12. Alfred Apaka (1919-1960)
Alfred Apaka was a traditional Hawaiian singer whose romantic baritone was legendary throughout Hawaii and came to represent the state nationally.
He is almost Hawaiian royalty, the great-grandson of Hawaiian politician Luther Aholo, and the grandnephew of Lydia Kaʻonohiponiponiokalani Aholo, daughter of Queen Liliʻuokalani, the only queen and last sovereign monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Apaka was thought of as the Hawaiian Bing Crosby, and in 1950 joined Crosby’s label, Decca Records.
13. Yvonne Elliman (1951-)
Yvonne Elliman is a broadway, disco, and pop singer born in Honolulu but began her singing career in bars and clubs in London during the 1970s.
Andrew Lloyd Webber asked her to be part of his traveling production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which she did for four years.
Elliman’s musical career reached the top of the charts when she recorded a version of the Bee Gees’ song “If I Can’t Have You” as part of the Footloose soundtrack.
14. Daniel Ho (1968-)
With six Grammy wins and twelve nominations to his name, Daniel Ho is a musician producer and who has recorded 18 of his own albums and produced 50 others.
Born in Kaimuki on Oahu, Ho is a groundbreaking ukulele and slack-key guitar player, making traditional Hawaiian music as well as producing smooth jazz.
Ho has always prioritized his Hawaiian roots, performing as a soloist at the Honolulu Symphony, and has received four Grammys for Best Hawaiian Music Album as a record producer.
15. Cecilio & Kapono
Cecilio & Kapono is a Hawaiian pop music duo consisting of Henry Kapono Ka’aihue and Cecilio David Rodriguez, who recorded eight albums between 1974 and 1999.
Their music is unique and eclectic, known for combining pop, soul, funk, disco, and rock with traditional Hawaiian folk music.
In 2009, the duo received the Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award for their discography.
16. Eddie Kamae [Sons of Hawaii] (1927-2017)
Eddie Kamae was the “first virtuoso” of the ukulele and helped lead the resurgence of Hawaiian music and culture in the 1960s and 70s.
He was one of the founding members of Sons of Hawaii, a group with multiple critically acclaimed records that started the Hawaiian renaissance movement.
Kamae was also a documentary producer, all centered around the revival of Hawaiian culture, language, and music and bringing them to the attention of the rest of the US.
17. Poncie Ponce (1933-2013)
Poncie Ponce was a musician, actor, and stand-up comedian who rose to fame playing Kazuo Kim, a taxi driver on Hawaiian Eye, the first network series to be set in Hawaii.
Ponce was born and raised in Maui and spent two years in the Army during the Korean War, where he began his musical career at clubs in Munich.
Ponce eventually signed with Warner Brothers Records in LA and then played in Australia, Japan, Argentina, and more.
18. Jerry Byrd (1920-2005)
Although Born in Ohio, Jerry Byrd began his musical career with an interest in Hawaiian music, hearing it for the first time at a tent show when he was twelve.
While in Honolulu, he worked to revive Hawaiian steel guitar music, giving lessons to budding musicians, including a young Jerry Garcia.
Byrd mentored Dolly Parton and was the first to sign her to a record label. Afterward, he moved to Honolulu in the 1970s, where he lived until his death.
Summing Up Our List of Hawaiian Musicians
We hope you enjoyed learning about some of the talented musicians from Hawaii.
If you have anyone you think should be added to the list, please let us know!