Notes on Harry Sonoda's "Waves" (1977)


I'm pretty sure the first time I heard this song was at Idea's (then Jelly's) during a small in-store event that Oliver and I organized. It might've been when Meaty Ogre was here, which was years ago.

In any case, it was Oliver who flawlessly mixed into "Waves" during his set, the song's epic, sweeping swirl of guitars and synthesized sounds of the ocean immediately consuming my attention. What the hell is this? In typical Oliver Twist fashion he smiled, shrugged a little, and shared the record with me.

"I got it from the guy himself, at the swap meet."

Harry Sonoda had two albums to his name. His sophomore release, Tiny Little Star, which is where "Waves" comes from. And his debut on Hana Ho Records, Don Ho's label, entitled You Don't Need A Mind Just Soul. I sorely wish I could've met Sonoda before he passed away in 2006. Those two titles alone are plenty proof that Sonoda and I would've gotten along well.

"They say he was a natural-born surfer and a self-taught musician," reads the 2006 local news article remembering Sonoda. He died at age 57, which means he was born in 1949, ten years before Hawaii became the 50th state of the US.

Sonoda taught himself guitar at a young age. In 1968, Don Ho produced his first album, You Don't Need A Mind Just Soul. (The LP is available in quantity on Discogs as of this writing, for anyone interested).

"Not since the emergence of Don Ho from Hawaii has any vocalist so inspired my interest and enthusiasm. Harry Sonoda, just 18 years old, is unequivocally a genius, as Harry has not only found a unique vocal interpretation for contemporary music, but he has written, as well, those songs that he interprets. He has a different message — something new to say and a magnificent way of saying it. I see him as one of young America's new super-stars." The words of Roger Carroll, from the album's liner notes.

The release received a 4-star rating in the December 7, 1968 issue of Billboard magazine. Sonoda's contemporaries included Kui Lee, Buddy Fo, and Al Lopaka.

While Sonoda and Lopaka's names might be lesser known to musical households today, Kui Lee's legacy continues on thanks in part to popular artists who covered his tunes — Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, Herb Alpert, Roger Williams, and most notably Elvis. In fact, it was Elvis' 1973 Aloha From Hawaii concert that raised $75,000 for the Kui Lee Cancer Fund (Lee died of cancer in 1966).

But it was Kui's tight-knit musical relationship with Don Ho that truly solidified his legacy. Don Ho recorded Kui's songs on several albums, and credited the songwriter as responsible for the sound of a new generation in Hawaii.

(For Buddy Fo, the proof was in the pudding — his 1968 LP was entitled "Buddy Fo's New Hawaii". The singer was also responsible for infusing next level four-part vocal harmonies in his music, especially with his group The Invitations. Fo's caliber of musicianship was incomparable... Anyways, a lot can be written about music in Hawaii during the 1960s!)

After Kui's passing in 1966, Don Ho must've seen something similarly promising in the young Sonoda, which lead to the singer's debut release on Hana Ho Records.

Nine years later, Sonoda released Tiny Little Star, a private press effort that continued the vibe of Just Soul, but with a more refined sound than the first album.

I can't help but hear a strong British influence across both albums – the music of the Beatles had a big impact on Hawaii, of course, but early Bee Gees as well as the Kinks and their Lola Versus album really comes to mind when I listen to Tiny Little Star.

That said, "Waves" is a gem unlike anything else on Sonoda's recordings. Co-written with LA's Jimmie Haskell, the tune must've been something of an after thought, a riff that Harry and Jimmie decided to play off of.

If that's the case, we're lucky they did, for it's a powerful piece of instrumental wonder that proves Harry's (and Jimmie's) genius.

Check out "Waves" on the From These Shores compilation, with 13 sun-tinged folk and soft psyched tracks from Hawaii, selected by Roger Bong and Oliver Seguin.

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