Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Music of Hawaii

 This article is a supplemental part of the 
Music of the United States series.
 before 1940
 1940s and 50s
 1960s and 70s
 1980 to the present'''
 African-American music
 Native American music
 Latin, Tejano, Hawaiian,
Cajun, Puerto Rican and other immigrants
For most people, Hawaiian music revolves primarily around three kinds of guitar-based music -- steel guitar, slack-key guitar and the ukulele -- and the hula.

The earliest known music of Hawaii was the hula, which featured a chant (mele) accompanied by ipu (a gourd) and 'ili'ili (stones used as clappers). Listeners danced in a highly ritualized manner. The older, formal kind of hula is called kahiko, while the modern version is auana. There are also religious chants called mele; when accompanied by dancing and drums, it is called mele hula pahu.

Guitars first came to Hawaii with Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) brought by King Kamehameha III in 1832 in order to teach the natives how to control an overpopulation of cattle. The Hawaiian cowboys (paniolo) used guitars in their traditional folk music.

Steel guitars arrived with the Portuguese in the 1860s and slack-key had spread across the chain by the late 1880s. Legend has it that a ship called the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu on August 23, 1879, bringing Portuguese field workers from Madeira. One of the men, Joao Fernandes, later a popular musician, tried to impress the Hawaiians by playing folk music with a friend's braguinha; the Hawaiians called the instrument ukulele (jumping flea) in reference to the man's swift fingers. Others have claimed the word means gift that came here or a corruption of ukeke lele (dancing ukeke, a three-string bow).

The slack-key guitar (ki ho'alu in Hawaiian) is acoustic and fingerpicked. The strings are "slacked", or loosened, which creates unusual tuning. Each string typically has a major chord, or more rarely, a chord with a major 7th or 6th note.

Playing techniques frequently mimic the falsettos common in Hawaiian singing; these include "hammering-on", "chiming" and "pulling-off".

1913 sheet music cover

In the 1880s and 90s, King David Kalakaua promoted Hawaiian culture and also encouraged the addition of new instruments, such as the ukulele and steel guitar. Kalakaua's successor, his sister Lili'uokalani, composed music herself, and wrote several songs, like "Aloha 'Oe", which remain popular.

In about 1900, Joseph Kekuku began sliding a piece of steel across slacked keys, thus inventing steel guitar (kila kila); at about the same time, traditional Hawaiian music with English lyrics became popular -- this was called hapa haole.

Vocals predominated in Hawaiian music until the 20th century, when instrumentation took a lead role. Much of modern slack-key guitar has become entirely instrumental.

In the early 20th century Hawaiians began touring the United States, often in small bands. A Broadway show called Bird of Paradise introduced Hawaiian music to many Americans in 1912 (see 1912 in music) and the Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco followed in 1915 (see 1915 in music). The increasing popularization of Hawaiian music influenced blues and country musicians; this connection can still be heard in modern country. In reverse, musicians like Bennie Nawahi began incorporated jazz into his steel guitar, ukulele and mandolin music. Inspired by Nawahi, Sol Ho'opii became a legend in Hawaiian music and helped invent the pedal steel guitar.

In the 1920s and 30s, a group of men came to be known as the Waikiki Beachboys and their parties became famous across Hawaii and abroad; most of them played the ukulele all day long, sitting on the beach and eventually began working for hotels to entertain tourists.

The most influential slack-key guitarist was Gabby Pahinui, who began recording in 1947 (see 1947 in music). Leland Isaacs Sr, Sonny Chillingsworth, Ray Kane, Ledward Kaapana, Keola Beamer, Peter Moon and Leonard Kwan came a few years later and helped popularize the sound, especially after the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s. George Kanahele's Hawaiian Music Foundation did much to spread slack-key and other forms of Hawaiian music, especially after a major 1972 concert (see 1972 in music).

Modern slack-key festivals include the Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival and the Gabby Pahinui/Atta Isaacs Slack Key Festival.

Don Ho from the small Honolulu neighborhood of Kaka'ako figures among the more widely known Hawaiian musicians. Although he perhaps does not produce completely "traditional" Hawaiian music, Ho has become an unofficial ambassador of Hawaiian culture throughout the world as well as on the American mainland. Ho's style often appears to combine traditional Hawaiian elements and older 1950s and 1960s-style crooner music with an easy listening touch.

In the 1980s and '90s, reggae became more popular and combined with Hawaiian pop to form "Jawaiian" (Ja[maican reggae]+[Ha]waiian). A Hawaiian form of hip hop also emerged, with Sudden Rush being the most well-known group.

External link