Hawaiian (or local) music is one of the largest cultural phenomena in Hawaii. The innate musical talent of Hawaiians, starting with chants and hula and now present in contemporary music on the radio, is a large part of life in Hawaii. The music of the island is not only pleasant to listen to, but it has defined Hawaiian culture at each step in its history. Music is a product of the current environment and has been used to globalize Hawaiian culture, make political statements, and represent the local people and the land. Through a chronological study of Hawaiian music, we can explore the changes that Hawaii has gone through over the centuries.
Ancient Hawaiian Music
From approximately 950 AD until 1778 when Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii, Hawaiian music was comprised of poetic chants – mele oli and hula – mele hula (Smith, 1959). The chants were about love, war, prayers, genealogy and things that needed to be remembered such as directions (Smith, 1959). Chants were also used to welcome a new baby, honor somebody or say goodbye to a person who had passed on (Sounds from the Heart). They were performed by one soloist and did not involve instruments (Smith, 1959). The chanter, in ancient times, was a very important individual as he helped to preserve history with his chants (Sounds from the Heart). These ancient chants were not similar to what we now think of as music, but they did consist of complex rhythms and distinct vocals (Sounds from the Heart).
The first hula was performed by the goddess Hi’iaka (Smith, 1959). Hula is a dance which represents the words of a song, the dancer often plays instruments or is accompanied by musicians (Smith, 1959). The hula dancer would play different sorts of rattles or castanets such as the pu’ili, the ‘ili’ili add the ‘uli’uli. The musicians who played for the dancers would use different sorts of drums such as the pahu hula, the ipu hula and the ka’eke’eke (Smith, 1959).
Today, very few of the original mele oli are known, and those that are known are actually not shared with others. Some Hawaiians were taught mele oli from their family members, and the chants were passed down from generation to generation. These individuals prefer to keep the chants to themselves to preserve their authenticity. However, some of these chants are stored in a private recording at Bishop Museum (Smith, 1959). The original mele hula are also not really known today and the modern hula we see are similar yet not identical to the original dances (Smith, 1959). Most of the ancient instruments are not used today, and simpy exist as museum artifacts. However, the conch shell , or pu, which was used centuries ago as a signaling instrument, is still used today for ceremonies and pageants (Smith, 1959).
Traditional Hawaiian Music
What is known as “old” or “traditional” Hawaiian music was actually adapted from Western music, starting at the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 (Smith, 1959). When Cook and his crew arrived in Hawaii, they were said to have played the French horn. German flute, and violin for the Hawaiians (Smith, 1959). After this, other international ships would visit Hawaii, making their musical mark on the islands as well. In 1816, a Hawaiian band was formed which was evidently influenced by the Caucasian music they had heard since Captain Cook’s arrival (Smith, 1959).
When the missionaries arrived in Hawaii, in 1820, they outlawed anything Hawaiian, and therefore ancient chants and hula were barred (Smith, 1959). The Christian hymns were translated into Hawaiian and taught to the locals. A book of these hymns became very popular among the locals (Sounds from the Heart). Some of these songs are still performed today (Smith, 1959).
The guitar was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese and Spanish sailors, and popularized by a group of three Portuguese immigrants who were instrument makers and opened up a shop where they sold several types of stringed instruments (Smith, 1959). One of these instruments was a smallfour stringed instrument called the bragha. The bragha was popularized in Hawaiian court by an army officer whose nickname was “jumping flea” or “ukulele”. Soon, the bragha became known as the ukulele (Smith, 1959). The Hawaiians liked playing the ukulele to accompany the hula, and it soon became a staple of Old Hawaiian music, which was now being referred to as hapa haole music, meaning half Caucasian (Smith, 1959). The Mexican cowboys, or paniolo also contributed by teaching Hawaiians their Spanish style guitar playing (A Brief History)
Steel guitar and slack key guitar are two styles that are often used in Hawaiian music. Steel guitar was invented by Joe Kekuku in the 1880’s. He invented a steel device in shop class that was used to slide along the strings of a guitar with his left hand while plucking the notes with his right hand (Sounds from the Heart). There has been speculation that other individuals namely Hoa and Davion, may have invented the steel guitar but it is possible all three men invented in independent of one another (A Brief History). Slack key is a style of guitar playing in which the strings are loosened and individually plucked rather than strummed, to provide a different sound (Sounds from the Heart). Slack key guitar became popular and individual families began to develop their own sound, treasuring their tuning techniques like a secret family recipe (A Brief History).
Old Hawaiian music is characterized by short phrases, simple harmonies, simple rhythm and a vocal style in which the singer slides from pitch to pitch (Smith, 1959). One of the most widely known old Hawaiian songs is Aloha Oe, which was written by Queen Liliuokalani (Smith, 1959). Aloha Oe is a good example of Old Hawaiian, or hapa haole music since it is in Hawaiian but features English words as well (Sounds from the Heart). Interestingly, English speaking musicians soon started to add Hawaiian words into their music as well (Sounds from the Heart).
The first Hawiian song to become a hit on the mainland was Aloha Oe. It was performed by the Royal Hawaiian Band in San Francisco in 1883 (A Brief History). In 1915, during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (in San Francisco) George E. K. Awai’s Royal Hawaiian Quartet headlined the show and instantly became a craze throughout the mainland (Lewis, 1985). Hapa haole music became well known on the mainland and increased in popularity when the show “Hawaii Calls” aired in 1935 (Sounds from the Heart). “Hawaii Calls” was actually rated the most popular radio show in history (A Brief History).
Until the 1960’s Hawaiian music was strongly influenced by mainland artists and the lyrics were aimed more at Americans than Hawaiians (Lewis, 1985). Mainland musical styles, such as ragtime, jazz and blues, comprised most Hawaiian music, and many of the lyrics were in English rather than Hawaiian (Lewis, 1985). Ironically, many Hawaiian songs even trivialized traditional Hawaiian beliefs and possibly added to the dissolution of the Hawaiian culture (Lewis, 1985). Mainland artists, such as Bing Crosby, began to release “Hawaiian” songs despite their lack of knowledge about the islands and Hawaiian culture (Lewis, 1985). Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Hawaiian music was commercial and did not necessarily reflect the local people and their land.
Modern Hawaiian Music
Modern Hawaiian music is often considered to have started in the 1960’s. However, since then, there have been great changes in local music as well. In the late 1960’s, many local musicians chose to take Hawaiian music along a new path. They sought to represent the aina and Hawaiian beliefs, and transitioned from commercially named groups such as “The Waikiki Boys” and “The Royal Hawaiian Serenaders” to more meaningful names, associated with the aina. Some of these bands were “The Sunday Manoa”, “Hui Ohana” and “The Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau” (Lewis, 1985). Some of the artists who had previously bought into the commercial hapa haole sound, now chose to join the revolution and perform Hawaiian music, with lyrics reflecting Hawaiian values (Lewis, 1985).
Hawaiian music was now geared towards locals, rather than mainlanders, although the songs still remained popular throughout the country (Lewis, 1985). One of the main focuses of modern Hawaiian music is the land, or the aina. Songs such as “Nanakuli Blues” pay respect to the islands and focus on the natural beauty of Hawaii (Lewis, 1985).
In addition to lyrics about nature and the aina, modern Hawaiian music often makes political statements about tourists and real estate development (Lewis, 1985; 1991). This trend of making a statement with musical lyrics was started on the mainland in the 1960’s and became a popular practice in Hawaii in the 1970’s (Lewis, 1991). This new music was “part contemporary, part traditional and all wrapped in a cloak of strong social protest against non-native Hawaiians who … nearly totally destroyed their culture, their self identity, their pride and their sacred land” (Lewis, 1991, p.53).
An example of lyrics which made a statement against the white influence in Hawaii and real estate development in the islands comes from the popular song “Hawaiian Awakening”. One verse states:
Deep in this tortured island all alone
Hear the winds cry, the mountains moan . . .
A culture, a land, destroyed
By white men’s greed
Taking our pride and honor,
They planted their seed . . .
We followed their rules much too long
Our protests are heard in our music and song.
Another example of lyrics that convey a sense of loss due to development in Hawaii comes from the song “Me kealoha ku’u home ‘o Kahalu’u”. One verse tells of fading memories of the old Hawaii:
I remember days when we were younger
We used to catch o’opu in the mountain stream
Round the Ko’olau hills we’d ride on horseback
So long ago, it seems it was a dream
Last night I dreamt I was returning
And my heart called out to you
But I fear you won’t be like I left you
Me kealoha ku’u home ‘o Kahalu’u
Many musicians wanted to use their lyrics as a way to get the Hawaiian people to take a stand and defend themselves against mainland developers who sought to buy their precious aina for a dollar amount. Since music has always been hugely popular in Hawaii, lyrics were a useful way of getting this message across (Lewis, 1991). The songs were sometimes used during protests. Jonathan Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio (1990) recollects singing “Nanakuli Blues” as part of an oppositional effort against the development of the Windward side of Oahu.
Music was also employed as a tool to help save the island of Kaho’olawe, which was condemned after destructive target practice was conducted by the U.S. Military (Osorio, 1990). George Helm, a musician from Moloka’i led the fight against the American military and coined the term aloha aina – to cherish the land. Sadly, Helm was taken away to sea off the shore of Kaho’olawe, but his efforts to save the island, using his beautifully opera trained voice, remain a legend (Osorio, 1990).
In the 1990’s and now in the twenty-first century, local Hawaiian music is not as politically driven and is making its way back to a commercially driven genre. While modern songs may sound different from the traditional Hawaiian music, they are similar in the sense that they both are influenced by mainland sounds. Just as traditional Hawaiian music was based on jazz and blues influences, modern Hawaiian music is based on reggae and hip hop influences.
Bridging the Gap
While many older Hawaiians are disapproving of current local music, it seems that the gap between new and old music is getting smaller. Many members of today’s youth listen to the radio station 105.1 which plays older music. A recent C and K concert was not exclusively attended by older adults, and certain classic songs will likely survive for generations to come.
One way of achieving a blend of new and old Hawaiian music is with artist collaborations. Recently, Amy Hanaialii released an album with songs featuring old-time musicians such as Robert Cazimero and Kealii Reichel as well as newer island reggae artisits such as Rebel Souljahz and Fiji (Hawaiian Music of the Past and Present). An album like this provides familiar artists to both old and young locals/Hawaiians. It can be assumed that if somebody buys the album, they will be inclined to listen to the whole thing and possibly develop a liking for some of the artists that they are not accustomed to.
Another phenomenon that helps to bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music are re-makes of old songs. When new artists perform old songs, listeners of all generations are intrigued and just as young people get to learn the songs of the past, older individuals get to know current performers. It is also nice to have timeless songs like “Drop baby Drop” which are constantly performed by different artists and thus enjoyed by local people, both young and old.
Music in Hawaii, whether considered “Hawaiian music” or not, is representative of the times and can be useful in exploring the transitions made by locals over the years. While different generations may disagree about what is “traditional” or which artists are the best, we can all agree that music has always been central to life in Hawaii.
It is interesting to explore the history of the island through the music of each time period. The style of music, as well as the lyrics, are indicative of what was going on in Hawaii throughout the years. However, while Hawaiian music has continued to change and evolve there is also a level of continuity. Each new generation of Hawaiian music is influenced not only on current genres of mainland music but is also built on previous Hawaiian songs.
While Hawaii is a multicultural, multiethnic state, it is also under great influence of Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian music provides a universal way of understanding and respecting Hawaiian people and the land of Hawaii.
Lewis, G. H. (1985) Beyond the Reef: Role Conflict and the Professional Musician in Hawaii. Popular Music, 5, 189-198.
Lewis, G. H. (1991). Storm Blowing from Paradise: Social Protest and Oppositional Ideology in Popular Hawaiian Music. Popular Music, 10, 1, 53-67
Osorio, J. K. (1992). Songs of Our Natural Selves: The Enduring Voice of Nature in Hawaiian Music. Pacific History: Papers from the 8th Pacific History Association Conferenc e, 429-437.
Smith, B. B. (1959). Folk Music in Hawaii. Journal of the International Folk Music Council, 11, 50-55.
Hawaiian Music – A Brief History. http://www.surfingforlife.com/music.html
Hawaiian Music of The Past and Present. http://www.hawaiianmusichistory.com
Hawaiian Music: Sounds From the Heart. http://www.mauiislandpress.com/Sample_Island_Life_101.html
Yrizarry, Christian. An Interview conducted on October 22, 2009.