Hawaiian Music

Hawaiian music includes an array of music genres, some particularly unique to Hawaiian culture. Much of Hawaiian music plays an important role in religious ritual. Hawaii has introduced the slack-key guitar and the steel guitar. Hawaiian music is very popular, not only in America, but also all around the world.

James Cook first landed in Hawaii in 1778. The "discovery" of Hawaii led to a cultural collision that affected Hawaiian culture in every way possible. Missionaries exposed Hawaiians to Christian culture and taught them how to read and write. Until that point, Hawaiians maintained an oral tradition. In 1823, the missionaries translated the hymns into Hawaiian; the new version was called himeni. Because the Hawaiians loved to sing, they took to the hymns quite easily. Gene Santoro, author of Lilt: Seductive Hawaiian Musical Forms Have Regularly Swept the Mainland and Changed Its Music describes the musical culture of Hawaii. Of the hymns, Santoro writes, "They loved the hymns' simple yet stirring chordal movements, group harmonies, and rising and falling melodies -- contours that echo through much Hawaiian music."

Hawaiian rituals involve chanting alongside the hula dancing; the movements of the dance are meant to reflect the lyrics of the music. The missionaries were affronted by the hula ritual, especially by the fact that the women danced bare-chested. After 1820, the missionaries forbade hula dancing. Despite the ban, hula music was passed down orally even though it was not performed in public. In 1874, Hawaii's native ruler King David Kalakaua brought hula dancing back into circulation, promoting the dance for entertainment purposes. In 1878, Portuguese workers came to harvest the sugar cane. They brought with them the braguinha, a guitar-like instrument that later became the Hawaiian ukulele. This instrument helped develop the signature Hawaiian sound that accompanies popular melodies like "Aloha 'Oe."

Henry Berger, a Prussian military bandleader, is credited with introducing falsetto to Hawaiian music. Berger led the Royal Hawaiian Military Band during the reign of Queen Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. The queen was a music composer, and she and Berger wrote music together. Berger was fascinated by Hawaiian folk music and worked to develop and preserve its unique beauty. He had a tremendous effect on Hawaiian music, especially due to the fact that he introduced yodeling.

The singular Hawaiian sound first grew in popularity with the invention of the steel guitar. Santoro writes: "In the 1880s young Joseph Kekuku began imitating singers by pressing down his guitar strings with bolts or combs or knives or, finally, metal bars that he had fashioned, and by raising the strings to prevent fret noise. Having pretuned his guitar to a single chord, he would hold it on his lap and finger-pick melodies." This guitar became a staple instrument in the 1930s with the advent of swing, and Hawaiian music hit the mainland. Sol Hoopii, one of the most famous Hawaiian steel guitarists, recorded popular Hawaiian songs such as "Hula Girl" and "Ten Tiny Toes" and gave his own variation on popular jazz numbers like "Twelfth Street Rag" and "St. Louis Blues." Johnny Noble, a Hawaiian musician, introduced Hawaiian music to Americans. He developed the hapa haole sound that mixed traditional Hawaiian music with ragtime and swing rhythms. Hoopii and other Hawaiian stars such as Lani McIntire and John Kameaaloha Almeida were instrumental in bringing in the Golden Age of Hawaiian Music between the 1930s and 1960s.

Harry Owens, an American composer and songwriter, came to Hawaii in 1934, working as the music director at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Enchanted by the native music he heard, he incorporated traditional Hawaiian melodies into his orchestra music. To celebrate the birth of his daughter, Owens wrote the song "Sweet Leilani," a song which would catch the attention of Bing Crosby. The international star put the song into his movie "Wakiki Wedding." The song was a huge hit, and the royalties were given to Owens' children.

During the 1970s, there was a rapid rise in tourism to Hawaii. The influx of visitors eager to experience Hawaii compelled Hawaiians to create their own renaissance, one which would reinvigorate their traditional culture and music. They began to popularize the hula accompanied by the slack key guitar. Of the popular instrument, Santoro writes, "the sweetly melodious and chiming effect of the finger-picked chords, adapted by steel guitarists from Joseph Kekuku on, suits the hypnotic wash of surf and wind, and complements the falsetto barbershop harmonies."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Whose Master's Voice? The Development of Popular Music in Thirteen Cultures
Alison J. Ewbank; Fouli T. Papageorgiou.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "A Brief History of Music Production in Hawaii"
Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula
Nathaniel B. Emerson.
Charles E. Tuttle Publishing, 1965
Paradise Remade: The Politics of Culture and History in Hawai'i
Elizabeth Buck.
Temple University Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "New Forms of Hawaiian Music" begins on p. 114
Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements
Reebee Garofalo.
South End Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Don' Go Down Waikiki: Social Protest and Popular Music in Hawaii"
Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia
Craig A. Lockard.
University of Hawaii Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "The Evolution and Meaning of Hawaiian Music" begins on p. 22
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator