Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music

By Neill, Daniel | Notes, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music


Neill, Daniel, Notes


Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music. By John Troutman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. [ix, 372 p. ISBN 9781469627922 (hardcover), $35; ISBN 9781469627939 (e-book), $19.99.] Illustrations (14 color plates, 51 halftones), notes, bibliography, index.

The Hawaiian steel guitar (kika kila) and its descendants are often-heard but rarely-understood instruments. The distinct sound of the instrument-the tonal clarity, volume, sustain, and glissando effects afforded by the steel bar used to change the pitches of its strings-was absorbed by many genres for its novel exoticism and ability to approximate the laughing, crying, and singing voice (Daniel Kahn, "Steel Guitar Development," Ha'Ilono Mele 2 [March 1976]: 6-7).

The assimilation of the kika kila into global popular musics was so successful that by the 1940s, the moniker "steel guitar" had become an umbrella term referring to both a performance practice and to a group of instruments derived from the kika kila, ranging from a slightly-modified acoustic guitar to the mechanically-complex, electrified, and zither-like pedal steel guitar. This definitional diversity, combined with the instrument's continual development and infinitely variable tunings, has, until recently, made the steel guitar a topic largely neglected by musicologists and historians. Thankfully for those interested in the steel guitar, Kika Kila is in good company with other notable academic studies of the steel guitar that emerged in the past decade, including folkloristic accounts of the sacred steel tradition (Robert L. Stone, Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010]) and the pedal steel guitar (Kenneth B. Barker, "The American Pedal Steel Guitar: Folkloristic Analyses of Material Culture and Embodiment," Ph.D. diss., University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2012), thorough musicotechnological histories of the development of the pedal steel guitar (Timothy D. Miller, "The Origins and Development of the Pedal Steel Guitar," master's thesis, University of South Dakota, 2007; "Instruments as Technology and Culture: C°Constructing the Pedal Steel Guitar," Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013), and a musicological treatment of the crosscultural influence of the Hawaiian steel guitar in the early twentieth century (R. Guy S. Cundell, "Across the Pacific: The Transformation of the Steel Guitar from Hawaiian Folk Instrument to Popular Music Mainstay," master's thesis, University of Adelaide, 2014).

With Kika Kila, John Troutman-a historian and steel guitarist-makes a fascinating and foundational contribution to the history and development of the instrument. Over the course of seven chapters, he applies painstaking archival research and a significant assortment of interviews to present a compelling new perspective on the steel guitar's global reach and the distinctly Hawaiian guitar culture from which it emerged. Troutman's attention to issues of representation, imperialism, and cultural appropriation as they relate to the instrument and its indigenous innovators constitutes a common and welcome theme across all chapters. These issues are discussed with a refreshing frankness, beginning with a description of the "illegal and internationally condemned" overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 by "American conspirators" including U.S. Marines and business interests (p. 3). Later, this directness with regard to power and race is also extended to an account of the plagiarism by white western-swing musician Leon McAuliffe of "Steel Guitar Rag"-a canonic piece of steel guitar repertoire-from earlier recordings of "Guitar Rag" by African American guitarist Sylvester Weaver (p. 181).

Kika Kila follows the instrument's adventures full circle, beginning with the cultural and political upheavals of nineteenth-century Hawaii along with the emergence of a distinctly Hawaiian guitar culture and Joseph Kekuku's "invention" of the kika kila (chapters 1 and 2). …

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