Hawaiian music is a product of years of acculturation of different cultures and sounds, a wonderful melding of different Its history is as diverse as the history of its peoples.
Hawaiians did not merely absorb music and instrument brought to the island. They adapted music based on how it their own traditional songs and chants. As a result, the Hawaiians have given the world the slack key guitar, the steel guitar, and the ukulele among others.
Traditional Hawaiian folk music is primarily a celebration
of nature, their gods, and love of life. Religious in nature, Hawaiian music traditionally involved chant and hula. Chants were either accompanied with music and dance (mele hula) or without (mele oli).
Before the arrival of the Europeans and their guitars, traditional Hawaiian musical instruments included the ipu (gourd drum), ipu heke (double gourd drum), ili’ili (two flat stones clicked together), ohe hanu inu (wooden nose flute), large Conch shell that produces deep resonant sounds when blown, pu ohe (bamboo trumpet), and puili (slit sticks made from bamboo). Hawaii has little metals and minerasl (besides lava) so their ancient musical instruments were mostly made from shells, plants, and trees.
Documented Hawaiian music history did not start until the 18th century upon the arrival of the haoles (non-Hawaiian) in the island. Hawaiian culture expert Elizabeth Tatar divides Hawaiian music history from the arrival of the Europeans to the present into seven periods:
1820 to 1872
Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) came to Hawaiian with their guitars. King Kamehameha III brought them to teach Hawaiians how to control overpopulation of cattle in 1832. They taught the Hawaiians how to play the guitar. The Hawaiians changed the tuning of the guitar to adapt it to their traditional Hawaiian songs and chants. They loosened or slackened the strings of the guitar, thus giving the world the slack key guitar.
Though slack key guitar became popular, families kept their own string tuning styles a secret. For this reason, slack key guitar (called Ki ho ‘alu by Hawaiians) was a “back porch” musical instrument until Gabby Pahinui popularized it in the 20th century.
During this period, numerous styles of European music including Protestant hymns and falsetto singing.
1873 to 1900
This was a period of acculturation and creation of Hawaiian modern style. In 1879, Portugues immigrant workers arrived in Hawaii. One immigrant, Joao Fernandes played native Portuguese folk songs using a braguinha. The Hawaiians who witnessed Fernandes playing called the instrument ukulele, which means “jumping flea,” to describe the speed of Fernandes fingers and how they danced on the fingerboard.
Around the 1880s, steel guitar was invented. According to legend, the slack key guitar was invented in the 1880s by a Hawaiian schoolboy named Joseph Kehuku when he slid a piece of metal along the strings of his guitar. Called kila kila in Hawaiian, the origins of steel guitar is still hotly debated.
King David Kalakuau, a patron of arts, promoted Hawaiian music and culture, and encouraged the use of steel guitar and ukulele.
Queen Lili’uokalani, King Kalakaua’s sister wrote a number of songs, including the popular Aloha ‘Oe.
1900 to 1915
This was a period of integration of Hawaiian music into broader field of American music. Hapa haole songs (English-written songs using superficial elements of Hawaiian music) were created during this period. Recording industry began.
Hawaiian artists toured the mainland. In 1912, a Broadway show entitled Birds of Paradise featured Hawaiian music. This was followed in 1915 by the Panama Pacific Exhibition showcased in San Francisco.
1915 to 1930
Hawaiian music found another influence: Tahitian and Samoan music. Meanwhile, mainstream American audience developed a growing fondness for Hawaiian music. It even influenced blues, country, and jazz musicians.
In 1927, Tau Moe and Rose Moe toured with the traveling show, Madame Riviera’s Hawaiians. For 50 years, Tau and Rose with their children (the family was known as the “Aloha Four” lived in foreign places including Japan and Germany promoting Hawaiian folk music and hapa haole music. Doing so, they spread Hawaiian music to many places around the world.
1930 to 1960
1930 to 1960 is considered the “Golden Age of Hawaiian Music.” This period also saw the adaptation of Hawaiian music to orchestras and big bands, and Hawaiian performers like Sol Hoopi became mainstream stars.
1960 to 1970
The 1960s showed a decline in interest in Hawaiian music as the Hawaii and the world got interested in rock and roll.
1970 onwards: modern Hawaiian period
This is a Renaissance period for Hawaiian music. There is also a renewed interest in it from both native and non-Hawaiians. Rock, pop, hiphop, reggae, and soul music have been produced in the Islands. Musicians like Don Ho and Gabby Pahinui have produced songs and albums that became wildly known. Several new music genres have emerged such as the Jawaiian, created when Hawaiians adapted reggae into their own local music.
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