Music is a part of everyday life. We listen to it on the way to work, when we work out, while running errands; all too often in the background. Yet, music is a unique form of expression that charts history, tradition, and culture. Music is the very fabric of Hawaiian culture, its story interweaving through the centuries and evolving to the sound you hear today. European settlers may not have discovered the islands until the 1700s, but Hawaiians discovered the gift of song well before foreigners set foot on Hawaii’s shores.
One of the more curious things about the Hawaiian language is that there is no word for “music,” but its structure has been a mainstay of Hawaiian tradition. Mele, or chanting, was a ritual in ancient Hawaii, a means of preserving ancestral history. These chants chronicled stories of family lineage and legends of Hawaiian gods, tales visually told through the dance of hula. Rituals were guided by a drum beat and a small orchestra of stones, sticks, and rattles, laying the foundation for early Hawaiian music.
Contact with European settlers in the 1700s introduced Hawaiians to the cultures of the world. Missionaries brought Christian hymns and various European instrumentation such as the flute, violin, and the piano. But the Hawaiians were more fascinated with the guitar brought by Spanish cowboys, or paniolos. Hawaiians referred to Spanish music as Cachi-cachi because their fast and improvised style of playing quickly caught on. When the Spanish returned to their home countries, they left their guitars as gifts.
Keen on creating their own playing style, locals began slackening the strings, creating a distinct finger-picking style that suited their rhythmic sensibilities. “Slack-key” guitar became a local craze and encouraged the innovation of another playing style – “steel-guitar.” This involved sliding a piece of steel along the strings, which gave off a soothing, dream-like quality that would soon become the sound representing Hawaiian music.
These innovations inspired locals to embrace other forms of instrumentation. The melody remained firmly in the vocals, an emphasis on language and culture, while the sound, just as ancient rituals had dictated, provided harmony and support. Many were discovering they had innate musical talent and Hawaii quickly garnered such talent for an orchestra. In 1915, the Royal Hawaiian Band was invited to compete at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. This was the first-time people had heard of Hawaii, a culture and a language being expressed through song. It painted a lush portrait of the islands, an impression that everything is as melodic and polished as the music they performed.
The Royal Hawaiian Band put the culture of Hawaii on the map and it was Tau Moe, a family of four also known as, “The Aloha Four,” who popularized the steel-guitar. They were Hawaii’s very own supergroup, touring across the mainland, then the world. Hawaii’s island-born innovations and rhythmic harmonies had found a global audience.
The onset of recording made it possible for people to bring Hawaii home with them. In the 1920s, the radio programming of “Hawaii Calls” and live broadcasts of Hawaiian music made people feel as if they were truly there. Almost every hotel – the only venues big enough to house bands and orchestras – had radio equipment set up. A band that was entertaining guests was suddenly playing to the world. By the 1950s, Hawaii Calls was being broadcast to 750 stations.
Hawaiian music waned in the 60s. Local musicians like Don Ho and Joe Keawe still thrived, but mainland artists had flooded the scene, having tried their hand at the genre solely because of its popularity. Hawaiian music was in danger of becoming a fad had it not been for the next generation of musicians.
Gabby Pahinui put the emphasis back on culture. A slack-key and falsetto wunderkind, he had found inspiration through tradition. As Hawaiian music became more popular, it became increasingly about style. With mainland artists having moved on, the genre refocused on long-held cultural themes of sovereignty and national pride, thus spearheading a cultural awakening.
Hula was in the middle of a resurgence. The Merrie Monarch Festival, once a tourist-pageant, became a celebration of culture as hula groups, or halaus, were now required to create original chants for their routine. It was a license to create rather than repeat, introducing a new tradition to the festival by honoring those of the past. The Merrie Monarch gave rise to artists such as Keali’i Reichel and The Brothers Cazimero.
This renaissance ushered in an era of Hawaiian superstars. Sonny Chillingworth and Willie K were revered for their slack-key prowess, while Linda Dela Cruz and Amy Hanaiali’i Gillom’s falsetto wonder made them overnight sensations. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, simply known as Braddah Iz, remains as the most renowned Hawaiian musician of all time. His medleys of “Starting All Over Again” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are in syndication to this day, while “Hawaiian Supa’ Man” is a suitably mythic representation of his talent and style.
Reggae didn’t arrive in Hawaii until the 80s. Initially shunned by traditionalists, reggae’s rhythmic wonder meshed well with Hawaii’s similar music sensibilities. Hawaii has since adopted reggae and the larger Jamaican culture with open arms. The Rastafarian flag is a symbol of national pride alongside Hawaii’s own state emblem. Reggae and Hawaii are inseparable on the radio today, breeding “Jawaiian” as a popular and meaningful subgenre in the canon.
What made Hawaiian music so pivotal was the culture. It made people stop and listen. Hawaiian themes, traditions, and the stories they tell are what define Hawaiian music as a genre. So long as artists take inspiration in the language and the culture, the music will remain essential to the world.