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Hawaiian Music History – A Brief Overview

Music is part of everyday life. We listen to it on the way to work, during training, while running errands; too often in the background. However, music is a unique form of expression that maps history, tradition and culture. Music is the fabric of Hawaiian culture, its history weaves through the centuries and evolves into the sound we hear today. European settlers may not have discovered the islands until the 1700s, but Hawaiians discovered the gift of song long before foreigners set foot on Hawaii’s shores.

One of the most interesting things about the Hawaiian language is that there is no word for “music,” but its structure was a mainstay of Hawaiian tradition. MeleChanting was an ancient Hawaiian ritual, a means of preserving ancient history. These chants describe the history of family lineage and the legends of the Hawaiian gods, tales told visually through the dance of the hula. Rituals were guided by drumming and a small band of stones, sticks, and rattles, establishing the foundation of early Hawaiian music.

Contact with European settlers in the 1700s introduced Hawaiians to world culture. The missionaries brought with them Christian hymns and various European instruments such as flutes, violins, and pianos. But the Hawaiians were more fascinated by the guitar brought by the Spanish cowboys, or Paniolos. Hawaiians referred to Spanish music as such Cachi-cachi because their fast and improvised playing style quickly caught on. When the Spaniards returned to their homeland, they left their guitars as gifts.

Seeking to develop their own playing style, the locals began loosening the strings and creating a unique fingerpicking style that suited their rhythmic sensibilities. The “slack-key” guitar became a local craze and spurred the innovation of another playing style, the “steel-guitar”. This involved sliding a piece of steel across the strings, which gave it a soothing, dreamlike quality that would soon become a sound representative of Hawaiian music.

These innovations inspired the locals to use other forms of instruments. Melody remained firmly in the chant, emphasizing language and culture, while sound, as dictated by ancient rituals, provided harmony and support. Many discovered that they had an innate musical talent, and Hawaii was quick to acquire that talent for a band. 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 language expressed through song. He painted a lush portrait of the islands, giving the impression that everything was as melodious and polished as the music they performed.

The Royal Hawaiian Band put Hawaiian culture on the map, and Tau Moe, a family of four, also known as “The Aloha Four,” popularized the steel guitar. They were Hawaii’s very own supergroup, touring the mainland and then the world. Born on the island of Hawaii, his innovations and rhythmic harmonies have found a global audience.

The start of recording allowed people to take Hawaii home with them. In the 1920s, “Hawaii Calls” radio programs and live broadcasts of Hawaiian music made people feel as if they were actually there. Almost every hotel—the only places large enough to host bands and bands—had radio equipment. A band that was hosting guests was suddenly playing for the world. By the 1950s, it was broadcast on Hawaii Calls 750.

Hawaiian music declined in the 60s. Local musicians like Don Ho and Joe Keawe still thrived, but mainland artists flooded the scene, trying their hand at the genre solely because of its popularity. Hawaiian music was in danger of becoming a fad if it weren’t for the musicians of the next generation.

Gabby Pahinui focused on culture. As a low-key and fake prodigy, he drew inspiration from tradition. As Hawaiian music became more popular, it became more about style. With the advance of mainland artists, the genre emphasized long-standing cultural themes of sovereignty and national pride, leading a cultural revival.

Hula was in the midst of a revival. The Merrie Monarch Festival, once a tourist attraction, has become a celebration of culture as hula groups and fishy, they now had to create original songs for their routines. This was a license to create, not a repetition, introducing a new tradition to the festival while respecting the past. Merrie Monarch has spawned 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 laid-back keyboard skills, while the faux wonder of Linda Dela Cruz and Amy Hanaiali’i Gillom made them overnight sensations. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, known simply as Braddah Iz, remains the most famous Hawaiian musician of all time. His mixes of “Starting All Over Again” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” remain in syndication to this day, while “Hawaiian Supa’ Man” is a suitably mythic representation of his talent and style.

Reggae did not arrive in Hawaii until the 80s. The rhythmic wonder of reggae, initially shunned by traditionalists, was well suited to Hawaii’s similar musical sensibilities. Hawaii has since embraced reggae and the greater 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, and “jawaii” is cultivated as a popular and significant subgenre in the canon.

What made Hawaiian music so pivotal was the culture. It made people stop and take notice. Hawaiian themes, traditions, and the stories they tell define Hawaiian music as a genre. As long as artists draw inspiration from language and culture, music will remain essential to the world.

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