Hawaiian Music

The Music Culture of Hawaii

The rich music of Hawaii is a unique mix of many influences with peaceful rhythms and poetic lyrics that celebrate island life. From reggae to slack-key and steel guitar, falsetto and “Jawaiian,” the musical culture of Hawaii is unlike any other in the world. The ukulele, Hawaiian music's ultimate symbol, is synonymous with island aloha. The beauty of the islands has inspired some of the most unique and flowing rhythms of all time immortalized in mele (song).

It is virtually impossible to visit Hawaii and not be affected by the local music scene. Where else in the world can you hear a falsetto tune sung in Hawaiian on the radio, listen to a beachgoer sing to the enrapturing sounds of a ukulele and choose from hundreds of local performances in any given weekend?

The ukulele, a four-stringed, high-pitched, guitar-shaped instrument with a name meaning “jumping flea,” gained mainland popularity after the Royal Hawaiian Quartet amazed audiences at San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. The ukulele is compact and portable and can be purchased throughout the islands in even the smallest mom-and-pop stores quite affordably. It can be heard in many different styles of music, from reggae, rock, traditional Hawaiian and Jawaiian. Today, locals of all ages can be seen strumming in the randomnest of places and belting out flavorful tunes with the power to uplift and turn frowns into carefree grins.

If you want to experience Hawaiian music, simply turn on the radio in Hawaii. There are a few local channels that play only island sounds. Or check out local venues on your island to find a live performance and experience the joy that comes with hearing songs sung from the heart. Attend a major festival, like the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, the Molokai Music Festival, the Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival, or the Steel Guitar Association Festival on Oahu. Many of the local hotels will also host performances. Hawaiian music has inspired many to pick up some of the best ukuleles to begin to play themselves.

Hawaii's original sounds have influenced cultures around the globe. Artists who have helped Hawaiian music gain popularity in Hawaii and abroad include Gabby Pahinui, The Sons of Hawaii, The Brothers Cazimero, Keali'i Reichel, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, Makana, Jerry Santos and many others. Hear native Hawaiian folk music on the radio, or catch a local hip-hop video on local channel OC 16. Unique artists like Henry Kapono continue to immortalize the essence of the aloha spirit with meaningful lyrics and inspirational melodies.

Hapa Haole – a style that literally means “part white and part Hawaiian,” where English lyrics are dedicated to Hawaiian themes.

Slack Key – a style which utilizes a slack-key guitar, a guitar with loosened strings.

Steel Guitar – a style which utilizes the steel guitar, a guitar with metal strings played by sliding a metal bar over the fretted neck.

Ukulele – an unmistakable sound from a fretted four-stringed instrument. Today there are ukuleles with eight or even nine strings.

Falsetto – a popular vocal style using a singing technique that produces sounds pitched higher than the singer's normal range.

Jawaiian – Jamaican sounds molded with a unique Hawaiian touch.

Contemporary – Today's original Hawaiian music that frequently mixes popular Hawaiian and English lyrics.

Traditional – authentic lyrics sung in Hawaiian usually set to slack-key guitar, steel guitar or ukulele.

Chants – chanting was a ritual in ancient Hawaii as a means of preserving history, honoring deities and organizing genealogies. Chanting can be heard today either stand alone, set to music, or accompanied by an ipu (gourd drum) or pahu (sharkskin drum).

The diverse musical influences that reached the islands came from all over the globe in the mid-1800s. As the Hawaiians learned how to play musical instruments brought over from immigrants, they were able to expand their musical capabilities. Ancient chants, called olis, were set to music for the first time, and these new creative outlets quickly gained popularity.

Family histories, legends, local tales and religious beliefs were expressed in a way never before possible, allowing for a much-needed method of the preservation of Hawaiian heritage.

With traditional Hawaiian folk music, lyrics may be sung from ancient chants handed down from hundreds of years ago. You can also hear very unique drum and ipu beats that serve as emotive background music for hula performances. An ipu, or hollowed out gourd, creates rhythmic tones generated by hand slapping and tapping the instrument on the ground. Ipus can range from small to large (like the ipu heke, a double gourd) and create a very unique resonation.

Mexican cowboys in Hawaii, called paniolos, brought with them guitars and showed locals how to play their unique style. Many Hawaiians were very adept at the guitar and picked it up quickly, eventually adapting the Spanish style to a style that better suited island lyrics, a finger-picking method today known as slack-key style, or ki ho'alu. If you've never heard slack-key guitar played, you are missing a truly soulful experience.

Steel guitar is another musical style developed in the islands. With the help of a steel bar that slides along the strings, a very unique and infectious sound is created. Featured in many Hawaiian bands in the early 1900s and today, steel guitar remains a highly popular element in modern Hawaiian music.

King David Kalakaua, the Hawaiian ruler who is regarded as a true renaissance man, encouraged a musical resurgence and called upon all Hawaiians to utilize music as an expression of Hawaiian pride. When Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, published her many self-composed songs late in the 19th century, Hawaiian music hit an all-time popularity high. Songs like Aloha O'e and He Mele Lahui Hawaii expressed Hawaiian pride and love of the beautiful land.

Composers of Hawaiian music took several influences and meshed them all together while creating a sound that was truly unique and new. Gospel, pop, country western, ragtime, swing and jazz are just a few of the music genres that inspired Hawaiian musicians.

Gabby Pahinui, labeled the “folk hero of Hawaiian music,” is regarded by many locals to be the quintessential Hawaiian musician. Combining culturally-driven lyrics and a combination of jazz and slack-key guitar sounds, he is credited with helping Hawaiian music make a strong comeback in the mid 1900s. Gabby Pahinui and Eddie Kamae created The Sons of Hawaii in the 1960s, a Hawaiian band that epitomized island sounds by mixing modern and traditional styles.

Today you can enjoy the distinctive and danceable sound of “Jawaiian” music, a combination of Jamaican reggae and Hawaiian that uses catchy hooks and upbeat melodies to celebrate island life and convey positive vibes.

No matter if first-time visitor or loyal Hawaii returnee, experiencing the joyful sounds of Hawaiian music and understanding its complex roots, will leave you truly enriched.


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