You’ve certainly heard Hawaiian music, but most of the world has no idea how it originated and evolved. Most of the world also would not be surprised to learn that the earliest known music of Hawaii was the hula. It was comprised of a chant (called a mele) accompanied by an ipu (a gourd) and iliili (stones that are used as clappers).
In 1832, King Kamehameha III was faced with an overpopulation of cattle, especially on the Big Island. To teach his subjects to control that population, he imported Mexican cowboys called paniolo. They brought with them – and played – guitars. As they shared their music, and their instruments, with the Hawaiians, the Hawaiians began to loosen the strings (making them “slack”) and to finger-pick them rather than strum them.
Some 30 years later, Portuguese field workers arrived in Hawaii and brought their favorite instrument with them – the braguinha. The Hawaiians were fascinated with it and nicknamed it “jumping flea,” or “ukulele,” denoting the swiftness with which the player’s fingers move. (There are other theories as to the term’s origin, but we’ll stick with this one.)
In the late 19th century, King David Kalakaua was promoting Hawaiian culture abroad. His sister, Liliuokalani, composed music herself, and wrote several enduring songs such as “Aloha ‘Oe.” Worldwide awareness was launched.
At the beginning of the 20th century, traditional Hawaiian music with English lyrics became popular, called “hapa-haole” music by locals. Hawaiian musicians toured the United States, often in small bands. The increasing popularization of their music began to influence blues and country musicians.
Here in Hawaii, the most influential slack-key guitarist has been the late Gabby Pahinui, who began recording in 1947. His albums are still treasures. Today, there are slack-key festivals on all the islands. Don Ho became an icon for Hawaiian music in the 60’s, combining traditional Hawaiian elements with 1950s and 1960s-style crooner stylings.
An easy way to hear good Hawaiian music while you’re here is to walk along Waikiki Beach, where hotel venues feature local musicians doing their thing for all within earshot to hear. And, on any island, evening beach gatherings attract local musicians with their guitars, ukes, and ipu or bongos. It’s really good listening.