Before Westerners arrived in the Hawaiian islands, Hawaiian folk music, like much other “pre-contact” music from Polynesia, featured many kinds of chant-songs, known
as mele, and much spiritual dance, known as hula. In Hawaii, music and dance have always played an essential role in family and communal celebrations. Even after Western settlement, music was so much at the essence of Hawaiian life that the royal family was also one the nation’s most musical families. For example, Hawaiian Prince Leleiohuku,
brother of Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, is rumored to have written the song on our CD we call “In the Ocean Spray” in the mid 1860s, when he was 10-14 years old, about a secret meeting with a girl. (Leleiohuku died when he was 23.)Â Lili’uokalani was a prolific composer in her own right; she even wrote Hawaii’s most famous song of all time–Aloha ‘Oe. Hawaiian’s first met the guitar when Mexican cowboys brought it to the islands in the 1800s. Hawaiians took the instrument and changed the way the strings are tuned, enabling musicians to change the chords by sliding one finger up and down its neck. Sliding notes up and down the guitar fretboard seemed to be a natural complement to the swaying and sliding Polynesian folk songs.

The main Hawaiian guitar styles are slack-key guitar and
slide/lap steel guitar:

–SLACK-KEY GUITAR: an acoustic, fingerstyle style that arose as a low-key, island-based genre and only since the 1970s has it become well known worldwide. The name “slack key” comes from the practice of the guitarist’s loosening, or making “slack” the strings of a guitar until together they play a single chord. [National Geographic tells us about slack key guitar music | Watch slack key guitar masters Ledward Kaapana and George Kahumoku play this distinctly mellow kind of music.]

–“SLIDE”/LAP STEEL GUITAR: a style of guitar playing that original in the late 1800s when Hawaiian guitarist Joseph Kekuku realized he could make a unique and, frankly, quite beautiful sound when changing the tuning of his steel guitar, resting it on his lap and sliding a metal bolt or bar up and down the fretboard to reach the desired note. Kekuku’s steel guitar style eventually spread worldwide. [Read the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association’s history of the steel guitar | Here’s an example of acoustic Hawaiian slide guitar.]

Another Hawaii “invention” that has become popular well beyond the borders of the Hawiian islands is the UKELELE. Portuguese immigrants first brought small guitars with them to Hawaii in the late 1800s. Hawaiians took these small European guitars–known as cavaquinhos–and renamed them “ukeleles,” legendarily from the words “uku (flea)” and “lele (jumping).” [Watch ukelele-master Ohta-San play “Waipo.”]

Hawaiian musicians have always demonstrated the ability to maintain their own musical traditions while still absorbing genres from abroad. For example, since the late 1980s Hawaiians–ethnic Hawaiians in particular–have adopted reggae so completely that they’ve developed their own sub-genre called “JAWAIIAN.” Hawaiian fans of Jawaiian music are known to wear the clothing featuring the colors of the Ethiopian flag (red, yellow and green), and Bob Marley memorabilia is popular. [Let the Jawaiian Jam All Stars “take you back to the 1990s.”]

In class we’re going to listen to:

— Gabby Pahinui, “Leahi” Beloved Hawaiian slack-key guitar master Gabby Pahinui began his work life as a road crew laborer but eventually caught the ear of the local record industry. He was the first slack-key guitarist to record a hit, “Hilawe”–possibly the first slack-key guitarist to record at all–and in the ’40s and ’50s pioneered slack-key guitar playing to a point it which it came to channel the very soul of the islands. In the 1970s Pahinui and slack-key guitar played an important role in the Hawaiian Renaissance, boldly supporting the performance of Hawaiian music as a way inspire Hawaiians to empower themselves culturally and politically.

More information:
Learn more about Gabby Pahinui, the slack-key guitar and the Slack Key Festival | Watch Gabby Pahinui play “Hilawe”

— Sudden Rush, “Pure Aloha” Sudden Rush is one of the most popular acts to emerge in the genre of NA MELE PALEOLEO, a form of Hawaiian spoken-word poetry that has transformed into a subgenre of hip hop. Formed in Hilo in the mid-’90s, Sudden Rush was among the first Hawaiian acts to embrace global hip hop as a musical mechanism for delivering their truly Hawaiian tales. Their lyrics largely focus on provocative Hawaiian social and cultural issues, challenging U.S. colonialism and delving into the complexity of the real life in “paradise.”

More information:
Read a good review of Sudden Rush’s 1997 na mele paleoleo album, “Ku’e,” which includes and introduction to the band | Listen to Sudden Rush “join” Gabby Pahinui in a rousing rendition of “Hilawe”

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