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 some of Hawaii’s most popular songs in the mid 1860s, when he was 10-14 years old. (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. (Why did Mexican cowboys come to Hawaii in the first place? In 1793 a British captain gave King Kamehameha I a present of five head of cattle. The King forbade Hawaiians from harming them by law and allowed them to free reign of Hawaii’s “Big Island.” By 1830 there were so many cattle roaming freely on the Big Island–getting into mischief, destroying crops–that Kamehameha III brought in 200 Mexican cowboys, many bearing guitars, to ranch them. [Learn a bit more about how cows and Mexican cowboys in Hawaii in the “History of Hispanics in Hawaii” by the Hawaii Hispanic News]) Hawaiians took the guitar 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 the steel guitar, though Hawaii is also famous for introducing the ukelele: