Many music historians say that Hawaii 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.) 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. Let’s watch this video of Ledward Kapana playing “I Kona” on the Slack-Key guitar.
This week we’re so lucky to be able to travel to one of the most delightful, most multicultural and, in many interpretive ways, the most “American” of all American states – Hawaii. White this glorious group of islands may not have formerly become the 50th American state until 1959–can you even imagine the American flag with just 49 stars…?–Hawaii has been in America’s sphere of influence, and part of the American consciousness, since the late 1800s. As we learned during our “folk and country” week, all American musical genres began as a mishmash of global sounds. This week we’ll see how Hawaiian music became part of America’s musical landscape long before Hawaii formally filled out the flag.
We end our week of disco delights with one more Hustle. Disco embraced its (many) critics’ complaints that musicians — or, more directly, big record companies seeking big profit — engineered the genre for mass-market appeal. Proponents responded by promoting disco as a warm and welcoming music, simple and inviting by design so everyone could participate. Whatever side of this meta-music scuffle you take, all can agree that disco dancing gave everyone, of every imaginable skill level, the opportunity to shake their booties. As this video from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis proves beyond all doubt, everyone can learn to disco dance.
Van McCoy’s 1975 disco mega-hit “The Hustle” empowered dancers around the world to “get in line’ — line dances with simple moves gave everyone the chance to become disco stars. You don’t even need to wear snazzy nightclub clothes to disco dance! Proof in point — “this video” of prisoners in the Phillippines shows us how it’s done.
Disco music was nothing without dance, and disco dancing was fantastic. The music’s multiple layers of horns, keyboards, cascading background vocals and futuristic sound effects conspired with the ever-flashing lights on the nightclub floor to make dancers soar. The best disco dancing was acrobatic and inventive; the best dancers improvised and impressed, weaving in moves from almost every genre from breakdancing to salsa to swing. But disco dancing was also inclusive. Group dancing became one of the most energizing features of the disco scene. Dancers would line up in rows and follow well-known routines that featured much jumping, twisting, swaying of hips and whole a lot of pointing to the ceiling. You don’t have to be John Travolta — or even Van McCoy — to “Do the Hustle.”
In the tempestuous late ’60s and ’70s America, socially-conscious youth sought in lyrics of the most popular musicians like the Beatles and Bob Dylan a philosphical roadmap for how to navigate such troubling times. When disco emerged in the mid-’70s, one of the critics’ primarily compaints about the genre is that its lyrics were completely devoid of philosophical or political import. The 1974 hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” sung by Carl Douglas, provided a kind of roadmap for the burgeoning genre–a catchy song with a great beat that’s not so heavy on lyrical meaning. Let’s meet disco as much of Europe did–with performances “Kung Fu Fighting,” such as the one in this video, in West Germany.
One of the earliest disco hits was “Rock the Boat” — and what a hit it was. Released in 1973, topping the charts in 1974, the song by the California-based The Hues Corporation was a dance track before all else. The group formed in 1969 and hit the mainstream in 1972 when they provided three songs for the now-legendary “blaxploitation” film, Blacula. “Rock the Boat” took them, and disco music soon thereafter, into the pop culture stratosphere. Watch this video and you’ll know why.
Like most musical genres, disco didn’t just appear fully formed, but rather emerged bit by bit as R&B, Motown, Latin and Jazz musicians added new beats, lavish production and synthesized instruments to their songs. By the early ’70s songs like African artists Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” had started to weave funk, soul and electronic sounds together to form a new form of dance music. Let’s get into the groove as we watch this video of Manu Dibango taking care of business.
In the 1970s in the United States, depending very much on who you asked, the new genre of urban dance music known as “disco” was either a stunning musical embodiment of recently emergent liberation movements for women, African-Americans, Latino and homosexual men or a kind of music so flagrantly apolitical it required a violent response. The late ’60s in America had been an intense and exhausting time of social and cultural change. By the early ’70s enough people were tired of politics, tired of interracial violence, tired of war, that they welcomed a kind of music whose stated goal was to make them dance. This week we’re going to meet some of our favorite disco icons and land squarely on the side of disco being AWESOME. Disco fever!
We end this week with our verrrrrrrry basic version of the basic salsa dance step. Remember that many of the kids in All Around This World classes are too young to walk, let alone dance! Okay, for me, I know that’s no excuse…. In our Salsa dance we choose to start “on the 1,” meaning we begin our phrase — “Sal-SA dance, Sal-SA dance” on the first beat of the measure, which you would likely do if you’re enjoying styles from L.A. rather than starting “on the 2,” which you might be inspired to do in New York.