Hawaiian Music

 Music is a universal language that is employed in many different ways across many different lands. It can be found in an array of forms such as: rap, country, reggae, and hip-hop. Hawaii, the next stop on our journey around the world of music, includes a wide variety of genres that covers anywhere from traditional and popular styles of Hawaiian folk music, to modern rock and hip-hop. Hawaiian music not only influenced and preserved Hawaiian culture, but it also helped to improve the music and entertainment industry throughout the world.

The earliest recorded Hawaiian contribution was to the country music genre. In the late nineteenth century, the steel-string guitar arrived, along with the Portuguese.

              Hawaiian legend states that in 1879, a ship carrying Portuguese field workers docked in Hawaii, and on of the men, Fernades, later a popular musician, tried to impress the locals by playing folk music on a friend’s braguinha, which is a small, four-stringed Madeira variant of the cavaquinho, which was the precursor to the popular ‘ukulele’ (Unterberger).

               As previously mentioned, the ukulele was introduced near the close of the nineteenth century. In Hawaiian, ukulele literally means “flea (uku) jumping (lele).” It was called this because when plucked, the high pitch the strings create brings to mind the image of a jumping flea. There are currently four sizes of the ukulele and they are: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.

Here is a traditional ukulele song:

            The Hawaiian musical industry has contributed the slack-key guitar to the music of the world, and Hawaiian-tinged music is frequently apart of Hollywood soundtracks (Tatar). Slack-key guitar is part of the fingerstyle genre of guitar music that began in Hawaii. The English term of “slack-key” is a translation of the Hawaiian kī hōʻalu, that means “loosen the [tuning] key.” The slack-key tunings can be accomplished by starting with a guitar in standard tuning and “slacking” or detuning one or more string until the six strings form a single chord. One indication of it’s increasing public appearance beyond the Islands is that the first four winners of the Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album were slack key collections: Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2 in 2005, Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Volume 1 in 2006, Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar-Live from Maui and “Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar- Live in Concert from Maui” (Ryan). Here is a clip from the 2010 Slack Key Guitar Festival where you can really here the Hispanic twangy influences. Although it is played in multiple pitches they all cascade together to create a beautiful melody.:

            The folk music of Hawaii includes numerous varieties of chanting (mele) and music meant for highly ritualized dance (hula).  Traditionally, the music and dance of Hawaii was functional, used for praise, to communicate mythology, and accompany games, festivals, and other secular events. Hawaiian folk music, as you can hear is simple in melody and rhythm, but is “complex and rich” in the “poetry, accompanying mimetic dance (hula), and subtleties of vocal styles…even in the attenuated forms in which they survive today.” Hawaii is also the dominating homestead for hula dancing. It hosts the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which brings together groups from around the world.

            Here is a clip from the 2011 Merrie Monarch Hula Festival that features a woman’s dance team dancing to an O’ahu Medley. It’s interesting how quiet the song starts out, and then all of a sudden transforms into a louder more upbeat song.


            Also, not only can woman compete, so can men. Here is a video from the 2009 Merrie Monarch Mens Hula Festival. It differs greatly from the one previously mentioned in the way they utilize Antiphony. In the beginning (at 0.40 s) the drum player calls the men to stage and then beats the drum to finalize it. It’s as if he’s a drill sergeant, or conductor. Then at 1:17 the dancers answer and begin their dance.

              Mele, or chanting, is usually accompanied by an ipu heke (a double gourd) and/ or pahu (sharkskin covered drum). At least they’re using their shark-infested waters usefully! Some dances require dancers to utilize hula implements such as an ipu (single gourd), ʻiliʻili (water worn lava stone castanets), ʻuliʻuli (feathered gourd rattles), pu`ʻli (split bamboo sticks) or kalaʻau (rhythm sticks). Kahiko, is the older, formal kind of hula. Whereas the modern version is ‘auana.

Here is the ipu heke: a percussion instrument

Here is the paku: tempo drum

Here is the ‘uli’uli: moraccas

              In the late 1980’s the Hawaiian style of reggae, Jawaiian, started to become popular. It was a mixture of reggae and local music. The band Simplisity is credited by Quiet Storm Records as the originators the Jawaiian style. At the conclusion of the 1980s, Jawaiian became the dominating scene of Hawaii, and many locals can be seen sporting Bob Marley memorabilia.

            The Ka’ala Boys are a prime example of modern Jawaiian music. Their song, Slow Down, consists of an upbeat tempo that remains constant throughout. They also sing in harmony in the chorus, and their rhythm exhibits that of a slowly bouncing head.

               In the mid 1990’s Hawaii was blessed with a new up and coming artist: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole “Iz.” His voice became famous outside of Hawaii when his album Facing Future was released in 1993. It featured his beautiful medley of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” which was subsequently featured in numerous films, television programs and advertisement commercials (Kamakawiwo’ole).

            Iz exhibits skillful ukulele playing and incorporation of other genres (such as jazz and reggae), and still remains a very strong influence in Hawaiian music. He died a premature death in 1997 from severe obesity (Hartwell).

Switching over to the entertainment industry, Hawaii has been featured in numerous Hollywood films, specifically Blue Hawaii, Soul Surfer, and Lilo and Stitch.

            In 2002, the movie Lilo and Stitch was released and the setting depicts Hawaii at its finest. The movie features the song He Mele No Lilo, which is a contemporary hula dance song, and here is the clip from the movie that shows how simple, and yet complex the dance is.

             Soul Surfer, the movie based on the true story of the tragic shark bite Bethany Hamilton received while surfing also features numerous Hawaiian songs. The tempo is very slow, and yet moves the song along at the same time. You can tell how the musical relationship of instrumentation and voice plays an important role in almost every Hawaiian song.

              Therefore, musical heritage obviously defines an area, and traditional Hawaiian folk music does just that. The Hawaiian natives have lived on the islands for many centuries, and have managed to preserve much of their traditional musical knowledge that we are able to enjoy today. Although the majority of Hawaiian music is largely religious in nature, and includes dance (hula) and chanting (mele), it also features up-and-coming styles like Jawaiian, and Hawaiian music has been featured in numerous movie soundtracks.



Works Cited

Hartwell, Jay. “Article by Jay Hartwell of the University of Hawai’I at Manoa” Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

Kamakawiwoʻole, Israel. Facing Future [Sound Recording] / Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. n.p.: Honolulu : Bigboy           Record Co. : Exclusively distributed by the Mountain Apple Co., p1993., 1993. Greenwood Library Catalog. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

Renee, Montagne. “Israel Kamakawiwo’ole: The Voice Of Hawaii.” Morning Edition (NPR) (n.d.): Newspaper Source Plus. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Ryan, Tim. “Hawaiian Grammy .” Honolulu Star . 14 Feb. 2005: n. page. Web. 24 Apr. 2013 <http://archives.starbulletin.com/2005/02/14/news/story1.html>.

Tatar, Elizabeth (1979). “Slack Key Guitar,”. In Kanahele, George S., ed. Hawaiian Music and Musicians. University Press of Hawaii. pp. 350–360.

Unterberger, Richie (1999). Music USA: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides. pp. 465–473.


    • Melissa Tussing on April 28, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    I absolutely love the music of Hawaii! My favorite instrument of course being the Ukulele. Have you heard of Jake Shimabukuro, though? He is a Hawaiian native who has taken the traditional way of playing ukulele and made it sound almost like a small group of classical guitars!
    He has gained incredible amounts of fame for ability on the Ukulele. And of course, he mostly covers songs that would not be traditional to Hawaii or their culture, but places more of a focus on modern American music.

  1. Great post! I absolutely love Hawaiian culture and Hawaii is such a beautiful place. A big part of Hawaii is its music. Hawaiian music combines the sounds of the ancient Islanders who beat drums, blew conch shells, and chanted to their gods. It contains the styles of 19th-century Christian missionaries who taught Islanders to sing in four-part harmony. The Hawaiians are praised for three contributions to music history; slack-key guitar, steel guitar and the ukulele. The slack key guitar (a tuning effect achieved by loosening the strings) is a favorite in Hawaiian music. The steel guitar is played horizontally with a metal slide. The ukulele is used in many modern styles and blends of Reggae, Rock and traditional Hawaiian music, as a lead and rhythm instrument.

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