Hawaiian Musics (Plural) – Part 1
There’s a Grammy Award given for “Hawaiian Music,” but that’s just one category. And as most local musicians and enthusiasts can tell you, there are many varieties of “Hawaiian” music in Hawaii.
More often than not, that Grammy goes to a “slack key” artist, whose finger-picking guitar style involves loosening one or more of the six strings. So, there are dozens of slack-key tunings, some of which originated 100 or more years ago, when players who did not know the instrument’s “correct” tuning began to invent their own.
Slack key may be widely recognized – and rewarded – but it is not the Islands’ only musical style. The earliest Hawaiian music comes from their oral tradition of aboriginal chants, known collectively as mele.
These include invocations, prayers, rituals, and mythological stories, usually sung unaccompanied or with gourd drums or rattles. Mele are widely heard, today, especially in official or public events and dedications, and as accompaniment for traditional hula.
During the 19th century, haoles brought Old-World music to Hawaii.
It was immediately popular with the ali’i (royalty), who set Hawaiian poems to Western-style melodies, with harmonies they’d learned from singing Christian hymns. By the 1880s, King Kalakaua had a royal band, and his bandmaster had set the monarch’s poem “Hawaii Pono’e” to stately music. You hear it now, as the State anthem, typically sung at the start of a public event. At the end of that event, however, many people will spontaneously sing “Hawaii Aloha” – the beloved though unofficial anthem, written around 1860 by a commoner, Makua Laiana. And by the time she was deposed, at the turn of the century, Queen Liliuokalani had written dozens of popular songs, most famously “Aloha Oe.”
But most of what people call “Hawaiian music” today had its origins in the 20th century. I’ll tell you about that in my next column.