Music of Hawaii

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

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Honolulu Symphony Orchestra - Maui Academy of Performing Arts - Honolulu Chamber Music Society
Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts - Hawaii Music Awards - Hawaiian Music Foundation - Ukulele Guild of Hawaii
Honokaa People's Theatre - Neal S. Blaisdell Centre
Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival - Gabby Pahinui/Atta Isaacs Slack Key Festival - Hamakua Music Festival - Hawaii Performing Arts Festival - Merrie Monarch Festival
State song " Hawaii ponoi"
Other topics Hawaiian folk music - Music of Honolulu - Polynesian music

The music of Hawai`i includes an array of traditional and popular styles, ranging from native Hawaiian folk music to modern rock and hip hop. Hawaii's musical contributions to the music of the United States are out of proportion to the state's small size. Styles like slack-key guitar are well-known worldwide, while Hawaiian-tinged music is a frequent part of Hollywood soundtracks. Hawaii also made a major contribution to country music with the introduction of the steel guitar.

Traditional Hawaiian folk music is a major part of the state's musical heritage. The Hawaiian people have inhabited the islands for centuries and have retained much of their traditional musical knowledge. Their music is largely religious in nature, and includes chanting and dance music. Hawaiian music has had an enormous impact on the music of other Polynesian islands; indeed, music author Peter Manuel called the influence of Hawaiian music a "unifying factor in the development of modern Pacific musics".

Music festivals and venues

Major music festivals in Hawai`i include the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which brings together hula groups from across the world, as well as a number of slack-key and steel guitar festivals: Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival, Steel Guitar Association Festival and the Gabby Pahinui/Atta Isaacs Slack Key Festival. April's Aloha Week is a popular tourist attraction, as is the Moloka'i Music Festival held around Labor Day. There is also a Hawaii International Jazz Festival, which was founded in 1993, and holds festivals on O'ahu, Hawaii, Maui and Kauai.

Hawai`i is home to numerous hotels, most of which feature music in the afternoon or evening; some of the more prominent ones include the Kahala Hilton, the Sheraton Moana Hotel, Casanova's and the King Kamehameha Hotel. Large music venues in Hawaii include the University Theatre, which has 600 seats and is the largest venue on the Big Island. The largest venue and cultural exhibition centre on Kauai is the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Centre. The Neal S. Blaisdell Centre is the largest venue in Honolulu and among the largest in the state. The historic Lanai Theatre is a cultural landmark on Lanai, dating back to the 1930s.

Music institutions and industry

Hawai`i is home to a number of renowned music institutions in several fields. The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra is an important part of the state's musical history, and is the oldest orchestra in the United States west of the Rocky Mountains, founded in 1900. The Orchestra has collaborated with other local institutions, like the Hawaii Opera Theatre and the O'ahu Choral Society's Honolulu Symphony Chorus, which operates the Hawai`i International Choral Festival.

Folk music

Hawaiian folk music includes several varieties of chanting (mele) and music meant for highly-ritualized dance (hula). Traditional Hawaiian music and dance was functional, used to express praise, communicate genealogy and mythology and accompany games, festivals and other secular events. The Hawaiian language has no word that translates precisely as music, but a diverse vocabulary exists to describe rhythms, instruments, styles and elements of voice production. Hawaiian folk music 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 attentuated forms in which they survive today".

Hula performance at a ceremony turning over U.S. Navy control over the island of Kahoolawe to the state
Hula performance at a ceremony turning over U.S. Navy control over the island of Kahoolawe to the state

The chant (mele) is typically accompanied by an ipu heke (a double gourd drum) and/or pahu (sharkskin covered drum). Some dances require dancers to utilize hula implements such as an ipu (single gourd drum), `ili`ili (waterworn lava stone castanets), `uli`uli (feathered gourd rattles), pu`ili (split bamboo sticks) or kala`au (rhythm sticks). The older, formal kind of hula is called kahiko, while the modern version is `auana. There are also religious chants called oli; when accompanied by dancing and drums, it is called mele hula pahu.

In the pre-contact Hawaiian language, the word mele referred to any kind of poetic expression, though it now translates as song. The two kinds of Hawaiian chanting were mele oli and mele hula. The first were a cappella individual songs, while the latter were accompanied dance music performed by a group. The chanters were known as haku mele and were highly-trained composers and performers. Some kinds of chants express emotions like angst and affection, or request a favour from another person. Other chants are for specific purposes like naming, (mele inoa), prayer (mele pule), surfing (mele he'e nalu) and genealogical recitations (mele koihonua). Mele chants were governed by strict rules, and were performed in a number of styles include the rapid kepakepa and the enunciate koihonua.

Music history

Historical documentation of Hawaiian music does not extend prior to the late 18th century, when foreign colonizers arrived on the island. During this period, Hawaii began a period of acculturation with the introduction of numerous styles of European music, including the hymns (himeni) introduced by Protestant missionary choirs. Mexican and Spanish cowboys, or paniolos, were particularly influential immigrants in the field of music, introducing falsetto singing and the use of string instruments such as the guitar, while Portuguese sailors brought the ukulele-like braguinha.

Elizabeth Tatar divided Hawaiian music history into seven periods, beginning with the initial arrival of Europeans and their musical cultures, spanning approximately from 1820 to 1872. The subsequent period lasted to the beginning of the 20th century, and was marked by the creation of an acculturated yet characteristically Hawaiian modern style, while European instruments spread across the islands. Tatar's third period, from 1900 to about 1915, saw the integration of Hawaiian music into the broader field of American popular music, with the invention of hapa haole songs, which use the English language and only superficial elements of Hawaiian music; the beginning of the Hawaiian recording industry was in 1906, when the Victor Talking Machine Company made the first 53 recordings in the state. By 1912, recorded Hawaiian music had found an audience on the American mainland.

From 1915 to 1930, mainstream audiences outside of Hawaii became increasingly enamoured of Hawaiian music, though by this time the songs marketed as Hawaiian had only tangential relations to actual Hawaiian music. Tahitian and Samoan music had an influence on Hawaiian music during this period, especially in their swifter and more intricate rhythms. The following era, from about 1930 to 1960, has been called the "Golden Age of Hawaiian music", when popular styles were adapted for orchestras and big bands, and Hawaiian performers like Lani MacIntire and Sol Hoopii became mainstream stars. In the 1960s, Hawaiian-style music declined in popularity amid an influx of rock, soul and pop acts from the American mainland. This trend reversed itself in the final period of Hawaiian music history, the modern period beginning with the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s and continuing with the foundation of a variety of modern music scenes in fields like indie rock, Hawaiian hip hop and Jawaiian.

Queen Lili'uokalani and Henry Berger

Queen Lili'uokalani
Queen Lili'uokalani

Queen Lili'uokalani was the last Queen of Hawaii before the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown. She was also a musician and composer, known for the unofficial Hawaiian anthem " Aloha 'Oe". Though she arranged the music for "Aloha 'Oe", and wrote the lyrics, she appropriated the tune from a Croatian folk song called "Sidi Mara na kamen studencu".

Lili'uokalani was one of many members of the Hawaiian royal family with musical inclinations. They studied under a Prussian military bandleader, Henry Berger, who was sent by the Kaiser at the request of Kamehameha V. Berger became fascinated by Hawaiian folk music, and wrote much documentation on it. However, he also brought his own musical background in German music, and heavily guided the Hawaiian musicians and composers he worked with. As a result, the traditional Hawaiian music that he documented was a hybrid of native and German styles, brought both by Berger and Lutheran missionaries.

Guitar innovations

Guitars could have come to Hawaii from several sources: sailors, missionaries, or travelers to and from California. The most frequently-told story is that it accompanied the Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) brought by King Kamehameha III in 1832 in order to teach the natives how to control an overpopulation of cattle. The Hawaiian cowboys (paniolo) used guitars in their traditional folk music. The Portuguese introduced an instrument called the braguinha, a small, four-stringed Madeira variant of the cavaquinho; this instrument was a precursor to the `ukulele.

Steel-string guitars also arrived with the Portuguese in the 1860s and slack-key had spread across the chain by the late 1880s. Legend has it that a ship called the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu on August 23, 1879, bringing Portuguese field workers from Madeira. One of the men, João Fernandes, later a popular musician, tried to impress the Hawaiians by playing folk music with a friend's braguinha; the Hawaiians called the instrument `ukulele (jumping flea) in reference to the man's swift fingers. Others have claimed the word means gift that came here or a corruption of ukeke lele (dancing ukeke, a three-string bow).

Late 19th and early 20th century

1913 sheet music cover
1913 sheet music cover

In the 1880s and 90s, King David Kalakaua promoted Hawaiian culture and also encouraged the addition of new instruments, such as the ukulele and steel guitar. Kalakaua's successor, his sister Lili'uokalani, composed music herself, and wrote several songs, like "Aloha 'Oe", which remain popular. During this period, Hawaiian music evolved into a "new distinctive" style, using the derivatives of European instruments; aside from the widespread string instruments, brass bands like the Royal Hawaiian Band performed Hawaiian songs as well as popular marches and ragtimes.

In about 1900, Joseph Kekuku began sliding a piece of steel across slacked keys, thus inventing steel guitar (kila kila); at about the same time, traditional Hawaiian music with English lyrics became popular — this was called hapa haole. Vocals predominated in Hawaiian music until the 20th century, when instrumentation took a lead role. Much of modern slack-key guitar has become entirely instrumental.

From about 1895 to 1915, Hawaiian music dance bands became in demand more and more. These were typically string quintets. Ragtime music influenced the music, and English words were commonly used in the lyrics. This type of Hawaiian music, influenced by popular music and with lyrics being a combination of English and Hawaiian (or wholly English), is called hapa haole music. In 1903, Albert "Sonny" Cunha composed My Waikiki Mermaid, arguably the first hapa haole song.

In 1927, Rose Moe (1908 - 1999), a Hawaiian singer, with her husband Tau Moe (1908 - 2004), a Samoan guitarist, began touring with Madame Riviere's Hawaiians. In 1929 they recorded eight songs in Tokyo, one of the first recordings of traditional Hawaiian music. Rose and Tau continued touring for over fifty years, living in countries such as Germany, Lebanon and India. With their children, the Tau Moe family did much to spread the sound of Hawaiian folk music and hapa haole music throughout the world. In 1988, the Tau Moe family re-recorded the 1929 sessions with the help of musician and ethnomusicologist Bob Brozman.

The 1920s also saw the development of a uniquely Hawaiian style of jazz, innovated by performers at the Moana and Royal Hawaiian Hotels.

Slack key guitar

Slack-key guitar (kī ho`alu in Hawaiian) is a fingerpicked playing style, named for the fact that the strings are most often "slacked" or loosened to create an open (unfingered) chord, either a major chord (G or C, sometimes D) or a major 7th. (The latter are called "wahine" tunings.) A tuning might be invented to play a particular song or facilitate a particular effect, and as late as the 1960s they were often treated as family secrets and passed from generation to generation. By the time of the Hawaiian Renaissance, though, the example of players such as Auntie Alice Namakelua, Leonard Kwan, Raymond Kane, and Keola Beamer had encouraged the sharing of the tunings and techniques and probably saved the style from extinction. Playing techniques include "hammering-on", "pulling-off", "chimes" (harmonics), and "slides," and these effects frequently mimic the falsettos and vocal breaks common in Hawaiian singing.

The guitar entered Hawaiian culture from a number of directions—sailors, settlers, contract workers. One important source of the style was Mexican cowboys hired to work on the Big Island of Hawai`i in the first half of the 19th century. These paniolo brought their guitars and their music, and when they left, the Hawaiians developed their own style of playing the instrument.

Slack key guitar evolved to accompany the rhythms of Hawaiian dancing and the melodies of Hawaiian chant. Hawaiian music in general, which was promoted under the reign of King David Kalakaua as a matter of national pride, drew rhythms from traditional Hawaiian beats and military marches, and drew its melodies from Christian hymns and the cosmopolitan peoples of the islands (although principally American).


In the early 20th century Hawaiians began touring the United States, often in small bands. A Broadway show called Bird of Paradise introduced Hawaiian music to many Americans in 1912 and the Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco followed in 1915; one year later, Hawaiian music sold more recordings than any other style in the country. The increasing popularization of Hawaiian music influenced blues and country musicians; this connection can still be heard in modern country. In reverse, musicians like Bennie Nawahi began incorporating jazz into his steel guitar, ukulele and mandolin music, while the Kalama Quartet introduced a style of group falsetto singing. The musician Sol Ho'opii arose during this time, playing both Hawaiian music and jazz, Western swing and country, and developing the pedal steel guitar; his recordings helped establish the Nashville sound of popular country music.

In the 1920s and 30s, Hawaiian music became an integral part of local tourism, with most hotels and attractions incorporating music in one form or another. Among the earliest and most popular musical attractions was the Kodak Hula Show, sponsored by Kodak, in which a tourist purchased Kodak film and took photographs of dancers and musicians. The show ran from 1937 through 2002. In the first half of the 20th century, the mostly-young men who hung around the Honolulu beaches, swimming and surfing, came to be known as the Waikiki Beachboys and their parties became famous across Hawaii and abroad; most of them played the ukulele all day long, sitting on the beach and eventually began working for hotels to entertain tourists.

Popular Hawaiian music with English verse (hapa haole) can be described in a narrow sense. Generally, songs are sung to the ukulele or steel guitar. A steel string guitar sometimes accompanies. Melodies often feature an intervallic leap, such as a perfect fourth or octave. Falsetto vocals are suited for such leaps and are common in Hawaiian singing, as is the use of microtones. Rhythm is mostly in duple meter. A musical scale that is unique to Hawaiian music imbues it with its distinct feel, and so is aptly named the Hawaiian scale.

Modern music

In recent decades, traditional Hawaiian music has undergone a renaissance, with renewed interest from both ethnic Hawaiians and others. The islands have also produced a number of well-regarded rock, pop, hip hop, soul and reggae performers. Hawaii has its own regional music industry, with several distinctive styles of recorded popular music. Hawaiian popular music is largely based on American popular music, but does have distinctive retentions from traditional Hawaiian music.

Hawaiian Renaissance

The Hawaiian Renaissance was a resurgence in interest in Hawaiian music, especially slack-key, among ethnic Hawaiians. Long-standing performers like Gabby Pahinui found their careers revitalized; Pahinui, who had begun recording in 1947, finally reached mainstream audiences across the United States when sessions on which Ry Cooder played with him and his family were released as The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Vol. 1 on a major mainland label. Pahinui inspired a legion of followers who played a mix of slack-key, reggae, country, rock and other styles. The more traditional players included Leland "Atta" Isaacs, Sr., Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, Leonard Kwan, Ledward Ka`apana, while Keola Beamer and Peter Moon have been more eclectic in their approach. George Kanahele's Hawaiian Music Foundation did much to spread slack-key and other forms of Hawaiian music, especially after a major 1972 concert.

Don Ho from the small Honolulu neighbourhood of Kaka'ako figures among the more widely known Hawaiian musicians. Although he perhaps does not produce completely "traditional" Hawaiian music, Ho has become an unofficial ambassador of Hawaiian culture throughout the world as well as on the American mainland. Ho's style often appears to combine traditional Hawaiian elements and older 1950s and 1960s-style crooner music with an easy listening touch.


Jawaiian is a Hawaiian style of reggae music, a genre that evolved in the late 1960s and early 70s in Jamaica. Reggae has become popular across the world, especially among ethnic groups and races that have been historically oppressed, such as Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and New Zealand Maori, and Australian Aborigines. In Hawaii, ethnic Hawaiians and others in the state began playing a mixture of reggae and local music in the early 1990s. By the end of that decade, it had come to dominate the local music scene, as well as spawned a backlash that the Honolulu Star-Bulletin compared to the " disco sucks" movement of the late 1970s.

Hip Hop

Hawaii Hip Hop can be dated back to its first inception back in the early 1980s (though the birth of Hip Hop can be dated as far back as the early 1970s, originating in New York City). With breakthrough A.M. radio station KISA playing Hip Hop in the prime time. Radio personalities for KISA included Auntie Loki, Johnny Jay Jam and Mother Goose. In regards to the continuation and preservation of Hawaii Hip Hop on the airwaves, came Kavet the Catalyst of the LightSleepers camp, and he hosted a radio show on the University of Hawaii's KTUH. You can still tune in to KTUH periodically to find the tradition living on strong with current DJs/hosts. KIKI (FM) also played a big role in bringing Hip Hop to mainstream radio. Campbellock dancer, Double Klutch, is noted as being one of Hawaii's most veteran Hip Hop dancers. Some of the Hawaii Hip Hop crews & solo emcees include the Aiga, Nomasterbacks, Direct Descendants, HI State, Umgawd, Deadmonkeys, Audible Lab Rats, Sisters in Sound, Omega Cix, Earth Movers, Amphibieus Tungs, 808 Natives, P.O.P. (Prince's of Percussions), Club Rox Rock, Rhythm & Rhyme, C.O.D. (Concept's of Desire), Skream Team and many more. One of the first ever solo artists noted to do Hawaiian Hip Hop was a Hawaiian female emcee by the name of, Charlotte Kaluna, better known as Frumpy. One of the first Hawaiian Hip Hop groups, Sudden Rush, received notice for their integration of Hawaiian language into their rhymes, and came up with the term na mele paleoleo (literally "music of fast repetitive poetry") to describe their music. Asita Recordings, Tiki Entertainment and Flip the Bird Entertainment are prominent Hawaii based hip hop record labels. Quad Mag a long-standing zine that covers the Hawaii Hip Hop scene. Another longtime contributor is producer & dj, DJ ELITE, of Elite Empire Entertainment, Hawaii's first Hip Hop DJ Champion.



Some notable current jazz musicians in Hawaii include Gabe Baltazar (saxophone), Robert Shinoda, Tim Tsukiyama, DeShannon Higa (trumpet), Danny Del Negro, Abe Weistein (saxophone), David Choy (saxophone), Rich Crandall (piano), Abe Lagrimas Jr. (drums), John Kolivas (bass), and Adam Baron (drums). There are frequent performances by the two University of Hawaii jazz bands.


Regular venues to hear jazz in Honolulu include:
  • Ward Rafters , a residential home in Kaimuki (3810 Maunaloa Ave.) converted into an indoor stage with performances every Sunday afternoon
  • The Honolulu Club : Robert Shinoda's rotating group is featured here. In the 1990's this group played regularly at the Music Union building.
  • Jazz Minds : DeShannon Higa's improv groove group plays here, as well as other groups. Higa also formerly appeared regularly at the Music Union building in the late 1990s.
  • 39 Hotel : Regular location of the Newjass Quartet.


  • Hawaii International Jazz Festival
  • University of Hawaii Jazz Ensembles


Some well known ukulele recording artists include Jake Shimabukuro, Abe Lagrimas Jr., Herb Ohta, Jr., Brittni Paiva, Daniel Ho, Benny Chong, and Ululwehi Guerrero.


The music that is considered popular or "underground" in Hawaii does not necessarily correspond to similar genres in mainland areas of the U.S.A. This is partly a result of Hawaiian music, which appeals to many generations over. Whereas music like heavy metal or punk rock appeals primarily to a more youthful generation, and is not considered as commercially attractive to tourism.

It is difficult to promote popular acts from the mainland due to its geographical isolation, and the smaller group of people interested in the music. And as a result Hawaii has become a mixing plate for many cultures (and subcultures), and is home to many bands that incorporate world influence in a unique fusion of sound. Quadrophonix (India). Mabanzi (Zimbabwe), and Gamelan (Hawaii) just to name a few.

Still a subculture, amazingly, continues to thrive with music from bands such as Technical Difficulties, Moemoea, Living in Question, and Missing Dave. And the incredible efforts of 808 Shows, and Unity Crayons (a non profit organization that promotes all ages shows in Hawaii).


  • University of Hawaii Ethnomusicology Ensembles
  • Hawaii Underground: Island Music and Entertainment
Polynesian music
Easter Island - Fiji - Hawaii - Samoa - Tonga - Tuvalu - Wallis and Futuna

French Polynesia: Austral - Marquesas and Tahiti - Tuamotus
New Zealand: Chatham Islands - Cook Islands - Maori - Niue - Tokelau

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