TIDAL Primer: The Music of Hawai`i
The music of Hawai`i is best understood in relation to the `Āina, or land, but it also invites comparison to the ocean — a vast expanse where cresting waves meet unseen currents, at once ever-changing and unchanged. It originates in the mele (chants) of Polynesian voyagers who first populated the island archipelago, hundreds or maybe thousands of years ago. European contact, from the 18th century onward, brought Protestant hymns and stringed instruments like the guitar and braguinha, which native Hawaiians adapted and transformed.
The beloved songs of the royal family — notably those of Queen Lili`uokalani, the last Hawaiian sovereign — form a cornerstone of this musical tradition. But then so do countless attempts to transpose mele to a more informal setting, with jaunty `ukulele and softly chiming acoustic guitars. Depending on your criteria, you could say the category of “Hawaiian music” also extends to a midcentury crooner like Don Ho, or a millennial dynamo like Bruno Mars.
Let’s not go that far. For our purposes, Hawaiian music is a cultural expression with a self-perpetuating connection to the past. It’s often rooted in `Ōlelo Hawai`i, the native Hawaiian language, along with the percussive cadences of hula. The scope of its subject matter bends toward love and longing, with natural imagery pressed into the service of metaphor. Most of all it conveys a sense of place, evocative and transporting.
Just as there are eight major Hawaiian Islands, this playlist contains eight songs, spanning more than 70 years’ worth of recorded music. There are unfortunate but inevitable omissions; a more comprehensive survey would find a place for everyone from vaudeville troubadour Toots Paka to modern torchbearer Keali`i Reichel. But every song here is iconic in some way, and their chronology spells a timeline that might better be charted in terms of the tide.
Affectionately known as “Hawai`i’s Songbird,” Lena Machado was a master of ha`i, the yodel-like vocal technique that emphasizes the break between natural and falsetto ranges. For a textbook example, look no further than her original recording of “Ho`onanea,” made in 1935 with a quartet led by lap-steel guitar pioneer Sol Ho`opi`i. The song, which compares the elation of romantic love to soaring bird flight, also reflects Machado’s gift for descriptive lyrical subtlety — a trademark of the finest Hawaiian songcraft, then as now.
The godfather of ki ho`alu — Hawaiian slack-key guitar, which combines distinctive fingerstyle technique with a closely guarded constellation of custom tunings — was Gabby Pahinui, an absolute natural with a magnetic performing style. In 1946, he made what’s widely acknowledged as the first commercial slack-key recording: “Hi`ilawe,” a song by Sam Li`a Sr. In the capable hands and ruggedly charming voice of Pahinui, the song became a classic — one that he revisited often, notably for Gabby, an epochal 1972 LP.
“Quiet Village” (1957)
Postwar American prosperity, and the mainstreaming of trans-Pacific air travel, helped create the perfect conditions for a Hawaiian vogue that lasted well into the ’60s. But before Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii (1961), or Don Ho had a hit with “Tiny Bubbles” (1966), or Hawaii Five-O premiered on CBS (1968), there was the so-called exotica of pianist Martin Denny. Jazz-inflected but tropically atmospheric, down to the birdcalls designed to leap out of a hi-fi system, Denny’s music defined an era for mainland perception of the islands — an era that lives on in many proudly throwback tiki bars, where “Quiet Village” is still the jam.
Aunty Genoa Keawe, as locals knew her, was an embodiment of Hawaiian folklife — a stature only ratified by her National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. Her calling card was the traditional hula ku`i song “`Alika,” and her best-known version came on Party Hulas, an album favored by many a hula troupe. Among other things, Keawe was famous for her magically ethereal breath control: Listen for how long and often she sustains a high G in this recording, with vibrato, all while rhythmically strumming her `ukulele.
The Sunday Manoa
The Hawaiian Renaissance, a reclamation of folkloric arts in the face of a rampaging tourist economy, coalesced at the dawn of the 1970s. And along with legends like Gabby Pahinui, its heroes were young revivalists like Peter Moon, whose group the Sunday Manoa released Guava Jam: Contemporary Hawaiian Folk Music in 1969. With Moon and brothers Robert and Roland Cazimero on guitars, vocals and Hawaiian percussion, the band alchemized traditional materials — like this mele inoa, a name chant composed in praise of King David Kalākaua.
Folk revivalists weren’t the only beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Renaissance. The movement also produced a wave of commercial acts in a post-Woodstock, Fleetwood Mac-ish mode — like Olomana, Cecilio & Kapono, and Keola & Kapono Beamer. Among the emblematic songs of the era is Kalapana’s “Nightbird,” composed and sung by Mackey Feary. The song, with its bossa-nova lilt and lyrical flute refrain, was ubiquitous on island radio for decades.
“Hawaii ’78” (1993)
The gentle giant colloquially known as Bruddah Iz is most famous for his spare, intoxicating solo vox-and-uke recording of “Over the Rainbow.” It was included as an afterthought on his 1993 album Facing Future, a mixed plate of traditional fare, Jawaiian grooves and even a John Denver tune. More central to the album is this song by Mickey Ioane, which Iz originally recorded with his group the Mākaha Sons of Ni`ihau. A mournful yet determined reflection on Hawaii’s usurped sovereignty, it draws most of its power from Kamakawiwo`ole’s haunting delivery.
Hawaiian music has many homegrown luminaries in the 21st century, from Amy Hānaiali`i Gilliom to Kalani Pe`a. One of the freshest and finest is Raiatea Helm, a custodian of the leo ki`eki`e falsetto tradition, originally from the island of Moloka`i. Her third album, Hawaiian Blossom, opens with “`Ahulili,” a song that uses vivid natural imagery (of a misty peak on Maui) to tell a tale of sensuous craving. The balance of sweetness and sadness in Helm’s voice serves the song — and serves as a reminder that the art form is in excellent hands.
Nate Chinen is Director of Editorial Content at WBGO, chief jazz contributor to NPR Music and the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. A former music critic for the New York Times, he has also written for JazzTimes, the Village Voice, Texas Monthly, DownBeat and VIBE. He grew up in Honolulu.
Image: Gabby Pahinui in North Kona, Hawai`i, in September 1974. Credit: Susan Titelman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty.
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