The music of Hawaii has its origins in the rich tapestry of the traditional music of Polynesia. This became blended with the differing forms of western music resulting in the contemporary Hawaiian music of today. The music of Hawaii is melodious, absorbing and enchanting, and above all, it is uniquely Hawaiian.
If there is one
outstanding ability which appears to be shared by all pacific Island people,
it is music and song. Close harmony singing is highly developed in church
music and the power and emotional impact of chants and hymns at weddings and
funerals is well known to visitors who attend.
In Melanesia and, in particular Papua New Guinea, the oldest of our island nations, drums are the most common musical instrument. Those made from a hollow tree trunk are called garamuts, while the smaller kundu is shaped like an hour glass and has snake or lizard skin stretched over one end. These are played to accompany the traditional music and chants of this most ancient society.
Indeed, drums were a traditional instrument throughout the high countries of
Oceania where the timber and other necessary material were available to
produce these instruments. These include the beautiful original real skin drum
sounds of Tahiti and the distinct wooden-skin mix sounds of the Cook Islands.
In addition to drums, the nose flute, its music and its context, is one of the oldest musical traditions in Polynesia. These are found in such places as Tonga, Hawaii and Fiji. The Tongan fangufangu is characterized by having a closed distal end (its proximal end is always closed). Its three finger-holes include one at the proximal end (just below the blow hole) and two at the distal end.
In addition, two back-to-back holes are in the exact center of the flute; this characteristic makes the fangufangu unique (only in Fiji is a similar flute found). The music of the fangufangu is very soft. To obtain a sound, the flutist holds one nostril shut with the index finger of his left hand, while blowing with the other nostril and fingering the upper finger-hole with the ring finger of the same hand. The flutist fingers the other two finger holes with his right hand fingers. Because of the two holes in the flute's very center, the musician must overblow to obtain certain notes.
Hawaii nose flute and dancer, 1908
huge swath of islands that make up the South Pacific have an amazing diversity
of cultures and languages, two distinct influences can be seen upon its music.
The first would be the cultural heritage of the Polynesians, who make up the
dominant ethnic group in the region, and whose trade routes began to cross the
ocean between islands hundreds of years ago.
The second major force impacting the music of the South Pacific is colonialism. Colonialism brought with it a range of musical instruments which became a feature of Pacific Island music. Some notable examples of this can be seen in Hawaii where it would be hard to imagine the music without the slack-key guitar or ukulele.
While some guitars may have made their way to Hawaii in the early 1800s along with the many European sailors who visited Hawaii, the origin of Hawaiian guitar music is generally credited to the Mexican and Spanish cowboys who were hired by King Kamehameha III around 1832. It was from the Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolos, that the tradition of Hawaiian slack key guitar music finds its roots.
This Spanish guitar was a gut string guitar, however, the actual origins of the Hawaiian steel guitar may never be known for sure. Legend has it, however, that in the mid 1890s Joseph Kekuku, a Hawaiian schoolboy, discovered the sound while walking along a railroad track strumming his Portuguese guitar.
He picked up a bolt lying by the track and slid the metal along the strings of his guitar. Intrigued by the sound, he taught himself to play using the back of a knife blade. Driven by the faint rhythm of an inner sound, he went to the machine shop at the Kamehameha School and turned out a steel bar for sliding over the strings. To complete the sound, he changed the cat-gut strings to steel and raised them so they wouldn't hit the frets. In doing so, he is credited with treating the first Hawaiian steel guitar.
Although the popularity of steel guitar became firmly established in Hawai`i by the early 1900s, and soon after in the country music field, it had few teachers. Those early legendary steel players were so much in demand to perform and record that they had no time to teach others, had they wanted to. Thus, in the 1960s the art and technique of playing Hawaiian steel guitar was almost lost.
The art form itself has seen numerous offshoots and developments in its
relatively short lifetime. Indeed with the introduction of amplification in
the 1930s, the steel guitar (like the Spanish guitar) gained pickups and
became the electric steel guitar. Since an acoustic body was no longer
necessary and actually caused feedback problems, the steel guitar quickly
acquired a solid body and became the first true lap steel guitar.
There is no one standard tuning for the steel guitar and the solid body electric steel guitar allowed for instruments to be made with two, three and even four necks, each tuned differently. Multiple necks made holding the instrument on the lap almost impossible, and legs were added, making the first 'console' instruments, although a few single neck consoles were already being played by 'steelers' who preferred to stand. At the same time, the steel picked up two more strings (there were a few seven string steels) and by the end of WWII the double neck eight string console was fairly standard, although even today there are still many players who prefer a single neck six or eight, especially in Hawaiian and Western Swing music.
Over the years the sound of the Hawaiian steel guitar has found its way into many forms of American and world music including blues, "hillbilly", country and western music, rock and pop and also the music of Africa and India,
Hawaiian slack key guitar (ki ho'alu) is truly one of the great acoustic guitar traditions in the world. Ki ho'alu, which literally means "loosen the key," is the Hawaiian language name for the solo fingerpicked style unique to Hawai'i. In this tradition, the strings (or "keys") are "slacked" to produce many different tunings, which usually contain a major chord, or a chord with a major 7th note, or sometimes one with a 6th note in it. Each tuning produces a lingering sound behind the melody and has a characteristic resonance
Many Hawaiian songs and slack key guitar pieces reflect themes like stories of the past and present and people's lives. But it is the tropical surroundings of Hawai'i, with its oceans, volcanoes and mountains, waterfalls, forests, plants and animals, that provide the deepest source of inspiration for Hawaiian music.
These currents run deep in slack key guitar playing, as accompaniment to vocals, as instrumental compositions or as interpretations of vocal pieces. Slack key guitar music is sweet and soulful, and it is said that slack key is drawn from the heart and soul out through the fingers of each player.
There is a mystique surrounding slack key guitar music - it is very personal, and can be very magical in feeling. Slack key derives its unique sound from techniques such as "hammering-on" and "pulling-off." These techniques mimic the yodels and falsettos common in Hawaiian singing. Harmonics ("chiming"), produced by lightly touching the strings at certain points on the fretboard, and slides in which one or two treble notes are cleffed and then slid (usually up) to sound another note, are also common. All these enhance the feeling of aloha, joy or longing expressed, sometimes all in the same song.
Like blues, slack key guitar is very flexible. Often, the same guitarist will play a song differently each time, sometimes using different tempos, and even different tunings. As each guitarist learns to play slack key, they find their own individual tunings, repertoire, tempos and ornaments. It is a very individualistic tradition and, as one can hear from different recordings, each guitarist plays quite
differently from the others.
The slack key tradition was given an important boost during the reign of King David Kalakaua, who was responsible for the Hawaiian cultural resurgence of the 1880s and 1890s. He supported the preservation of ancient music, while encouraging the addition of imported instruments like the 'ukulele and guitar. His coronation in 1883 featured the guitar in combination with the ipu (gourd drum) and pahu (skin drum) in a new form called hula ku'i, and at his Jubilee (celebration) in 1886, there were performances of ancient chants and hula. This mixing of the old and new contributed to the popularity of both the guitar and 'ukulele.
Kalakaua's conviction that the revitalization of traditional culture was at the root of the survival of the Hawaiian kingdom became a major factor in the continuity of traditional music and dance, and his influence still shows. This was a great period of Hawaiian music and compositions, actively supported, and many of the monarchy composed superb songs that are still well-known today. After Kalakaua passed away, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani, Hawai'i's last monarch. She was the greatest composer of this period, writing classic pieces such as Aloha 'Oe, Sanoe, Kuu Pua I Paoakalani, Pau'ahi O Kalani, Lei Ka'ahumanu and many other
beautiful songs still played today.
Until the mid-20th Century, vocals were usually the most important element of Hawaiian music. The guitar was mainly relegated to a back-up role, often grouped with other instruments, and was played in a natural, finger picked style, with a steady rhythm, to accompany hula and singing. The guitar usually did not play the exact melody of the song, but played a repeated fragment with improvised variations using ornaments such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonics and others.
A wide variety of tunings in several different keys were created to back up the singers effectively. When the strings were tuned too low, they lost their tone, and when they were tuned too high, they were likely to break, thus tunings in six keys were developed. (Most Hawaiians did not have a guitar capo, a strap or clamp which fits on the guitar neck and raises pitch, allowing the same guitar fingerings in a higher key.) The Hawaiians often retuned the guitar from the standard Spanish tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E, from lowest- to highest-pitched string), resulting in sweet sounding tunings with "slacked" open (unfretted) strings.
The guitar was often tuned to a major chord, like the popular G Major "Taro Patch" tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D), or tunings containing a major 7th note (called "Wahine" tuning), or tunings with the top two pitches tuned a wide fifth interval apart (called "Mauna Loa"), and other combinations. The many ingenious tunings the Hawaiians invented all into five basic categories: Major, Wahine, Mauna
Loa, Ni'ihau/Old Mauna Loa, and miscellaneous.
When two or more guitarists play together, they often use different tunings in the same key. For example, one guitarist might use G Major tuning, and the other might use G Wahine tuning. Guitars can also be played together with different tunings in different keys, capoed up to various frets to sound in the same key. This is one way to appreciate the slack key sound.
Due to the distance between the islands, styles particular to each developed, sometimes specific to regions of an island. The Big Island, probably because of its size, has engendered the greatest variety of regional styles. Some O'ahu players, especially from Honolulu, have sometimes had more modern and varied styles because of their greater exposure to different musical traditions from the United States (Mainland) and other parts of the world. To this day, each slack key artist draws from the traditions of the area where they grew up and from the music of their 'ohana (family), adding to it their own individual way of playing.
Slack key guitar became part of the music that the paniolo would play after work or with families and friends at gatherings, and this paniolo tradition continues to this day on the Big Island and Maui. Since the 1960s, and especially now in the 2000s, Hawaiian slack key guitar has also evolved into a highly developed instrumental art form, in both solo and group formats. It is when played solo that the beautiful and unique intricacies of the slack key guitar can be fully appreciated, as the music of the masters has great depth and individuality.
The most influential slack key guitarist in history was Gabby Pahinui [1921-1980]. The modern slack key era began in 1947 when Gabby (often referred to as "the father of modern slack key guitar") made his first recording of Hi'ilawe on an Aloha Records 78 rpm (#AR-810). Gabby was the prime influence for keeping slack key guitar from dying out in the Islands, and his prolific guitar techniques led to the guitar becoming more recognized as a solo instrument. He expanded the boundaries of slack key guitar, making it into a fully evolved solo guitar style capable of creatively interpreting a wide variety of Hawaiian traditional and popular standards, original guitar pieces, and even pieces from other countries. Many have also been inspired by Gabby's beautiful, expressive vocals and his virtuoso falsetto voice.
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