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

Though the 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.

Hawaii, 1916

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
and fingering.

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.

Traditional Hawaiian favourites were performed by the undisputed
master of slack key guitar, Gabby Pahinhui (1921-1980). The music
of Gabby Pahinhui is proudly featured on Pacific Islands Radio stations.

The Gabby Pahinui Band of the 1970s is a good example of the complexity of sound slack key can achieve. Along with Gabby, this band featured late great slack key guitarists Leland "Atta" Isaacs, Sr. and Sonny Chillingworth, and Gabby's sons, Cyril and Bla Pahinui. Usually on the band's recordings, each of the guitarists would play in a different C tuning, providing a thick, textured sound.

Besides Gabby, two other highly influential slack key artists have been Leonard Kwan and Sonny Chillingworth. These three are notable not only because of their artistic virtuosity, but also because of the availability of their recordings, Gabby's in the late 1940s, and Leonard's and Sonny's in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Four of Gabby's earliest recordings from the late 1940s or early 1950s (on Bell Records 78 rpms) are especially impressive: Hi'ilawe (#505); Key Khoalu (#509); Hula Medley (#506); and Wai O Keaniani (#510). Other slack key guitarists were astounded and inspired by these four recordings, because of the level of Gabby's playing, and because each was in a different tuning. He also made many recordings in the 1950s for the Waikiki label, issued on three different albums: Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 1 (#319), Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 2 (#320), The Best of Hawaiian Slack Key (#340).

Awareness and popularity of slack key guitar were further increased by the release of several great slack key albums in the 1960s by Leonard Kwan, Ray Kane, Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui on Margaret Williams' Tradewinds label.

These four, along with Sonny Chillingworth, recorded in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (Gabby Pahinui started recording in the 1940s) and influenced all the younger slack key guitarists. Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan and Ray Kane have also continued to record and influence many others in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1970s, albums were issued by the new generation of influential players such as Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana (with his trio Hui Ohana), and Peter Moon (with his trio The Sunday Manoa).

There are four basic types of slack key guitar. The first is the simple but profound style, most evident in the older playing styles, such as that of the late Auntie Alice Namakalua. The second is a sort of "slack key jazz," with lots of improvisation, used prominently in the music of Atta Isaacs, Cyril Pahinui, Ledward Kaapana, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo and Ozzie Kotani. The third kind creates a
unique sound using ornaments like hammer-ons and pull-offs. These techniques are featured on Sonny Chillingworth's Ho'omalu Slack Key, Ray Kane's Punahele, and George Kuo's Kohala Charmarita.

The fourth, performance-oriented slack key style, features entertaining visual as well as sound techniques. These include playing with the forearm, playing with a bag over the fretting hand (performed by the late Fred Punahoa and by Ledward Kaapana), and the intriguing needle and thread technique, where the player dangles a needle, hanging from a thread held between the teeth, across the strings while otherwise playing normally, which creates a sound a bit like a mandolin or a hammered dulcimer. This can be heard, performed by Sonny Chillingworth, on the fourth verse of the song Wai Ulu, on his recording Sonny Solo (Dancing Cat 08022 38005). The technique can be seen on the song Kaula'ili in Susan Friedman's film Ki ho'alu, That's Slack Key Guitar and in Eddie Kamae's great slack key film "The Hawaiian Way."

In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood ki ho'alu, and the ability to play it was regarded as a special gift. To retain and protect the slack key mystique, tunings were often closely guarded family secrets. This practice has changed with the times, as respect has increased for the preservation of older Hawaiian traditions, and now slack key guitarists are more willing to share their knowledge outside the family circle with those who sincerely wish to learn. Because many of the beautiful old traditions in Hawai'i have been changed by outside influences, this greatly increased respect for the older slack key traditions and the sharing of tunings is helping to ensure that traditional slack key guitar will endure and be shared.

Since the early 1970s (often called the era of the Hawaiian Renaissance), Hawaiians have increasingly looked to their cultural roots, and because of this, slack key guitar has steadily grown in popularity. The Hawaiian Music Foundation, founded by Dr. George Kanahele, did much to increase awareness through their publications, music classes and the sponsoring of concerts, including the landmark 1972 slack key concert.

Currently, there are several major slack key festivals. The Gabby Pahinui/Atta Isaacs Slack Key Festival is held annually in or near Honolulu on the Island of O'ahu, every third Sunday in August, and the annual Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival is held on the next to last Sunday in July at the Hilo Civic Auditorium on the island of Hawai'i. Other festivals also take place on Maui and Kauai, on the Mainland, and occasionally internationally.

Because Hawai'i is one of the crossroads of the world, its music has always had many influences: Latin music from Mexico, Spain and Portugal; Polynesian music, especially from Samoa and Tahiti; European music and music from the Mainland, including jazz, country and western, folk and pop. All have been absorbed by Hawaiians, and they have enriched it with their mana (soul).

Hawaiian music has always enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with music from the American Mainland. Hawaiians began touring the United States during the early 1890s with acts such as the Royal Hawaiian Band, small string bands, steel guitarists and vocal ensembles.

The 1912 Broadway show Bird of Paradise helped introduce Hawaiian music (although not slack key guitar) to the United States (Mainland), as did Hawaiian shows at the big Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915. By the late teens, Hawaiian recordings were the biggest selling records in the United States, especially acoustic steel guitar and vocal recordings.

Starting around 1912, blues slide guitarists and country and western steel guitar players became more and more influenced by the Hawaiian slack key guitar sound, due to increased recordings and tours by Hawaiian performers. The pedal steel guitar was developed from the Hawaiian steel guitar, which was invented in the 1880s. Some Hawaiian steel guitar tunings (and thus, some of the Mainland steel guitar tunings) evolved from slack key tunings, especially the G Major tuning for the dobro and lap steel guitar, and the C Major 6th tuning (similar to the C Mauna Loa tuning) for the pedal steel guitar. (Steel guitar means any guitar played with a metal bar, regardless of what material the guitar is made.)

Although Hawai'i's guitar tradition is the richest in the Pacific, many other Polynesian countries also have guitar traditions closely related to slack key. For example, in the Cook Islands, especially on the island of Aitutaki, it is called Ki Mamaiata (or sometimes Ki Amoa), which translates as "early in the morning," a favourite time to play guitar there.

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