hawaiian music ukulele

Your Introduction to Hawaiian Music

I was born into a home filled with the scent of hibiscus and plumeria blossoms, the strains of the steel guitar and the ʻukulele, and songs sung in a language I couldn’t even speak. Sofas and chairs were upholstered with Hawaiian-print fabrics, and those prints were not much different than the ones we wore. Our rec room boasted a six-foot coconut palm.

By now you might have assumed that I was born in Honolulu, Hilo, or Hanalei. Nope, nope, and nope. The tropical paradise of which I speak is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Yep. Born in Philly and raised in the even more far-flung state of New Jersey – dipping my kiddie toes in precisely the wrong ocean.

Given the circumstances, you can’t blame a kid for believing that he is Hawaiian. (In fact, the saddest day of my life was the day I discovered I am not Hawaiian because there was no longer an explanation for all the things I loved.) We ate, slept, and breathed all things Hawaiian – especially the music. For nearly 50 years I have been trying to figure out where this love of Hawaiian music originated. Over a century ago,  my grandfather emigrated from the Philippines and joined the U.S. Navy. His first assignment was on a steamship route between San Francisco and Manila with frequent stops in Honolulu before he made his way east, so I had always simply assumed he introduce the music and culture to his family. But my father is quick to correct this tale, saying simply that he heard the music around the house as a kid on such radio programs as the once extremely popular Hawaii Calls.

And call it did! A gifted musician and a saxophonist of some repute, my father instead took up the steel guitar and became proficient rather quickly. My mother, who previously led her own rock combos in Atlantic City (opening for such legends as The Three Stooges), played the bass and so was soon co-opted into my father’s schemes. Perhaps “schemes” is too harsh a word since the intention was not insincere: finding a way to earn a living doing what you love to do. Hawaiʻi had recently become the 50th state in the union (a source of contention for many Hawaiians to this day, but that must remain a story for another time).

(In that vein, note that when written properly, the name of the state using their alphabetical system includes the ʻokina which indicates a glottal stop between the “i’s.” “Hawaiian,” on the other hand, is an English word and does not warrant the inclusion of the ʻokina.)

Jet air travel was still a rare and costly proposition for many, so hordes of mainlanders aimed to recreate a taste of paradise close to home. (Today they call this craze – still alive for many – “tiki culture.”) A veteran of Vegas showrooms, my father put together an authentic (albeit flashy) floor show featuring the music of Hawaiʻi, Tahiti, Samoa, and New Zealand. Every Friday and Saturday night (and occasional Sundays for the buffet seating), my mother and father would lead a caravan of station wagons filled with family and friends bedecked in matching floral-print Hawaiian aloha shirts and muʻumuʻu – a veritable Polynesian Partridge Family – rolling merrily along hundreds of miles north or south along I-95 to perform everywhere from backyard parties to the Elks Club to the Knights of Columbus to the VFW hall to the Masonic lodge for such lavish events as a Hawaiian-Polish wedding (pierogis and poi, anyone?) to a Hawaiian-themed bar mitzvah (think “Bashana Haba’ah” on the steel guitar, because why not?) – only a few in this troupe possessing the tiniest blood quantum of Hawaiian descent. And I was not one of them.

When it comes to Hawaiian music, many books refer to the Hawaiian people as “inventors.” But more accurately, the Hawaiians are innovators – taking things that were already great and somehow still making them a whole hell of a lot better.

Perhaps the most amazing quality of music is its ability to stimulate visceral reactions in the listener. You have no doubt put on a recording by one of your favorite artists and suddenly experienced again the sights and smells of a concert you attended more than 25 years ago. This has always been true for me and Hawaiian music – even decades before I had visited my musical mecca for the first time. Even as a kid I could throw an old Hawaiian LP on the turntable and smell a flower that only grows on the Big Island, feel the spray off of Hanauma Bay on my cheeks, or taste the rainbow shave ice from Matsumoto’s in Haleʻiwa on the North Shore. And I understood that when the singer sang of Kaʻena, a geological wonder only reachable after a difficult hike, this was not merely about a mountain peak, but about a love that was nearly unattainable but that could be so worthwhile if one were only willing to put in the effort. When the connection between the artist and the listener is really powerful, you begin to feel as if you really know them. Little could I ever have imagined that the artists whose LP covers graced my walls (in the way that Farrah Fawcett and Grease posters lined the walls of my contemporaries) would become my mentors and even my friends.

Today you can learn anything by simply dialing up a five-minute video on YouTube. But 40 years ago, it was amazing what you could learn by reading books and listening to records. Despite not knowing how Hawaiian music wound its way into our home so many thousands of miles from the islands, I fully understood why my father could not simply put on a Hawaiian LP and remain in his easy chair an armchair quarterback. I, too, felt the need to get into the game! But while most Hawaiian children would learn their ways by sitting for hours at the feet of their grandmother or grandfather, I spent my hours worshipping at the alter of a pair of Klipsch H-700s and a Technics turntable with a stack of records by Hawaiian music legends.

I learned in the same traditional manner that Hawaiians did – hoʻolohe (listen) and hana hou a paʻa (repeat until mastered). Hoʻomaʻamaʻa (practice).

I learned to play the ʻukulele by wearing out records by Eddie Kamae, Kahauanu Lake, and Jesse Kalima. I then moved on to slack key guitar, emulating the sounds I heard by masters such as Ledward Kaapana, Sonny Chillingworth, and Gabby Pahinui, playing into the wee small hours, often until my fingers bled. I did not learn to play steel guitar from my father but, again, relied upon my growing collection of records, copying my heroes Billy Hew Len, Barney Isaacs, and Joe Custino. In between, I managed to learn about a thousand Hawaiian songs – most in ʻolelo makuahine (the mother tongue), a language I did not and still do not speak. The more I learned and the more I exhibited my love for all things Hawaiian, the more records our Hawaiian friends would gift to me upon their return from their trips home every winter. I collected Hawaiian records like other kids collected baseball cards. I knew all the players and all their stats, but for some reason nobody ever wanted to trade with me.

When it comes to Hawaiian music, many books refer to the Hawaiian people as “inventors.” But more accurately, the Hawaiians are innovators – taking things that were already great and somehow still making them a whole hell of a lot better. Although typically thought of as a Hawaiian invention, the ʻukulele was actually a modification of the Portuguese braguinha. The guitar was an invention of Spain, but these made their way to Hawaiʻi with the first vaqueros (cowboys) imported from Mexico to teach their Hawaiian counterparts to rope and ride. Slack key guitar was the first real innovation in Hawaiian music. Although there are many legends surrounding the discovery of this style, the most probable is that when the vaqueros eventually sailed away, they left their guitars behind as tokens of friendship but failed to teach the Hawaiians how to tune those guitars. Necessity being the mother of invention, each Hawaiian who picked up one of these guitars figured out his or her own way of tuning it – usually to the register of their voice and in a tuning that would allow them to play huge beautiful chords with as few as two fingers. They learned to pick the guitars like stride piano players – first the bass note, and then the melody notes, and frequently ornamentations in between like trills and hammer-ons. Slack key would ultimately develop into a fascinating solo art form. But perhaps the most distinctive and uniquely Hawaiian instrument is the steel guitar. According to legend, around 1885, a young man named Joseph Kekuku from Laiʻe on the north shore of the island of Oʻahu was walking along the railroad tracks when he picked up a bolt and slid it upon the strings of his guitar and made that now characteristic sound that over a century later is recognizable around the world as the steel guitar (even if it is not widely known as a Hawaiian innovation and more often attributed to Nashville). The young players of this new instrument experimented with everything from a penknife and a straight razor to a glass bottle until the world settled on the perfectly fashioned metal bar that would become known as the “steel” that gives the instrument its name.

By now you are probably beginning to realize that there is more to Hawaiian music than Don Ho crooning “Tiny Bubbles” or Israel Kamakawiwoʻole strumming his medley of “Over The Rainbow” and “What A Wonderful World.” (In fact, if we were to use a purely ethnomusicological definition of “Hawaiian music,” neither of these would even qualify – no more than Barbra Streisand singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” would qualify as Jewish folksong.)

Hawaiian music is more than music made by Hawaiians. (Although one of the on-going debates among ethnomusicologists is whether Hawaiian music performed by non-Hawaiians carries with it any authenticity.)

Hawaiian music must first and foremost express some uniquely Hawaiian sentiment or refer directly or indirectly to Hawaiʻi or its people. (“Blue Hawaii” sung by Elvis might be Hawaiian music, but the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” – despite its title – might not be since it is a song about love and not really in any way about uniquely Hawaiian love. The latter was also written in New York City by the same composer who gave us “Mairzy Doats” – also not Hawaiian.)

The definition is more about the lyric content than about a sound. In Hawai’i, instrumental music is largely eschewed since music did not originally exist but solely as an accompaniment to the hula, and the hula is an interpretation of the mele (lyric or poem), the words to each of which are believed to possess mana (spiritual power). The sound of Hawaiian music has evolved – almost in lockstep (or, perhaps, ever a close step behind) – with the musical styles popular on the mainland U.S. In the last century, there have been such diverse styles as Hawaiian big band jazz, Hawaiian lounge combo jazz, Hawaiian pop, Hawaiian rock, Hawaiian folk-rock, Hawaiian disco, Hawaiian techno, and Hawaiian hip-hop. Most people outside Hawai’i would not recognize real Hawaiian music if it beat them over the head with a puʻili (bamboo stick). Many outsiders to the culture assume they know what Hawaiian music is, but most would be wrong. Most Hawaiians would say, “I know Hawaiian music when I hear it.” But even they tend to disagree. For each individual Hawaiian, the Hawaiian music tradition seems to begin with the style popular when they are born and ends as soon as an artist has pushed the boundaries of innovation a step too far.

Hawaiian music is more than music made by Hawaiians … Hawaiian music must first and foremost express some uniquely Hawaiian sentiment or refer directly or indirectly to Hawaiʻi or its people.

Although boundaries would be tested throughout the history of Hawaiian music, constructive conversation about those boundaries would not occur until the 1970s – the period when I discovered Hawaiian music. A new generation of Hawaiian musicians began infusing the sounds of everyone from the Stones and the Beatles to Orleans, America, and Seals and Crofts into their music. (Ironically, it was around this same time that such mainland string wizards as Chet Atkins, Keith Richards, and Carlos Santana made their mecca to Hawai’i to study at the feet of the masters.) This period was called the Hawaiian music Renaissance, and it captured the hearts and minds of Hawai’i’s youth all over again, as well as the heart and mind of one youngster from New Jersey.
Although I am not an academic, most academics would refer to my life in Hawaiian music as a practitioner inquiry: learning by doing. But in the Hawaiian frame of mind, there are no experts, just lifelong haumana (students), some at it longer than others, some who know more (or, at least, differently) than others for there are ever disagreements over what is pono (correct, especially when pushing those boundaries). Secrets once carefully guarded are now more often shared freely with those who show the sincere desire to learn. But it must be a sincere desire. For this is also the era of cultural appropriation, and with the advent of YouTube, the student assumes to become the teacher after one 15-minute lesson.

I did not reach Hawai’i’s shores until my 30th birthday by which time I had amassed nearly 25,000 Hawaiian music recordings and logged thousands of hours perfecting my craft. For these efforts, I was rewarded by being almost immediately accepted into that sacred inner circle of Hawaiian musicians, finding myself sharing the stage with the names and faces that had graced my walls as a child, and ultimately being granted a recording contract. If I had chosen a life in rock or jazz, such a dream would likely never have come true. As a mahalo (thank you) for my acceptance into this beautiful community of Hawaiian music and hula, I decided to give my vast music collection back to the world – some of which cannot even be found in Hawaiʻi’s university libraries or museums – through a monthly radio broadcast called Hoʻolohe Hou (which means “to listen again” and which is a nod to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records). It did not take long for the monthly program to become a 24-hour-a-day radio station (Hoʻolohe Hou Radio) and now a record company (Hoʻolohe Hou Records) aimed at remastering and distributing long out-of-print gems of Hawaiian music of the last 100 years.

The above recent episode of Hoʻolohe Hou The Show (as the monthly program is now called) is a special edition created especially for Discogs. “Hawaiian Music 101” is aimed at dispelling the myths and misconceptions about Hawaiian music by tracing the evolution of Hawaiian music from the 18th century to the present in only two hours. It is a joyous romp through all of the musical styles described above (with a touch of education thrown in for good measure). Typically, this program would be a premium made available exclusively for subscribers to listener-supported Hoʻolohe Hou Radio. But in these difficult times, the world needs a little more music and a whole lot more aloha. Tune in here, and if you like what you hear, check out Hoʻolohe Hou Radio every day or subscribe to Hoʻolohe Hou The Show on Mixcloud. (Consider a “Select” subscription in order to receive more premium content.) As collectors yourselves, as you might expect some of the best in Hawaiian music is long out-of-print and only available to seekers (and spenders) at a place as unique as Discogs. But for the sake of reference, check out the list below of what I consider to be the 75 most important Hawaiian recordings. A few are available at online streaming services. And as for the rest … Happy hunting!

Here’s hoping you take this exciting journey into the diverse world of Hawaiian music with me and that Discogs permits me to share more with you in the near future. Until then, a hui hou (bye for now) and malama pono (take care of yourself).

Me ka haʻahaʻa a me ka mahalo (humbly and gratefully),

Bill Wynne
Hoʻolohe Hou Radio

Hoʻolohe Hou Radio’s 75 Most Important Hawaiian Recordings

In honor of nearly 75 years since the unveiling of the long-playing record, here are 75 of the most important Hawaiian recordings from the LP and CD era. These recordings are included either because they are firmly rooted in tradition or because they gently nudged (or not so gently tugged) the boundaries of tradition. All are extremely enjoyable listens, and at least half of these should be easy finds in the digital era because of their historical and cultural importance. (Other lists, such as Honolulu Magazine’s 50 Greatest Hawaiʻi Albums, are worthy of examination. Any overlap between this and other lists are largely the result of using the same cultural and historical criteria to make such selections.)

Feature image by Brandon Bynum.

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Bill Wynne
Bill Wynne is the host of Ho`olohe Hou Radio.