Millenium Stage


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Back Cover

Kennedy Center Performance
October, 2001
By Trustee Rowena Akana


In the ancient days of old Hawaii, before the discovery of the Sandwich Isles by Captain Cook, and certainly before the exposure of white sailors from European countries, the native people of the Sandwich Isles had only the ipu (hollowed out gourd) which they used as a musical instrument by tapping with the palm of the hands and chanting melodious geneological histories of their families. The other ancient musical instrument created by the native Hawaiians was the nose flute which was made from bamboo and other woods. With the exposure to white sailors who introduced the native population to the European mandolin, the first known stringed instrument made by Hawaiians was called ukeke which was not pleasant to the ears. With the introduction of the ukeke, a Portuguese immigrant sailed from Medeiras, Portugal with his family on the ship known as the Ravanscrag which arrived in Honolulu in 1879. His name was Manuel Nunes. He is credited with the design and the distinct sounding single stringed instrument called the ukulele. Mr. Nunes perfected the ukeke into what we now know as the ukulele.

“Hawaiian music is probably the first true ‘world music,’ defined as new forms of music created from the integration of several cultures. Here, as is often true in world music, the invading settlers brought in instruments, and the natives picked them up. And that’s when some really great music started.”

In 1879, Portuguese craftsman, Manuel Nunes presented to the royal court and King Kalakaua the ukulele. King Kalakaua actively promoted native Hawaiian musical culture featuring the ukulele and the guitar. In the 1890’s a musician named Joseph Kekuku invented the Hawaiian steel guitar, which is played on the lap using a heavy sliding implement over the strings. Kekuku toured the United States in the first decade of the 20th century, and performed for the Queen of England. Due primarily to Kekuku, Hawaiian music became so popular that it influenced a Broadway show in 1904 called “Bird of Paradise.”

In 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by nine American businessmen who appealed to the United States to annex the small sovereign to the United States. In 1898, by resolution, Hawaii was annexed to the United States. One of the nine businessmen responsible for the Kingdom’s overthrow, Sanford Dole was named Hawaii’s first colonial president. To promote tourism, Hawaii hosted a pavilion at the 1915 Pan Pacific World Exposition in San Francisco. The finest Hawaiian musicians of the period were brought in to perform, and played twenty-four hours a day. Other than Kekukuís tour a decade earlier, this was the first time Hawaiian music was heavily promoted in the United States and it swept the country, becoming quite the rage until the end of the 1920’s. In fact, in 1916, the Victor Record Company (later RCA Victor) sold more Hawaiian records than that of any other genre. And virtually every guitar sold during this period had accessories to modify it for Hawaiian lap-style playing.

As an instrument, the Hawaiian guitar evolved rapidly, first as a standard guitar played on the lap, then with a special hollow square neck designed specifically for lap playing. After that carne the National Resonator acoustic steel guitar and then the electric Hawaiian Guitar, which rapidly evolved from six string to seven string, then eight string to ten string; two neck to three neck, four neck and finally pedal steel. All of this happed in less than fifty years, between 1890 and 1939.

Steel guitars were originally invented and popularized in Hawaii. Legend has it that Joseph Kekuku, a Hawaiian schoolboy, discovered the sound while walking along a railroad track strumming his 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. Other persons who have been credited with the invention of the steel guitar include Gabriel Davion, an Indian sailor, around 1885, and James Hoa, of Hawaiian and Portuguese ancestry.

Steel guitars, though created in Hawaii, its popularity quickly caught on in the United States, due to the tours of the Hawaiians. As a result of its popularity and unique sound, it has become a lead instrument in almost all country western bands.

Hawaiians are also credited with the invention of the slack key guitar. The term slack key refers to a type of native acoustic guitar style in which some of the strings are changed, or “slacked,” from their standard tuning to an open chord. The melodies are finger-picked instead of strummed. Many are derived from ancient chants and hulas, with various elements incorporated from other musical sources by the individual player.

The roots of slack key guitar can be traced to the early 1800’s, when Spanish and Mexican cowboys were brought to Hawaii to teach the native paniolos how to handle an overpopulation of cattle. The Hawaiians enthusiastically adopted the guitar of the cowboys into their culture, modifying the sound to include many ingenious tunings. As a result, today’s player draws from family techniques and unique tunings handed down through many generations, and the elder players, or kupuna, are revered for playing with the wisdom of the ages.

Slack key has inspired many mainland U.S. musicians including Roy Cooder and George Winston, both of whom started listening to it in the 1970ís. “Slack key,” says Winston, “is hard to describe to people who have never heard it. It’s not folk, it’s not older jazz or ragtime, it’s not blues, it’s not country but it’s somewhere in the middle of all those traditions. It’s like trying to describe the color green to somebody who hasn’t seen it by saying that it’s not blue and not yellow but somewhere in between.”

Now, young Hawaiian musicians are as accomplished and competent and are equal to musicians anywhere in the world. Because of Hawaii’s unique position in the Pacific Ocean, even prior to annexation of 1898, Hawaii’s monarchy had treaties with Germany, France, England, Spain, Japan, Philippines, United States and others and Hawaii offered employment through its plantations to migrant workers from all of these countries. As a result, many of those peoples came to work on Hawaii’s plantations, never returning to their homeland, but became citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Thus a melting pot of those races and cultures already existed before Hawaii became the 50th State. This unique group of islands in the Pacific for the past two centuries, has woven together the best of these cultures that has created a unique sounding music of its own. Young Hawaiian musicians have been exposed to Americana, rock-and-roll, jazz, blues, pop, swing, as well as influences from Asia and Europe. As a result, Hawaiian musicians are some of the best in the world.