One of the first images I see in my mind when I think about Hawaiian music is a ukulele. However, string instruments only came to the islands in the nineteenth century. Before the arrival of people from different cultures, Hawaiians used percussion instruments to keep the rhythm to the chants and dance.
Like folk music in other early civilizations, traditional Hawaiian music is about storytelling. The chants, called mele, were the most important way of remembering gods, the daily life of the Hawaiians and their love of the land. There are two general kinds of Hawaiian chanting, mele oli and mele hula. Mele oli is a cappella song usually performed by one person. Mele hula is a chant accompanied by dance movements and musical instruments such as the drum, pahu, and a double gourd, ipu heke. This combination of song and dance music is a beautiful storytelling tool passed down from generation to generation.
Hawaiian hula dancers (ca. 1885). Photo by J. J. Williams.
It was in the mid-1800s, when people from all over the planet came by sea to Hawaii, bringing with them instruments such as the violin, guitar or piano, that Hawaiian music developed new musical forms.
The Spanish and Mexican cowboys who came to work on the cattle ranches introduced the guitar in the 1830s to the islands. They taught the Hawaiians how to play and tune them in the Spanish style, but the Hawaiians soon modified the tuning of the guitar loosening the guitar strings to suit their own traditional songs. Slack-key guitar music is a uniquely Hawaiian sound combining traditional Hawaiian songs with elements of Western music.
Hawaiian music is also characterized by its steel guitar style which was accidentally discovered by Joseph Kekuku. In 1889 Kekuku began sliding a piece of steel across the strings of a guitar, producing an unusual tone that was then integrated into the developing Hawaiian sound.
Going a few years back in the history of Hawaiian music, a ship called the SS Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu in 1879, bringing hundreds of Portuguese immigrants from the Madeira Islands to work in the sugarcane fields. These Portuguese introduced a small guitar-like four-string instrument called machete (also known as braguinha), the precursor to the ukulele. Madeiran furniture makers Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and José do Espírito Santo, are believed to have been the first makers of the Hawaiian ukulele. After Nunes, Dias and Santo had finished their work on the sugar plantations, they headed for Honolulu, the capital city of Hawaii, to return to their former professions in woodworking. All three started building machetes, the Portuguese instruments that developed into the current Hawaiian ukuleles.
There are different legends about how the machete got its Hawaiian name; the ukulele. Hawaii actually had the word ukulele before they had the instrument. The word itself translates roughly to ‘jumping flea’ in English. One of the stories is that one of the men on board of the Ravenscrag, João Fernandes, tried to impress the Hawaiians by playing folk music with a friend’s braguinha and it is said that the Hawaiians called the instrument ukulele about the man’s speedy fingers. Another version of how the ukulele got its name is based on the way that the Englishman Edward Purvis, one of King Kalākaua’s officers, played the instrument. Purvis was thought to have been nicknamed ukulele due to his small stature, lively personality and ability to play the instrument. But my favourite tale is the one that tells that the term ukulele means ‘the gift that came here’ with uku translating to ‘gift or reward’ and lele translating to ‘to come’.
The ukulele became popular with the Hawaiians almost immediately after it arrived in the islands. King David Kalākaua, known as the Merry Monarch for his love of music and hula dancing, learned to play the ukulele himself. King Kalākaua was an accomplished guitarist and musician. He actively supported the promotion of the instrument in Hawaiian music and culture, incorporating the instrument into performances at formal royal gatherings, to play traditional Hawaiian music, and to accompany hula.
The blending capabilities of the Hawaiian music together with the openness of its people to new sounds turned out to be a deep and sweet-sounding musical outcome.