Perfect Sound Forever

Hidden Hawai'i, In Your Head?

by Art Hadley (May 1997)

Ray Kane Gabby Pahinui

The first time I went to Hawai'i, I wasted two weeks. First of all, it was a business project that brought me there, so I worked. All day. Every day. But when the weekend came, and I felt like cranking up my little portable clock radio, one of the local stations was having a Led Zeppelin weekend. (You know, if you stick a tiny little clock radio down into the corner of the hotel room, on the floor, you can use all three surfaces to magnify the bass? With a little, um, imagination, it can sound pretty good.) I listened to old Led Zeppelin tunes all weekend.

So I flew ten thousand miles and listened to the same old shit. Didn't realize that I was eating at Chili's and Jack-In-The-Box with a gathering of talent like both Woodstock's plus the next five ones. That I was walking among musical demigods on the streets of Waikiki. (Guess I should have drank more, because the bars are filled with great performers, trying to earn a living from the tourist trade.)

Finally, two years later, a monotonous pop tune the kids requested every evening on the Hawaiian music stations, a song that was playing in Woolworth's, in jukeboxes, in record stores, in bars and in restaurants, finally bored through my skull and activated an unfamiliar section of my brain, and made Hawaiian music click. Apparently I had the capacity to hear it, but it had lain dormant for decades. I suspect that most humans have this untapped capacity, and just need the proper musical catalyst to make it function.

(And let's get it straight right now. I've spent dozens of hours listening to local music stations on Oahu and Maui, taped many more dozens of hours, and never heard a single song, not a single note, by Don Ho. Those albums you find at your local record store, under "World Music," like The 101 Strings Play 101 Island Favorites, and those are not, repeat ARE NOT, real life. Surely you never for a moment thought they were, did you?)

So when you listen to Hawaiians playing contemporary Hawaiian music, what are you going to find? Well, you have the kind of reliance on acoustic instruments that you find in midcontinental bluegrass. You got country. You got rock. You got reggae (Jawaiian), calypso and cajun. Chiming African electric guitars. You got traditional Polynesian chant. Like Hawaii itself, the music gathers influences from all over the world. You got pop songs about teenage lifestyles, about Hawaiian pride, about the sea. Lots of love songs, but they're more often about children. And you got lots of astoundingly beautiful pure Hawaiian music that's like nothing else you've ever heard. What you don't find much is songs that express sadness or anger which is strange because the Hawaiian people have so much to be sad and angry about.

There were about three hundred thousand people living a loving, comfortable lifestyle on the Hawaiian islands when Captain Cook was welcomed ashore. He didn't realize that the most precious gift he could offer the natives was the iron nails they could make kickass fish hooks with. Instead, he offered gifts of syphilis, flu, colds, and rats. And ultimately, two previously unthinkable concepts, profit motive and ownership of real estate. A few years later, two thirds of the native population had died.

A hundred years ago, we Americans grabbed control from the monarchy, quite illegally, and for native Hawaiians it's kind of been downhill ever since.

So how odd that people who've used this last century to fashion a unique style of music have filled that realm with songs of joy and beauty. The fact is, the spirit of Aloha is no myth. The love is in the music. And lately the music has been gaining in strength. The growing sovereignty movement is reflected in the music. Aloha 'Aina, Love of the Land, is a constant theme. Ka 'Olelo Hawai'i, the Hawaiian language, is being taught in all the schools, at all levels, where just a few years ago it was illegal to teach it. (It's the only native "American" language for which there are degree programs.)

For a couple thousand years, the people of Hawai'i did nicely with only percussion instruments and their own voices. One nineteenth century day, the cattle business got out of hand, and the ranchers brought cowboys from everywhere, mostly from Spain. The Espanolas, or as the Hawaiians called them, Paniolo, came over, spent a few weeks organizing the big cattle ranches, training some locals, and then got the hell out. A bunch of them brought their guitars, played them around the campfires at night, and caught the attention of the local boys. When they left, a few left their axes. The Hawaiians, with no idea how they were "supposed" to tune them, created lots of their own tunings. Maybe because the paniolo brought cheap guitars for the sea voyage, loosening the strings may have helped the instruments survive. From this little cattle business deal came the seeds for Ki Ho'alu, Slack Key guitar.

And this is Hawaiian music. If you haven't heard Ki Ho'alu, you haven't heard Hawaiian. Of course, they also do that steel guitar thing most people imagine when they think Hawaiian music, but not nearly so much as you might guess.

Another major influence to Hawaiians first exposed to melodic instruments were the pianos, organs and Christian hymns the missionaries brought. Each of these influences, Spanish guitar, Mexican folk songs, Christian hymns, and ancient Polynesian chants and drums, has become a part of the Hawaiian style. Instrumentally, Hawaiians also found an instrument they loved when the Portuguese workers brought their broughinas along. One early Hawaiian recording artist was nicknamed "jumping flea," and his nickname in Hawaiian, 'Uku Lele, stuck with the instrument.

Hawaii has its share of genuine musical superstars, too, the stuff of legend. And yet they're kept pretty humble. One of the most beloved Hawaiian entertainers of all time is Gabby "Pops" Pahinui. Gabby is everything Hank Williams was to the mainlanders (and Hawaiians) who loved his work. But the differences in lifestyles illustrates a problem with being a Hawaiian superstar. You still need a day job. Gabby was a garbage man, even at the peak of his musical career. Likewise, some of Gabby's sons, great talents themselves, are park rangers and just regular guys trying to earn a living.

I wonder sometimes if this stuff sounds different to those who grew up on it. After all, it takes a different mindset to play it, a real Hawaiian state of mind. The story is told about Chet Atkins playing in the islands years ago; he heard slack key and decided to stay on a few days and play with some locals, try to learn something. He spent many months in Hawaii studying slack key, and finally decided he couldn't play it, and went home.

When I came to this music for the first time, my mental baggage I brought along was rooted in hard rock, acid jazz, blues, celtic and classical music. Coming from that vantage point, (as opposed to having grown up on Ki Ho'alu) the thing that makes Hawaiian music stand out from all those others is a recurring moment of closure within the melody. As each verse finishes, the guitars play a little statement that neatly wraps up the last line, a little musical "there, there, it's going to be fine" message, a little soothing, healing vibe. As a matter of fact, I thing the words 'Soothing' and 'Healing' apply to most Hawaiin music. Another musical structure I constantly see in Hawaiian music (and would like to see more in everyday life) is the neat island finish, held up for just a beat until you've had a moment of anticipation, then laid neatly in front of you like a hand with four aces. Wanta know how to end a song? These guys will show you how.

If you can stomach a large library of music with basically a mainstream pop core (musicians have always had to earn a living, and Hawai'i is full of hotels and lounges), you might be ready to find the song that will flip on the hidden Hawaiian receptors in your brain. If you're looking for astounding guitar players performing beautiful melodies, if you're looking to hear some people that sing like angels, maybe you're ready to give it a try. Here's a couple of good places to start (in no particular order). These are probably not the artists lifelong Hawaiian music fans would tell you are the best, because these people venture away from old style Hawaiian music a lot. With performances based somewhat on traditional pop and rock, maybe they can help you make the transition. At some point, if you start collecting Hawaiian music, you'll have to have some albums by The Master, Gabby "Pops." And you'll want some of the wonderful guitar work of John Keawe, the heavenly harmonies of the Brothers Cazimero and the Makaha Sons, and many more. But you've got to jump in somewhere, and I'd recommend the shallow end of the pool. Buy at least two of these can't-go-wrong CDs. You'll get a glimpse of where Hawaiian music is today. Maybe that'll get you interested in where it's been. Maybe you might even help shape where it's going. Could happen...

Willy K Kahaialii
Willy's music is filled with fun, and he draws a rowdy crowd. This album features a sweet jammin' reggae song, an ass-kicking Puerto-Rican-dance-music-old-Hawaiian-rodeo-town kind of tune, a straight ahead electric rock song about ancient ancestors with a wonderful lead guitar, the most hard rocking ukulele playing you'll ever hear, and a song (Ho'onanea, means relax) in which Willy holds a singing note for about twelve minutes. When he finishes, your blood pressure will have dropped at least six points, if you're still conscious at all.

Hapa Hapa
Hapa means half, or mixed breed. Two guys, one blond haole (white guy), Barry, who plays guitar like no one you've ever heard, and sings beautifully, and Keli'i, a local boy who plays a fine guitar and sings like an angel. If you've never heard real Hawaiian music before, this is the album that will blow your mind. (Do people still say that?) Two very talented people, Steven Stills and Kenny Loggins are along for the ride on this one, though they contribute little when surrounded by this kind of talent. Still, big names make people look, yeah? Other album by these guys is a sweet Christmas album. And if you like dat kine stuff, check out the Dancing Cat artists' Christmas album.

Hawaiian Style Band
You can't go wrong buying any of the three CDs, but if you like it loud, start with Ohana, the most recent. Rock and roll, but not like you've heard it anywhere else. First two albums feature vocals by the most wonderful Sister Robi, and the unbelievably talented Fiji. Third album, Ohana, loses these marvelous people but still sounds like the same bunch. On second thought, maybe you just better buy all three.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole Facing Future
This man is a phenomenon. Recent exposure on National Public Radio and his knockout rendition of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' (on this album) are getting him mainland sales, especially of his new album In Dis Life. (Can you believe someone would sing that song in such a way as to make you actually want to hear it a few more times? I didn't think it could be done, but Brudda Iz sure did it.) Again, you can't go wrong with any of his albums. But here's a good place to start. Buy this album. Turn all the lights off. Turn the volume to 8. Sit back. Find out what you've been missing.

Brother Noland Greatest Hits
OK, so you want a little anger? You want some sadness? Brother's a little pissed off about the abuses Hawai'i and its people have suffered, and he'll tell you so in a couple of songs. But most of this album is good times, and made to play loud. This is an album that sounds great on a big motorcycle at about eighty miles an hour, although if you're not careful, listening to it can make you drive ninety. Be warned, though. Like a Harry Chapin album, when Brother sings about assholes, you and me are who he's talking about.

Keola Beamer Wooden Boat
Throw away your prozac, lithium and valium. You don't need that crap. Keola is here to bring you stories of ancient Hawai'i, calm your soul, and carry you away. The star of George Winston's wonderful Dancing Cat label (division of Windham Hill), Keola recorded a guitar album called Moe'uhane Kika (Dream Guitar). All of a sudden, Moe'uhane Kika is not an album, it's an entire genre of dreamy, tranquil Ki Ho'alu. You'll hear segments from Keola between stories on NPR's All Things Considered occasionally, and he gets mainland airplay on easy listening/new age outlets (like MC, the satellite cable/DSS music channels). All three of these albums are wonderful, as is Keola's entire musical library for the last quarter of a century (most of those old albums as The Beamers, with his brother). But this album is the one I'd start with. A sweet little song about a wooden boat that's been in the family for generations, and kids and grandmas and uncles and aunts all growing up and old together, out on the ocean looking at star light from a millions years ago, all in this little boat. And the sweet ono! (That means delicious. You'll be saying that a lot as you listen to these artists.)

To find Hawaiian music on the Web:

And finally, every April and November, there's a tour that brings the music of Hawaii to the mainland. Makaha Sons are the big draw, with many other acts opening. (Incidentally, the Makaha Sons are one of the best live acts in the world, and if they take a few minutes of their show to play da kine music most folks think of when they hear Hawaiian, they'll have you laughing till you can't breathe.) The tour usually sweeps up and down the west coast, makes a stop in Texas, maybe Nevada and Utah, and a swing through Denver. If you're not on the west coast, it's difficult to find live music on the mainland. Check Auntie Maria's home page, and Susan Jaworowski's music page, for concert schedules.

ED NOTE: Just out of curiousity, I asked L.D. Reynolds, creator/producer/host of the excellent Hawaiian Jamz program, about the beginnings of Hawaiian contemporary music. " I can offer only theories, based on the fact that I was there and watched it develop and grow. In a nutshell, it seemed to coincide with the music revolution in the states during the Vietnam era. Folk-rock was a major influence on the Hawaiian musicians and songwriters during the middle-late 60's. It was used to communicate anger and sorrow over the "selling" of Hawaii and also to inspire hope for the future. "Waimanalo Blues" by Country Comfort is considered by most to be the first contemporary Hawaiian "protest" song and is featured on Hawaiian Jamz VIII."

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