Hawaiian Music History

Hawaiian music is a product of years of acculturation of different cultures and sounds, a wonderful melding of different  Its history is as diverse as the history of its peoples.

Hawaiians did not merely absorb music and instrument brought to the island. They adapted music based on how it  their own traditional songs and chants. As a result, the Hawaiians have given the world the slack key guitar, the steel guitar, and the ukulele among others.

Traditional Hawaiian folk music is primarily a celebration

of nature, their gods, and love of life. Religious in nature, Hawaiian music traditionally involved chant and hula. Chants were either accompanied with music and dance (mele hula) or without (mele oli).

Before the arrival of the Europeans and their guitars, traditional Hawaiian musical instruments included the ipu (gourd drum), ipu heke (double gourd drum), ili’ili (two flat stones clicked together),  ohe hanu inu (wooden nose flute), large Conch shell that produces deep resonant sounds when blown, pu ohe (bamboo trumpet), and puili (slit sticks made from bamboo). Hawaii has little metals and minerasl (besides lava) so their ancient musical instruments were mostly made from shells, plants, and trees.

Documented Hawaiian music history did not start until the 18th century upon the arrival of the haoles (non-Hawaiian) in the island. Hawaiian culture expert Elizabeth Tatar divides Hawaiian music history from the arrival of the Europeans to the present into seven periods:

1820 to 1872

Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) came to Hawaiian with their guitars. King Kamehameha III brought them to teach Hawaiians how to control overpopulation of cattle in 1832. They taught the Hawaiians how to play the guitar. The Hawaiians changed the tuning of the guitar to adapt it to their traditional Hawaiian songs and chants. They loosened or slackened the strings of the guitar, thus giving the world the slack key guitar.