Hawaii’s Musical Mirror
By “Awake!” correspondent in Hawaii
JUST close your eyes and listen to the lovely strains of a Hawaiian song and your mind may envision South Sea Islands in an azure-blue sea, swaying palm trees, white coral beaches, pounding surf and gentle Polynesian people. But to the native Hawaiian, the mental reflection goes much deeper. His music is a mirror of his islands’ history.
The ancient Hawaiian “sang” or chanted when he had something to say that he felt could not be expressed in any other adequate way. He chanted his prayers, as well as serenades to his beloved and lullabies to his children. There were chants about the valiant ones, the tragedies of war and even prophecies. In fact, for almost every daily occasion there was a chant. Through such musical recitation, history and other important matters were committed to memory and passed down from generation to generation. Hawaiian chiefs kept special singers to chant their names and proclaim their line of descent.
How did this ancient music sound? Not at all like the modern music of Hawaii. To the Occidental ear it would be rather monotonous due to its limited tonal range—often of only two or three tones.
The Hawaiian used the word mele, which literally meant “poetry,” when he spoke of chants. But through foreign influence and association, mele has come to be synonymous with “song.” Thus Hawaiian songs, as was characteristic of the ancient poetry, use highly figurative language. For example, songs seeming to describe such things as flowers or places may be, in reality, references to persons and emotions.
Types of Chants
These chants or poems have been divided into two general classifications: “mele oli” (unaccompanied chants) and “mele hula” (those accompanied with rhythm).
The unaccompanied chants consisted of ballads, prayers, prophecies, dirges and secular songs of lesser importance. This type of chanting required deep chest quality, natural vocal ability and excellent breath control to sustain the unusually long phrases. The pitch was maintained on a general level except at natural breathing places, and a slight trill usually came at the end of a phrase. The “mele oli,” or unaccompanied chant, is seldom heard today; it is a dying art known only to a few.
The “mele hula,” on the other hand, was characterized by a strong rhythmic swing. Sometimes the performer would use just his body and his hands as he acted out a poem. At other times he would use a variety of rhythm instruments too. This chant accompanied with rhythm was the forerunner of the modern hula.
The ancient hula was considered such a refined art that there were many taboos in connection with it to guard it against desecration. Those expecting to become a member of the hula guild lived at a hula school under strict regulations, enduring rigorous training until their graduation into the guild.
Ancient Musical Instruments
Some of the musical instruments of ancient Hawaii are still in use today. There was only one major stringed instrument—the “ukeke”—but it came in two styles.
The long ukeke was a flat strip of flexible wood mounted with two coco-fiber strings, with pegs to wind them up to the proper tones, at the interval of a second or a fourth. The other style had a third string tuned to a third. Both types of instruments were used by bringing the top strings against the mouth and singing or humming against the instruments, while at the same time working the fingers on the strings.
One of the strangest instruments of the ancient orchestra was the nose flute. It was made of a joint of bamboo with a nosehole on one side, and two finger holes at the end on the other side. Another strange woodwind resembled a primitive ocarina. It was made of a gourd pierced with three holes; one to put against the nose to blow and the others to be stopped up with the fingers.
The percussion section shone with variety! There were all sorts of drums made of coconut shells, wood and calabashes. They usually were covered at the ends with tightly drawn sharkskin. Outstanding among these was a ‘pahu’ drum, which was introduced from Tahiti during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was made from a hollowed coconut or breadfruit log. The lower portion was beautifully carved, and the upper cavity was covered over with sharkskin. This drum is still used today along with the small coconut drum.
But how did this unique chanted poetry and dancing with its limited tonal range become the melodious, lilting music of today’s Hawaii?
Influence of Foreign Music
The transition from the old music to the new followed on the heels of the first visit to these islands by Europeans in 1778. In a short time men from whaling ships and missionary groups made great inroads on Hawaiian culture. Visiting sailors had a musical repertoire as varied as their nationalities, and the music-loving Hawaiians quickly adopted the songs, making them their own. Many South Seas favorites of today came from the basic tunes of these early visitors.
Also, these early visitors adapted many of the old Hawaiian chants. For example, one of the all-time Hawaiian favorites, Hole Waimea, is an old mele set to modern music. There is also the hauntingly beautiful refrain Waipio, named after a lovely valley, but originally a very old chant.
In the 1820’s the missionaries began forming an alphabet for the unwritten Hawaiian language. Soon they introduced the eight-tone scale and began teaching hymns and simple folk songs to their eager students. Even though harmony was unknown in old Hawaii, it was learned quickly and well. Hawaiians are extremely skilled in the tenor part, which is regarded by many composers as the most difficult to perform.
In the nineteenth century the young German musician Henry Berger came to Hawaii at the invitation of Kamehameha V, becoming the court musician and music teacher of the members of the royal family. He organized the now world-famous Royal Hawaiian Band, which, until this day, regularly meets incoming passenger liners with Hawaiian song and dance on the pier. It also bids the passengers “Aloha,” meaning farewell, welcome, or love, on their departure.
During and after the days of Berger’s influence a tremendous treasure of song literature grew up that was truly Hawaiian music as it is known today. Several of the monarchs of Berger’s day showed great musical talent, among them the last reigning monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lilioukalani. The most loved and best-known song of Hawaii, Aloha Oe, was composed by her.
The music for the song was inspired by an old ballad. But the nostalgic lyrics came to Lilioukalani after witnessing a touching farewell scene between a young officer in the king’s army and a native girl at Maunawili ranch in Waimanalo, Oahu, in 1878. She transcribed the whole song to musical score herself. Berger arranged it and under his baton the Royal Hawaiian Band played it in San Francisco in 1883. It gained popularity immediately.
Modern Instruments and Popularity
By the latter half of the nineteenth century Hawaiians had already become exceptionally fond of the guitar. In 1886, it was reported: “They play it as a solo instrument with a tenderness, a softness, which speaks well for the delicacy of their feelings.” Also, the four-stringed miniature guitar, the ukulele, was taken to the Hawaiian heart from a Portuguese immigrant who brought it to these shores in 1879.
The Portuguese called the ukulele the “cavaquinhos,” which meant “small piece of wood.” But because of the bouncing way in which it was played, the imaginative Hawaiians soon changed its name to “ukulele,” meaning “jumping flea.” Though originally thought to be just an accompaniment instrument, today there are a number of real virtuosos who play the ukulele as a solo instrument, mastering everything with it from a hula to the classics. It is so well loved in Hawaii that it is common to see schoolchildren playing a ukulele as they walk along the street.
But there is one instrument that was purely a product of Hawaiian ingenuity—the steel guitar. In the 1890’s a student of Kamehameha School, Joseph Kekuku, while playing an old guitar, pressed the back of a comb down on the strings as he plucked them and heard for the first time the indescribably beautiful steel guitar tone that has been identified as Hawaii’s own sound ever since.
The popularity of Hawaiian music began sweeping the world during World War I. Phonograph recordings are one of Hawaii’s best advertisements. For who has not heard recordings of the plaintive Hawaiian classics, Na Lei O Hawaii, Blue Hawaii, Little Grass Shack, Sweet Leilani, or the very beautiful Hawaiian Wedding Song?
Through the years the history of Hawaiians—their deeds, love of creation, and emotions—has survived for the whole world to enjoy. Music reminiscent of a bygone era keeps winging its way down to us, leaving a reflection that will be constantly renewed each time music from Hawaii is heard.