Aloha ʻĀina: The Heartbeat Of Hawaiian Music
When I moved to O‘ahu from Phoenix, Arizona, by way of Los Angeles in early 2022, I was immediately captivated by the melodic nature of Hawai‘i. Each day, the gentle coos of local zebra doves, the rustling of Banyan leaves in the breeze, and a diverse range of music fills the air. From singer-songwriter Fia’s hit 2018 single Love Me emanating from a Toyota 4Runner on the lush, historic Pali Highway to the soulful country tunes at the iconic Honolulu restaurant Pearl’s Korean BBQ, music is interwoven into every facet of island life.
The spectrum of musical genres within Hawaiian music is so vast that one could fill the pages of a textbook, and many have. The history and styles highlighted here provide only a glimpse into the rich tapestry of sounds that honour Hawaiian culture and aloha ‘āina (which translates as ‘love of the land’). From what many consider the ‘golden era’ of Hawaiian music, from the 1930s to 1960s, to the contemporary trends shaping today’s scene, there is something for everyone in this vibrant and profoundly inspiring world of music.
Hawai‘i boasts a musical legacy spanning well over a millennium. Traditional Hawaiian music, or kahiko, is deeply rooted in the art of storytelling. Its mele (meaning ‘chant’ or ‘song’) serves as a vessel to commemorate pivotal events while also acting as a chronicle of Hawaiian history, mythology, genealogy and spirituality. Beyond this, kahiko has evolved into a form of entertainment and spiritual expression, often performed alongside the graceful ritual of hula dance. This foundational sound and ethos continue to influence the contemporary music emerging from the Hawaiian Islands.
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‘Auana, or modern Hawaiian music, is a dynamic realm constantly evolving and drawing inspiration from a diverse tapestry of cultures that have found a home here. Influences from China, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Samoa, Tahiti and more have contributed to this vibrant musical landscape. Central to this repertoire are instruments such as the slack-key guitar and ukulele, which have become integral to the Hawaiian sound. Introduced by Portuguese immigrants over a century ago, the ukulele has since become an emblematic instrument of the islands. Renowned artists such as Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, affectionately known as Braddah IZ or IZ, propelled this distinctive sound onto the global stage with his rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World, which was recorded in 1988 but went on to enjoy chart success around the world in the subsequent decades and featured in TV adverts and movies including 50 First Dates.
Similarly, the guitar – introduced by Spanish and Mexican cowboys working on Hawaiian ranches in the early 1800s – birthed the slack-key playing style, characterised by the loosening of strings to create an open chord when plucked and strummed. Standard percussion instruments include the ipu (a single gourd drum), ipu heke (double gourd drum), pahu (a sharkskin drum), and ‘uli ‘uli (a maraca-like instrument). These are often featured at lūʻaus (traditional Hawaiian feasts accompanied by entertainment), special gatherings (such as the birth of a child or a wedding), or kanikapilas (impromptu jam sessions).
Hawai‘i’s rich musical heritage is celebrated year-round at various festivals, such as the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival, which pops up in several locations across Hawaii each year, the prestigious springtime Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo and the Aloha Festivals held across the Hawaiian Islands each September.
Live music also graces the various farmer’s markets scattered across the islands. At the Pearlridge Center weekly Village Night Market in Aiea, local talents such as singer Rachel Faith infuse their own unique interpretations into hits by artists such as Ben E King, Sublime, TLC and Amy Winehouse. Museums including Hawaiʻi State Art Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art frequently host performances by gifted local artists and musicians.
In more intimate venues, such as BāS Bookshop in Honolulu’s Chinatown, artists showcase a diverse range of musical styles, from Jawaiian (Hawaiian reggae) to synth-pop. Legendary Hawaiian singer Don Ho (who was best known for hit single Tiny Bubbles, released in 1966) once described Hawai’i as “the most precious jewel in the world,” and the spirit of aloha that lives within the island’s music resonates far beyond the shores of the Pacific.
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Five Songs By Hawaiian Artists To Listen To Now…
- Higher Than The Clouds by Anuhea
- Waikahuli by Kuana Torres Kahele
- My Reason by Maoli
- Ku’u Poli’ahu by Kalani Pe’a
- Bohemian Rhapsody (Cover) by Jake Shimabukuro
Glenn Lutz is an author, artist and guest editor of Service95’s Men’s Mental Health Special Issue