Hawaiian Music Hits the Mainland

From traditional chants to native language rappers, Hawaiian music is booming

| March-April 1999

Aficionados of Hawaiian music were cheered last year by news that a song by the late, legendary island singer Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo'ole would be included on the Meet Joe Black soundtrack. Although the song isn't exactly Hawaiian—it's a sweet medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”—Hollywood's use of it in a major movie suggested that the word is getting out about Hawaii's vital music scene. That it took until the final credits to hear the song probably didn't surprise, or bother, most Hawaiians: They're used to their culture being manhandled by mainlanders.

It's been happening at least since the early 1900s, when Tin Pan Alley songwriters aped Hawaiian sounds on ditties like “Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo (That's Love in Honolulu).” It happened again in the 1960s, when Don Ho perpetuated a sticky, loungy version of Hawaiian music. And it still happens daily in Waikiki tourist revues, in which musical authenticity often takes a back seat to endless jokes about getting lei'd.

But through it all, Hawaiian music has been deeper and more diverse than most people realize, with roots in the hula and chant traditions of native culture and ties to the islands' growing sovereignty movement. Indeed, Hawaii boasts one of the most fascinating regional music scenes anywhere, as well as dozens of artists who deserve a hearing outside the Pacific Rim.

Keola Donaghy has watched the scene up close as Web master of the Nahenahenet, a Hawaiian music Web site and discussion group. He's encouraged by the current spirit of experimentation in the islands.

“It seems to me the envelope is getting pushed both ways,” says Donaghy. “More people are really digging back into the roots of the culture and the sound of the chant and the ancient percussive instruments. Others are doing Hawaiian-theme rap and pop.”

A handful of Hawaiian musicians already enjoy considerable popularity offshore. The pop-folk duo Hapa sells half of its albums to mainlanders, hooking them with gorgeous, tradition-tinged tunes and Hawaiianized cover songs, including a version of U2's “Pride (in the Name of Love).” Hapa has sold more than 350,000 copies of the 1997 album In the Name of Love, making the group Hawaii's biggest-selling act.

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