Hawaiian Music Hits the Mainland

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.

Mainland success is also in the offing for the slack-key guitarists on George Winston’s Dancing Cat label, an offshoot of Windham Hill devoted solely to the lush fingerpicking style pioneered by Hawaiian cowboys in the 1800s. Dancing Cat’s Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters compilation has topped 100,000 in sales and remains a first-rate sampler of contemporary slack-key playing. With an intricate cascade of notes ringing out from a steel guitar, the style appeals to a wide range of listeners.

But that’s just the beginning. “Jawaiian” music, a reggae offshoot, is ubiquitous on Hawaiian radio but not particularly Hawaiian. Native rappers–Sudden Rush and others–push civil rights issues and the cause of sovereignty in rudimentary Hawaiian lyrics. And, most interestingly, new traditionalists are working to revive not only Hawaiian folk music, but also native language and culture.

Many people saw Kamakawiwo’ole, until his death in 1997, as the spiritual figurehead of this school. Although he dabbled in pop music, he always remained grounded in the musical traditions of the island. His songs, sung in a coconut-butter lilt, celebrated the islands and their people while making a plea for their future.

No one could take Iz’s place, but the traditional revival is in good hands with the likes of Kekuhi Kanahele. Her two albums, Hahani Mai (Punahele Productions) and Kekuhi (Mountain Apple), showcase an intense, earthy diva who breathes personality and fire and humor into songs she writes in Hawaiian with her husband, Kaipo Frias. Traditional ukulele, steel guitar, chant, and drum sounds form her musical backdrop, but she twists these familiar elements into wholly new forms.

“Kekuhi does not polish her voice or recording,” wrote Donaghy on NahenaheNet. “She projects a mana, a power that is drawn from the depths of her lineage.”

Hawaiian music has a vast expressive range–from bone-rattling chants to cooing ballads, from ukulele sing-alongs to harmonious slack-key stylings. And the vowel-laden native tongue is one of the most melodious languages on earth, turning even speech into music. By keeping their culture alive, artists like Kanahele and Hapa are ensuring that Hawaiian culture doesn’t go the way of Waikiki.

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