A Musical Legacy
by Betty Fullard-Leo
Local Musicians performing
live at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Left to right:
Red Yap, Mary Ann Lim, Kenneth Kapeliela and Laukea
The insistent throb of shark-skin-covered drums, the
yearning twang of slack key guitars, and the soft, mellow
strains of a duo singing the "Hawaiian Wedding
Song" are sounds that evoke images of palm trees
and moonlight and waves lapping on warm, white-sand
beaches-in short, images of Hawai'i.
Ironically, there was a time that such music didn't
even exist in the Islands. The word mele, which has
come to mean song, originally meant poetic language
and was a description of the way chants were written
and rendered (in a repetitive, limited tonal range).
Even the pahu, the drum, was brought to Hawai'i long
after the islands were settled. Legend says that during
the twelfth or thirteenth century, La'a-mai-Kahiki (La'a
from Tahiti) arrived aboard a sailing canoe to join
his father Mo'ikeha on the island of Kaua'i. As his
canoe passed each island, he chanted and played the
pahu he had brought along. On O'ahu, one of the islanders
raced along the shore, pounding his chest in imitation
of La'a's motions. Later this man fashioned a drum and
taught the people of O'ahu to play it.
In Tahiti, the drum was used in worshipping ancient
gods, so La'a deposited his temple drum at a heiau on
the banks of the Wailua River. By the time the Hawaiian
kapu system was replaced by Christianity in 1820, all
major heiau included a hale pahu, or drum house.
drums were large-one at Bishop Museum stands 46 inches
tall-and were made from a hollow coconut or breadfruit
log, its ends covered with shark or fish-skin. Smaller
drums, the puniu, and the only known early wind instrument,
the nose flute, were often played together as accompaniment
for the hula.
Only a few musicians remain who can play the nose flute,
the 'ohe hano ihu, today. Made of a length of bamboo
ten to 21 inches long with a nose hole and two or three
finger holes, the flute was held in the right hand and
blown with the right nostril, while the left nostril
was held closed with the left hand.
Unlike the sparse number of wind instruments, any number
of percussion instruments were used by chanters and
dancers alike long before Western contact. Among them
were single gourds, ipu heke 'ole, and double gourds,
ipu heke. Ipu heke were made by cutting a small gourd
at either end, then gluing it with breadfruit gum to
the open end of a larger gourd. The gourd was hit on
a pad of tapa to produce a hollow vibrating sound as
air rushed into it, then slapped with the fingers and
open palm for an accompanying rhythm.
Musicians who were adept at striking together two flat
pebbles, called 'ili 'ili, held between the bent fingers
of one hand, supplemented the rhythm section. Others
played la'au (sticks) by striking a longer spear with
a short stick. Lengths of hollow bamboo, ka'eke'eke
produced a rhythmic beat when the open end was stamped
on a tapa pad to produce a hollow tone, while 'uli 'uli,
rattles made of single gourds filled with pebbles and
topped with brightly colored feathers, added intricacy.
By the 19th century, Hawaiian music exhibited western
influences. The braguinha was introduced when Portuguese
laborers came to work the cane fields in 1878. Hawaiians
called the instrument 'ukulele, which translates literally
to "jumping flea," and may refer to the way
a musician's fingers flew across the four strings.
Paniolos (cowboys) from Mexico brought the guitar with
them when King Kamehameha contracted with them to teach
Hawaiians to ride and rope the ever-increasing numbers
of wild cattle on the Big Island. A schoolboy at Kamehameha
Schools, Joseph Kekuku, is credited with devising the
slack-key technique in the early 1890s when he placed
a comb and later his steel pocket knife across the strings
of his guitar. The sound was so pleasing he obtained
a steel bar from the school's shop instructor and soon
his friends were emulating the new style. Today, the
Big Island's own Uncle "Kindy" Sproat is one
of the island's best known slack-key guitarists.
In 1872, Henry Berger came from Germany to enlarge
Kamehameha Schools music department. In the ensuing
years, he arranged more than 200 Hawaiian songs, composed
75 Hawaiian songs, recorded numerous ancient chants
and wrote 500 Hawaiian and Western marches that were
performed by the Royal Hawaiian Band.
King Kalakaua was a great supporter of Hawaiian music
from the time of his coronation in 1883, and his legacy
was continued through the reign of Queen Lili'uokalani,
the talented composer of Aloha Oe..
In 1935, Hawai'i's music caught the ears of West Coast
listeners via Hawai'i Calls, a radio program broadcast
from under the Banyan tree at the Moana Hotel and other
locales until 1972. Today, many of the more than 300
Hawaiian musicians who were heard on Hawai'i Calls are
legends in the entertainment world, among them are Danny
Kaleikini, Alfred Apaka, Benny Kalama, Palani Vaughn.
Hawaiian music continues to evolve and can be enjoyed
at many Big Island hotels. Best known on the Kohala
Coast are members of the talented Lim family, who weave
a magic mood with guitars, dance, oli and heart-tugging
songs nightly at at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, while
sisters Nani and Lorna and brother Elmer Lim entertain
at the nearby Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel every Wednesday,
Thursday and Friday. At Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, talented
Gary Haliamau renders a mean slack key guitar at the
Terrace Wednesday through Saturday and during Tuesday
night's Hawaiian feast. Nearby, at The Orchid, a Hawaiian
duo roams between Brown's Beach House, the Ocean Bar
and the Orchid Court strumming guitars to accompany
a graceful hula dancer every night. In mid-April every
year, a slack key guitar festival brings musicians from
around the state to the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel.
The sounds of Hawai'i may not be the same as they were
pre-Western contact, but they continue to evoke romance
in the moonlight on many a balmy Island night.
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