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 Bright. photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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.

Temple 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.

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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.

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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.

photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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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