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100 Years of Hawaiian Music

Hawaiian music, however flexible, has its own distinctive personality.


(page 1 of 8)

A Kohala Seminary student poses with her ukulele in this 1912 photo.
Photo: Bishop Museum


When we set out to chart the past 100 years of Hawaiian music, we realized how lucky Hawai‘i is in its musical traditions. Most musical genres have a shelf life, a creative arc over which their creative vitality waxes and wanes. Polka, for example, was once one of the most popular dances in the U.S.; good luck making it on MTV with an accordion these days.


But Hawaiian music is different. Its roots in language and culture give it an almost inexhaustible flexibility, letting it incorporate outside influences, from swing to jazz to rock, without losing its own distinctive personality. Trace its development from the monarchy era to the age of rock ‘n’ roll, and you’re struck by Hawaiian music’s ability to remain relevant to each new generation, and by its continued popularity not only in the Islands, but across the globe. It’s possible to argue over what exactly constitutes Hawaiian music, but make no mistake, it’s alive and well in 2010.


An editorial note: One hundred years is an admittedly arbitrary span of time. Hawaiian music, and the chants that preceded it, had of course existed for hundreds of years before we pick up the narrative thread in 1910. But we could only pack so much history into 23 magazine pages, and the 20th century has been an amazing period of evolution and expansion for Hawaiian music. We hope you enjoy, and encourage you to use this overview as a jumping-off point for further musical exploration. Happy listening.


The Island music being played in the Hawaiian Pavilion entranced visitors to the Panama Pacific Exposition.
Photo: Courtesy Harry B. Soria Jr.


The Teens: Hawaiian Music Hits the Mainland

It had been percolating on the mainland for decades, but, in 1915, a single event rocketed Hawaiian music to the big time. The Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, celebrating the recently completed Panama Canal, featured attractions from all over the world, including the young territory of Hawai‘i. By the end of the seven-month-long exposition, 17 million people had visited the Hawai‘i Pavilion, featuring hula and songs by the Royal Hawaiian Quartette. Thanks to the catchy tune “On the Beach at Waikīkī,” Hawaiian music became an overnight sensation.



A NEW SOUND: Albert “Sonny” Cunha is regarded as the “chief popularizer” of hapa haole music at the beginning of the 20th Century, penning such influential songs as “My Waikīkī Mermaid” and “Honolulu Hula Girl.”


The tropical sounds performed in San Francisco caught the imagination of Tin Pan Alley in New York, sparking a wave of new compositions, and paving the way for Hawaiian musicians to tour the Mainland and be recorded along the way. The hapa haole music being produced at this time didn’t often have much to do with real Hawaiian culture (The jokey “Yacka Hula Hickey Dula” was a typical hit.), but the world’s fascination with Hawai‘i fueled a tremendous outpouring of creativity and commerce.


“By 1916, Hawaiian records were outselling practically everything else on the Mainland,” says Hawaiian music historian Amy Stillman. “Victor Records’ catalog was full of Hawaiian music, and Edison Records’ monthly newsletter noted that Hawaiian music was selling more than any of its other releases.” The ride was just beginning.


The Last Acoustic Decade


Music recording was a new and exciting technology, having been invented just a decade earlier, but for the most part, live music performances and sheet music still ruled in the Teens. People played the popular hits of the day in their own homes, on the family piano, and cultural pageants and parades such as the Kamehameha Day celebration were a vital form of entertainment.


Essential Cuts of the Teens

1915: Henry Kailimai’s “On the Beach at Waikīkī”

1915: Johnny Almeida’s “Kanaka Waiwai”

1915: Charles E. King’s “Na Lei O Hawai‘i”

1916: Alfred Alohhikea’s “Pua Lilia”

1916: Matthew Kane’s “Ka Makani Kaili Aloha”



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