100 Years of Hawaiian Music
Hawaiian music, however flexible, has its own distinctive personality.
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Ray Kinney sings with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel orchestra, led by Harry Owens.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives
The Twenties: Hawaiian Music Gets Electrified
Rival stations KGU and KDYX both started broadcasting on the same day in May 1922, and Hawaiian music was a staple on each from the beginning. KGU’s inaugural broadcast featured Johnny Noble’s Moana Hotel Orchestra, and listeners were soon enjoying daily doses of free entertainment over the local airwaves.
In 1925, Bell Telephone Laboratories released “orthophonic” (electrical) recording technology, dramatically improving the quality of musical recordings.
“The invention of the amplification tube made Hawaiian music available to the masses,” says radio personality and music historian Harry B. Soria Jr. “It was big. You could use it with the radio, the microphone, with recording equipment. Guys were going nuts figuring out how to use it. They would do live radio broadcasts, going to each place, the Alexander Young Hotel, Lau Yee Chai’s, the Moana, wherever, and throw this equipment together from the car to record a 15-minute broadcast. It was a crazy time.”
Photo: Bishop Museum
The Swinging Twenties
Hawaiian music in the 1920s was all about swing. “The hotel orchestras were playing these big floor shows, and people wanted to dance. Musicians obliged,” says Amy Stillman.
Waikīkī Grows Into A Tourist Haven
The Moana Hotel had opened in 1901, but the competitive arrival of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1927 signaled Waikīkī’s development into a tourist destination, and a hub for Hawaiian entertainment. In hopes of gaining the edge, each hotel’s music director began curating Hawaiian performers, searching out the best. “There was work for musicians and dancers everywhere,” says Soria. “The hotels needed entertainment. And it was the steamship age, and they needed musicians to greet every ship that came in, and to send them off.”
The first Hawaiian music superstar. Not only was Noble a magnetic performer and composer in his own right, he became one of Hawaiian music’s most influential tastemakers, first as the leader of the Moana Hotel Orchestra, and then as one of radio’s first musical directors, working at KGU when it opened in 1922. Traditionalists such as Charles E. King sniffed at the way Noble turned Hawaiian songs into dance music by incorporating swing elements, but his hapa haole compositions were a hit, and he became known as the “Hawaiian Jazz King.”
Photos: Hawai‘i State Archives
In 1928, Brunswick Records commissioned Noble to record 110 Hawaiian songs. “It was a huge moment,” says Stillman. “Up to that point, Mainland A&R [talent scouts] had been recording musicians who were touring through the Mainland. Brunswick essentially deputized Johnny Noble to find the best local performers here in Hawai‘i, and suddenly there was a wider range of artists getting access to this medium that could shift their music to the Mainland, as well as broadcast their music here. It was a validation of locally based artists.” Among the stars to be uncovered during the Brunswick sessions were Lena Machado and Ray Kinney.
Essential Cuts of the Twenties
1920: Johnny Noble’s “Hula Blues”
1924: Bina Mossman’s “Niu Haohao”
1925: Charles E. King’s “Ke Kali Nei Au (The Hawaiian Wedding Song)”
1927: Lena Machado’s performance of “Na Lei O Hawai‘i”
1927: R. Alex Anderson’s “Haole Hula”