100 Years of Hawaiian Music
Hawaiian music, however flexible, has its own distinctive personality.
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The Eighties: Hawaii Goes Rasta
Hawaiian music has always been an accommodating genre, incorporating elements from outside musical forms, from swing to jazz to folk, without losing its essential, defining character. But the 1980s brought perhaps the most controversial new flavor of Hawaiian music yet: Jawaiian.
Reggae had already become all the rage on the Mainland, and somehow its Island vibe seemed like peanut butter to Hawaii’s guava jelly. Brother Noland scored a hit with “Coconut Girl,” and Hawaii’s record store shelves were soon full of reggae-influenced party albums released by Bruddah Walter, Manao Company and Kapena. By 1988, Kapena was declaring, “You say you don’t like the reggae beat? You must be crazy.”
Sean Naauao, one of the founding members of the Manao Company, says, “We were definitely inspired by Bob Marley. But we didn’t want to be like him. We wanted to write about local issues, local food, about our own lives.”
Not everyone bought the local connection, and Jawaiian became the scapegoat of choice for Hawaiian music buffs lamenting the decline of traditional culture. Not that it did anything to quell the reggae takeover. “If you talk to Hawaiian music purists, they revile Jawaiian,” says Amy Stillman. “If you talk to the rank and file, though, they love it. As soon as they’re out of halau, that’s what’s on the radio on the drive home. It’s expressing thoughts and sentiments that are relevant, in a musical language that is relevant.”
One of the first Jawaiian songs ever—entitled “Mr. Reggae”—was recorded in 1978 by Billy Kaui, one of the original members of Country Comfort.
Essential Cuts from the Eighties Loyal Garner’s Loyal,  Peter Moon Band’s Cane Fire,  Moe Keale’s Aloha is a Part of Me, a Part of You.
Israel Kamakawiwoole, one of the legends of Hawaiian Music.
Photo: Courtesy Mountain Apple Co.
The Nineties: Hawaiian Superstars
The ’90s were a decade of blockbusters, both creatively and financially. Kealii Reichel, for example, a Maui performer and kumu hula virtually unknown outside the hula community, seemed to come out of nowhere with the release of his 1994 debut, Kawaipunahele. Leah Bernstein, president of Mountain Apple Co., says her company distributed half a million copies of the album within the first two years. “We couldn’t believe the numbers, because Hawai‘i is a market of 1 million people. And Kealii wasn’t a tourist act. This was local people buying.”
But the breakout star of the decade had to be Israel Kamakawiwoole. After 17 years playing with the Makaha Sons of Niihau, Bruddah Iz decided to go solo, and his 1993 album Facing Future brought him more fame than he could have imagined. Radio kept songs like “Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man” on constant rotation, and Iz’s luminous talent, combined with an everyman demeanor, turned him into a hometown hero.
By the time he passed away in 1997, of complications stemming from his weight, Iz had become Hawaii’s son. Gov. Ben Cayetano decreed that his body would lie in state at the Capitol, an honor previously given only to Gov. John A. Burns and U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga, and an estimated 10,000 fans showed up to pay their respects. Even today, 13 years later, Iz’s popularity continues to grow—Facing Future has sold more than a million copies, and his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” has been licensed more than 100 times.
Jon De Mello says, “There’s no other way to say it: Iz was larger than life—in his music, his personality, his presence. He became this icon and it was a perfect representation of that time in Hawaii.”
Slack Key Begins Its Climb Toward The Limelight
In 1998, George Winston, founder of Dancing Cat Records, started recording legendary slack key musicians. “I knew there was so much more that needed to be recorded,” he says. “There just wasn’t much solo slack key on record, and I was like, wow, we have to get Ray [Kane], Sonny [Chillingworth] and Leonard [Kwan] while they’re still here.” The instrumental albums resulting from these sessions wouldn’t start to be released until the early ’90s, as the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Series, but they would go on to create a worldwide fanbase for kī hō‘alu (slack key) that continues to grow.
Hapa’s self-titled 1994 debut won six Na Hoku awards, thanks to songs such as “Lei Pikake” and “Ku‘u Lei, Ku‘u Ipo.”
Hitting a High Note
From Lena Machado to Bill Lincoln to Dennis Pavao, traditional falsetto has long been a treasured vocal style in Hawaiian music, but it wasn’t exactly mainstream. But the creation of two high-profile annual exhibitions—the Clyde “Kindy” Sproat Falsetto and Storytelling Contest on Hawaii Island in 1992 and the Frank B. Shaner Hawaiian Falsetto Singing Contest on Oahu in 1995—would do for falsetto what the Merrie Monarch Festival had done for hula, revitalizing and inspiring a whole new generation of artists.
Essential Cuts from the Nineties
[ 1990 ] Hookena’s Thirst Quencher!, [ 1990 ] Willie K’s Kahaialii, [ 1991 ] Kaau Crater Boys’ Tropical Hawaiian Day, [ 1992 ] Hapa’s Hapa, [ 1992 ] Hawaiian Style Band’s Vanishing Treasures, [ 1993 ] Israel Kamakawiwoole’s Facing Future, [ 1994 ] Kealii Reichel’s Kawaipunahele, [ 1995 ] Na Leo Pilimehana’s Flying with Angels, [ 1997 ] Amy Hanaialii Gilliom’s Hawaiian Tradition