100 Years of Hawaiian Music

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


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The Aughts: The Grammys Love Slackers

In 2005, Hawaiian music got a jolt of national exposure, with the Grammy Awards’ creation of a Best Hawaiian Music Album category. Hawai‘i’s first Grammy winner, however, took many by surprise. Slack Key Guitar Volume II, an instrumental compilation of various slack key artists, beat out established Island stars such as Kealii Reichel, The Brothers Cazimero and Amy Hanaialii Gilliom.

It was a perceived upset that turned out to be a trend: Every Hawaiian Music Album award winner since has prominently featured slack key guitar. Purists complained about the snubbing of Hawaiian-language releases, but the Grammy voters’ fondness for ki hoalu has led to something of a heyday for the art form. This year, for example, vocalists Raiatea Helm and Amy Hanaialii both teamed up with noted slack key players for their latest albums, Helm working with Keola Beamer, and Hanaialii with five different slack key masters.

Photo: Olivier Koning

The New Tradionalists

In the history of Hawaiian music,  some landmark events have had an almost instantaneous effect. The 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, for example, catapulted Hawaii to the top of the U.S. sales charts. Other pivotal moments have taken decades to fully manifest.

The establishment of Hawaiian-language immersion schools such as Aha Punana Leo in 1983, and the state Department of Education’s Papahana Kaiapuni program in 1987, were groundbreaking at the time, of course, but the real fruit has been coming to bear in the new millennium. The first graduates of these programs have begun composing and performing Hawaiian-language songs with impressive fluency. “The level of composition today is way deeper,” says Stillman. “It’s night and day, compared with what we were seeing in the past. The creativity is remarkable.”

Artists such as Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole, Kainani Kahaunaele and Aaron J. Sala are not only keeping Hawaiian music traditions alive, but forging new creative ground. Kanakaole says that composing in the Hawaiian language entails an entirely different thought process than English composition. A song without that underpinning of language, he says, is not truly Hawaiian. “Hawaiian metaphor and poetry was the first exposure and the strongest influence in my education,” says Kanakaole, “and that is the foundation of Hawaiian music. It is not the music or the instrumentation that defines what Hawaiian music is.”

Whatever new influences get tossed into the mix in the coming years, as long as Hawaii’s artists ground their work in the language and the cultural traditions of their ancestors, the music will remain vital.                         

Essential Cuts from the Aughts

[ 2002 ]  Jake Shimabukuro’s Sunday Morning, [ 2002 ]  Nā Palapalai’s Makani Oluolu, [ 2003 ]  Raiatea Helm’s Far Away Heaven, [2005]  Slack Key Guitar Volume II, [ 2005 ]  Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole’s Welo



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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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