The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 1: Background and the Polynesian Foundation


Something that I truly love about Hawaiian music are the various influences from other musical cultures that you can hear within the distinctively Hawaiian sound. As a small group of islands set in the middle of the vast Pacific ocean, Hawai`i existed in isolation for hundreds of years. But after Captain Cook’s landing here in the late 18th century, Hawai`i became open to the influences of cultures from all over the world. This can be seen in the food, dress, language, religions and definitely in the music of this place. With the World Cup upon us I thought it appropriate that we look at how the music from around the world came to Hawai`i and influenced traditional Hawaiian music.

There has always been an element of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries in Hawaiian music. The people of Hawai`i have taken pieces from all the different cultures that came here and adapted them into the traditions of the Polynesian ethnomusicology. I will present this topic in two separate blog posts. First I will take a general look at the traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian influences that laid the foundation for modern Hawaiian music. Then in part two I will break down the outside influences on the modern Hawaiian sound from the outside world. Again, please use the links embedded in the bold phrases for further reference.


Clearly, and most importantly, modern Hawaiian music is firmly rooted and influenced by the musical culture that existed for hundreds of years in Hawai`i and thousands of years throughout Polynesia. When we look at the Polynesian musical culture it is very clearly chant based. An emphasis is on repetitive monotone vocals accompanied by rhythmic percussion instruments, most importantly the ipu and ipu heke, the single and double gourd hand drum. What I would like to focus on are the aspects of traditional Polynesian music that are still alive in the modern Hawaiian musics. First of all I would like to note that the traditional Hawaiian musical chants originally brought here from Polynesia are still in use today. It is still alive and in no way did ever disappear. Again, I am focusing on modern Hawaiian music, the music that adapted from the traditional style by taking on influences from around the world. Also I would like to say that when I say “traditional Hawaiian” or “traditional Polynesian” I am referring to the music that existed prior to contact and exchange with the outside cultures.

Obviously the most important aspect of traditional Hawaiian music that is still in use today is the language. Now not all modern Hawaiian music is sung in Hawaiian, but it is a very integral part of what makes a song “Hawaiian.” Many modern Hawaiian songs are actual direct adaptations from traditional Hawaiian chants. Some words have been changed or certain verses have been omitted, but it is very common to hear songs that took a traditional Hawaiian chant and set it to a melody and played with modern instruments. Some examples would be “Hole Waimea” and “A Kona Hema `O Ka Lani” .

Other than the use of language there are some very clear musical components implemented from traditional Hawaiian music. One is the topic of the musical composition. There is a strong sense of place in many modern Hawaiian songs. Lyrics acknowledge and give praise to a specific area in the islands. This can be a district, and island, a mountain or hill, a bay or a specific valley. The place specific aspects are emphasized, a certain wind or a certain type of rain associated with that area is often referenced. A song that really shows this is “Hilo Hanakahi” in that it mentions a place specific aspect for each of the districts on Hawai`i Island. See the lyrics here and a performance here. Another lyrical influence from traditional Hawaiian music is the praising of chiefs and other royal figures as a song topic. Important chiefs and their accomplishments are mentioned. Notes about lineage and propriety rule are outlined. I would mention “Lei `Ohu” as an example of this. I would strongly recommend Gabby Pahinui’s version of this Hawaiian classic.

Also songs can talk about topics of everyday life from fishing, gathering seaweed or the planting of food. Originally the Hawaiian people wrote chants to accompany these activities of normal Hawaiian living. The song “Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai” is a fine example of this as it talks about the process of picking seaweed down by the sea side. There are a number of other topics that have been employed as the theme for modern Hawaiian songs, from love to creation, to birthing of children, to religious ceremony, to the praising of gods, really too many top mention here. The point is that these chants laid the lyrical and thematic foundation for modern Hawaiian music.

Musically there are also a number of elements form the traditional music that you will hear in modern Hawaiian music. Often many songs that are direct applications of a traditional chant are in a minor key, see “Wahine Holo Lio”. This is often used to match the common melodic scale of the chant and to emphasize the repetitive and often quick recital of the words. Another technique you will see specific to song structure is in composing verses. Sometimes when starting a new verse the composer will use the word, or a word with similar sounds, that ended the previous verse. This is most often referenced in usage in the song “Hi`ilawe” Again there are many more examples that could be cited. But for my purpose I would just like to point out a few to give you an idea about what elements of traditional Hawaiian music having originated in Polynesia that have been put into use in modern Hawaiian music. To summarize, mostly, the use of the Hawaiian language, thematic lyrical elements based in a sense of place and daily activities, use of minor keys and the starting of a new verse with a word or sound that ended the previous one.


Now let’s look at the music from the outside world that has come into the sounds of the modern Hawaiian musical tapestry. Of course I cannot cover everything and also others will have other opinions about what has influenced modern Hawaiian music and how. I can only quote the great Hawaiian philosopher Mary Kawena Pukui when she quotes the traditional Hawaiian proverb: “`A`ohe pau ka `ike i ka halau ho`okahi” “All knowledge is not taught in one school.” For our purposes I will be covering the following influences: New England Church Music, Mexican Ranchera and Jalisco Son Music, Portuguese Folk Music of the Madeira Islands, European Royal Music, American Ragtime and Jazz, American Big Band Music, American Country and Folk Music and Caribbean Reggae Music. These will be presented in multiple parts over the coming weeks as the World Cup unfolds.

Come back for part 2 as I break down how New England church music influenced modern Hawaiian music….



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