The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 2: The Church


This is a continuation of my last blog post that covered the influence of outside musical cultures on modern Hawaiian music. If you haven’t already please see part 1 in which I introduce the topic and discuss the elements of traditional Polynesian and Hawaiian music that laid the foundations of modern Hawaiian music. These posts were inspired by the current World Cup happening in Brazil which got me thinking about all the different forms of music from around the world that were brought to Hawai`i and had an influence of the music from here. What I will be covering in part 2 is the influences of New England Church Music on modern Hawaiian music.


The first missionaries to establish a strong presence here were Protestants from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Massachusetts. Led by Hiram Bingham this group of New England missionaries arrived on Hawai`i Island in 1820 and quickly asserted their influence on many of the religious and daily activities in Hawai`i. One are where their influence was clearly evident was in the music. The first way their influence became evident in what was not allowed. When the Queen Ka`ahumanu converted to Christianity a ban was placed on the performance of traditional Hawaiian religious practices. This prohibited the performance of hula and the accompanying chants, as these were directly associated with religious ceremony.

In its place church hymnal singing was introduced to the people of Hawai`i. First the concepts of melody, counter melody and harmony were placed at the forefront and established as an emphasis for the presentation of a song. Singing schools were created by the missionaries at the newly built churches. A repertoire of tunes was created consisting of adaptations of Protestant hymns with composed Hawaiian lyrics. Topics were predominantly restricted to those of Christian faith and Biblical teachings.

What was taken from these times are group singing, complex harmonies and melodies based on Christian hymnal music. All these elements played a key role in the development of modern Hawaiian music over the next 200 years or so as we hear all these elements still strongly in the music of today. Of course we still hear large group choral singing if Hawaiian music inside and outside of the church. Many schools continue to have choral groups that sing in this manner, not only singing tunes of Christian nature but adapting modern Hawaiian tunes for this environment. One of the most well known examples of this type of singing is in the annual Kamehameha Schools song contest. Here is a recent example from the 2014 concert. Worth noting is that many modern Hawaiian music performers come from the Kamehameha Schools system or from a church singing background.

One final aspect of Hawaiian music that was supported and fostered by the missionaries was Hawaiian falsetto singing. The idea of breaking one’s voice in this manner was already in place and utilized in Hawaiian chants, but the hymnal singing put a melodic value to this technique. Later coined leo ki`eki`e, this has become an important part of Hawaiian singing. Originally this was a technique restricted for use by the men, but later in the the 1950s and it became a signature techniques for females, mostly resulting form the amazing talents of Genoa Keawe and Lena Machado. I would highly recommend the album Hawaiian Songbird to hear this amazing vocal technique in action. Today this style has come back into favor among the male singers and an annual falsetto singing contest is held every year on the Big Island to showcase singers of leo ki`eki`e. One of the most well known male singers of this style are the Ho`opi`i Brothers who can be seen and heard here.

While it is unfortunate that the influence of the Christian missionaries on the religious ways of the Hawaiian people resulted in the initial reduction of the use of the hula and chanting in daily life, it did allow for an opening for new musical influences. Later during the reign of King Kalakaua these harmonic and melodic elements had become firmly rooted in the music of Hawai`i which when combined with the traditional chanting created an entirely new style of music that is still in use today. This is true HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. Here is a theme that unfolds time and time again in the history of Hawaiian music. With the outside world coming into Hawai`i change is inevitable, but what endures through all these changes are the fundamental foundations of the original Hawaiian musical characteristics. The traditions of Hawaiian music have the unique ability to be flexible enough to take on new influences, but strong enough to remain true to the original values and intent.

Please come back as I will next look at the influences of Mexican Ranchera and Jalisco Son Music on modern Hawaiian music. Future posts will cover 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 as I explore the theme of the influence of world music on modern Hawaiian music during our World Cup season.

2 thoughts on “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 2: The Church

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s