The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 3: Los Vaqueros



Shortly after the establishment of the Christian religion in Hawai`i the next major influence on Hawaiian music came in the 1840s in the form of Mexican vaqueros who came here to teach the Hawaiian people the basics of how to care for and manage the cattle that had grown to large numbers since their introduction in the 1780s. These cowboys not only brought their musical culture in the form of song structure, melody and lyrical themes, but in their instruments as well.

A popular form of music in Mexico during the early 19th century was Ranchero music. Having recently experienced a political revolution and upheaval, the people of Mexico were enjoying the first fruits of its independence. The people of Mexico developed and grasped onto Ranchera music as a way of expressing a national pride and identity. This was especially true in the rural areas of the country where there was a strong backlash against the aristocracies that had previously ruled.

It is pretty evident to hear the influence of the Ranchera music sung and played by the Mexican cowboys on early Hawaiian music. Ranchera music is identifiable by its use of a 3/4 waltz time, but the 2/4 and 4/4 time signatures are also used. The songs are most commonly in a major key with a short instrumental introduction to start off the song. Verses are sung and instrumental sections are inserted between verses. The song topics are usually centered around love and nature. They are most commonly sung accompanied with just the guitar. Sounds like I am describing Hawaiian music!

It is undeniable that there was a huge influence on Hawaiian music from the Mexican cowboys and their Ranchera music. While the missionaries had introduced the concepts of melody, harmony and general song structure, it was really in the rural hills of Kohala and throughout the Big Island that Hawaiian music as we know it began to take shape. A specific structure was now in place, musical introduction, verse, musical interlude, tag. The tempos were now accessible, the 3/4 and 4/4 signatures and the feel of the slow romantic love song became the norm. Take a listen to a short sample from the Smithsonian Institute Folklore website of the song “Los Carinosa (Be Kind To Me)” to hear the similarities.

Obviously I would not be telling the story if I failed to mention the most significant contributions from the Mexican cowboys: the guitar. The guitar was the most important part of ranchero music. It set the rhythm and played the melody line, often simultaneously, two distinctive features of what has come to be known as slack key guitar. It is well documented that the first Mexican cowboys to come here brought their guitars with them and showed the Hawaiians how to play. Using the style familiar to the Mexican cowboys as inspiration, the Hawaiians mimicked and added to their own flavor to their guitar playing. What is not totally clear is how the tunings were adapted and or changed. We do know that traditionally there are a number of tunings that were used in Mexican ranchera music. Most were based on the standard Spanish tuning brought to Mexico by the first Spanish to come to the new world. Over time these were changed slightly, but were still very close to the standard tuning. I do believe there was a tuning structure that was common to the Mexican cowboys that was slightly altered by the Hawaiian once they had guitars in their hands. But because documentation doesn’t exist for this, it is purely speculation has to how or why the tuning was changed.

What is most important here is that it was the Vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys that brought guitars here, introduced a specific structure and style of singing and playing that had a big effect on how Hawaiians began playing and composing music. Most specifically in the realm of the rhythms, structure and melodies. One composition that clearly shows this is “Adios Ke Aloha” Here its very title hints at the influence from Mexico. The song is a song of love lost set to a 3/4 time with a melody that is very clearly Mexican in origin. Another tune that shows this influence is “Waialae” 

While the Ranchera music had the most influence on how the Hawaiian people began to play music, we must also look back to the Jalisco Son has having an important role as well. Son music is unique from Ranchera music in that it is played in ensembles and utilizes dance to accompany the singing. As music in Hawaii moved from a solo performance on the guitar to ensemble playing accompanied by a dance with multiple guitars and other stringed instruments such as the violin and ukulele, it is important that we look at the possibility that son music had an influence on this presentation of music in Hawaii.

One final thing to note is the how these developments in Hawaiian music occurred in the rural areas where cattle ranching was common. My last post discussed the role of the church and New England missionaries on Hawaiian music. While these influences did reach some rural areas, it was mostly centered in Honolulu and the urban centers. The more rural parts of Hawaii were till open to outside influences and they mostly came from the vaqueros from Mexico.  This can be seen in the thematics of the songs that were centered around stories of love and love lost rather than themes centered around church faith and Biblical teachings.

At this point the fundamental structure and style of music in Hawaii has been established. By the 1860s a distinct identity of Hawaiian music has been created. Borrowing elements from New England church singing including melody and harmony and incorporating the Spanish guitar from Ranchera music as the rhythmic template with additional melodic flourishes from the guitar with lyrics about love and romance, modern Hawaiian music was born. Much of this happened right in the Kohala district on the Big Island as it had the unique combination of a strong church influence and the Mexican cowboys. From here it spread to the outside areas where it was modified and adapted by the Hawaiian people throughout the islands. In turn the music became to HO`ANALU….go beyond known boundaries. It is during these exciting times that the music morphs and changes with each new influence from the outside. The Hawaiian people were amazingly open and free with how they would take music from the outside and make it their own.

Next we will look at Portuguese Folk Music from the Madeira Islands and then down the road discuss the influences of 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.

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