The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 6: Made In America?

sol hoopii

This is a continuation of my multi-part blog series in honor of the World Cup on the musical influences from outside cultures on Hawaiian music. So far I have covered influences from Mexico, Portugal, the American Missionaries and European Military Marches. Today appropriately enough on the 4th of July I would like to look at the complex relationship between two distinct musical art forms: Hawaiian music and ragtime and jazz of the early 1900s.

With this post I think it is important to address something before getting into the details. I think this area of analysis concerning the mutual influences between Hawaiian music and ragtime and jazz is a very under examined aspect of the musical history of our country. Details about who heard what and what actually influenced whom has not been specifically looked at. A lot of this post is my own opinions and a lot more research needs to be done. Any ideas anyone has about this topic are welcomed and I encourage anyone who is reading this to post in the comments section to help deepen the discussion in this area.

There is a specific starting point that we can use as a moment in time when the relationship between Hawaiian and American music began. While there had been knowledge of Hawaiian music in America before 1915, it was the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that really put Hawaiian music on the map. Prior to that there had been American exposure of Hawaiian music, most notably through 1901’s Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo. There, Frank Ferera performed with the Keoki E Awai troupe, which led to a series of gigs with local vaudeville performers. We also have to acknowledge the work of Albert “Sonny” Cunha’s and his hit records such as “My Honolulu Tomboy” and “My Honolulu Maid” as well as what is considered the first Hapa-Haole tune, here sung by the McDowell Sisters in 1905, “My Waikiki Mermaid”.  

More importantly though it was at the seven month long exposition held in San Francisco during 1915, in which over 17 million people visited the Hawaii Pavilion, that truly exposed Hawaiian music to the masses. Here the Royal Hawaiian Quartet and the song “On the Beach At Waikiki” became a sensation. These performances led to a strong interest in Hawaiian music by a collection of important New York music publishers of the time who were referred to as the “Tin Pan Alley.” You can read more about “Tin Pan Alley” here. It was the work of these influential songwriters that created a huge wave of popularity for anything and everything Hawaiian. Within a few years Hawaiian music was the number one selling musical genre by Victor and Ellison Records. These early “Hawaiian” tunes were mostly comical and contained un-Hawaiian titles like “Yacka Hula Hickey Dula.” What this did though, was create an interest in Hawaiian music and that in turn led to a number of Hawaiian musicians traveling to the mainland to perform.

So let’s briefly look at the musical landscape of America at this time. In the early 1900s, before recording technology became readily available, popular music was through piano sheet music sales. Ragtime was the most popular musical form and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was the number one seller. Based on the “ragged” rhythms of St. Louis and New Orleans, ragtime was a combination of the syncopation of African spirituals and coincidentally, military marches. (See my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 5: From Prussia With Love”). From here during the 1910s Jazz and Blues music made its way up from the MIssissippi Delta and began to be infused with the popular ragtime music of the era. By the 1920s through the work and popularity of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, jazz was an established musical art form and a uniquely American one at that.

What is interesting to examine at this point is the what and who was influencing the music coming from Hawaii and the American south. The reason I point this out is that with the surge of Hawaiian musicians performing in America by the late 1920s there are strong similarities between the two forms of music being created by these two mutually exclusive cultures. Were musicians from Hawaiian hearing early jazz records and adapting their style based on the syncopation and improvisation so common in that music? Were jazz musicians of the south incorporating the stylish improvised solos and odd time signatures found in early Hawaiian music to what they were doing? Or did the music of Hawaii and the American South develop exclusive from each other. Were they coincidental advancements made thousands of miles apart, simply the result of similar musical histories such as church hymns, military marches and European ballads?

These are the questions I am interested in answering. And at this point further research is needed. What we do know is that in the 1920s artists like Sol Ho`opi`i, King Bennie Nawahi and Sam Ku West were touring all over the United States performing at dance halls, hotels and restaurants. Here the emphasis was on the exotic sounds of the Hawaiians. The music was fast paced and lively, often accompanied by non-sensical “hula” dances. With Hawaii becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and a need for entertainment on the long ship voyages, Hawaiian musicians were hired to perform on the steamships and in the newly built hotels of Hawaii.

Simultaneously, during the establishment of these touring circuits, recording technology began to improve to the point where portable recording machines could be transported around the country. These were used to record these “exotic” new sounds. Whether it was the easily recordable bright sound of the steel guitar and the naturally strong Hawaiian singing voice that could easily move the recording needle to penetrate the thick recording cylinders, or the already built-in audience for Hawaiian music, these Hawaiian musicians were the most sought after for recording in the 1920s.

What resulted was a co-existence of Hawaiian and jazz music throughout the United States. It isn’t unfathomable to see how touring Hawaiian musicians were hearing the sounds and styles of American jazz and blues and the American jazz and blues players were hearing the sounds of Hawaiian music. As with any cultural art form they must have borrowed from each other and adapted what they were doing on what they heard. I doubt that there was much musical exchange before these one on one relationships developed. The question is how much exposure to each others music through cylinder and early 78 recordings did the American South and Hawaii have? Again this is an area that requires further study.

I believe that there were musical developments that were beyond just mere coincidence. While these occurred in geographical areas that are mutually exclusive from each other, they are based on what I understand to be shared musical histories. The exposure to each others music through touring and the increased popularity of jazz and Hawaiian music only solidified this similarity and encouraged borrowing. After World War I as the United States began to establish a truly unique and unified cultural identity, music was a common ground between all aspects of this new country, including the newly (albeit illegally) acquired Territory of Hawaii.

The years between 1900 and 1929 are a complex and deeply interwoven tapestry of development in American music. It involved new technology, new modes of transportation and new interest in creating something American. The roles of African-Americans in the South and Hawaiians are a part of that, but their relationship with each other is something that needs to be studied and examined further. It would interesting to see what information researchers in the field of ethnomusicology could uncover if they committed to investigating this complex time of musical development in America.

I purposely left out an examination of the Hawaiian steel guitar in this discussion as that is a whole other area of study, but one that is important when discussing these relationships. For more information in that area I suggest you read “The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instrument” by Bob Brozman which is a wealth of information about the development of the Hawaiian steel guitar and its use in Hawaiian as well as jazz and blues music.

While this series of blog posts has focused on how outside musical cultures influenced modern Hawaiian music, this situation is unique as I see American jazz and blues as at first existing mutually exclusively from Hawaiian and then coming together to have a simultaneous influence on each other. What we can say is that these relationships helped HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries and create sounds here in Hawaii and elsewhere that had never been heard before. We cannot forget how important this music was throughout the world as jazz became hugely popular throughout Europe as did Hawaiian music. Also the popularity of Hawaiian music in many Southeast Asian countries through the touring of Tau Moe, and not discounting the influence of the steel guitar on modern Indian music.

So from here on out as I look at the influence of big band music, folk and country music and Caribbean music in Hawaii, I am really looking at how Hawaiian music influenced themselves, as all those musical forms are based on jazz and blues music, which as I just argued, were partially influenced by Hawaiian music. I truly see the music being created and recorded in America between the years 1915 and 1930 as being the golden years of artistic expression. Everything was new and fresh and musicians and artists were looking to create something uniquely modern. In that way it embodies completely the concept of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.

Come back for future posts as I look at how American Big Band music, American folk and country and Caribbean music comes back to influence the music being made in Hawaii. Again, if you have further ideas about the relationship between Hawaiian music of the 1920s and American jazz and blues, please comment as I am interested in deepening the discussion of this complex relationship. Happy birthday America! And Ua Mau Ka Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono!


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