The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 7: This Is Getting Big

By the 1940s Hawaiian music had become an established genre in music circles throughout the world. From its beginnings as an isolated chant based musical form based on its Polynesian cultural roots and through the adaptations brought on by the influences from cultures from around the world, the music of Hawaii became its own distinct sound. You can read the first six parts of this blog series to trace this development.

So at this point we come to an interesting crossroads where it is hard to differentiate between what was influencing Hawaiian music and how Hawaiian music was influence other musical forms. In my last blog post I laid out my theory that both American Jazz and Blues and Hawaiian music, while both having existed mutually exclusive from each other, began to coexist by the 1930s. The musical interaction now resulting from increased touring and exposure by Hawaiian musicians allowed the two forms to borrow from each other and evolve simultaneously. This sets up the next shift in the landscape of Hawaiian music, as American music starts to expand itself as a form into something that is called Big Band music.

Really when we talk about Big Band music, we are referring to an expansion of the Jazz and Ragtime sounds of the 1910s and 1920s into something that involved a larger orchestra and a greater variety of musicians. The string ensemble of bass, guitar, ukulele, banjo and steel guitar, now included violins and other string instruments, a brass section and percussion. Sometimes people refer to this as “swing” music. Whatever the case may be we do see a shift occur in the 1930s and into the 1940s in which an emphasis is placed on a bigger sound with extended soloing to support dancing and live performance.

So how did this influence the music in Hawaii? Much like I discussed in my last post looking at jazz and ragtime influences, with the advent of Hawaii as a exotic vacation destination and the need to support the growing tourist markets, Big Band music was what was played at hotels and restaurants not only in Hawaii, but in Los Angeles and Hollywood as well. People were looking to immerse themselves in this new foreign culture, and Big Band music was a very accessible and familiar way to do that.

You cannot underestimate the influence of the popular radio show “Hawaii Calls” when we look at this new interest in Hawaiian music. Broadcast from the Moana Hotel in Waikiki this weekly radio show reached over 750 stations throughout the world at its peak. People tuned in from all over the country to get their Hawaiian music “fix.” To dream of these faraway islands and imagine escaping to its palm lined white sandy beaches. WWII had familiarized and opened up Hawaii to those on the mainland and people were very interested in feeling the laid back island lifestyle that Hawaii represented.

Singers like Alfred Alpaka, John and Pua AlmeidaNina Keali’iwahamana became household names in America. People were exposed to other artists such as Martin Denny, Hilo Hattie, Arthur Lyman and Ed Kenney. This helped shape the musical form known as hapa-haole music and clarify its characteristics. Lush strings, steel guitars, jazzy chord voicing and soaring vocals became the veritable sound of what was Hawaiian. While some elements were stripped down form the big band music it was based on (gone was the jumping horn section) and other elements were emphasized (mainly the vocal being at the center of the performance), it still had its roots firmly planted in the jazz, ragtime and big band sound it came from.

Over the course of its run from 1935 to 1975 the Hawaii Calls radio program broadcast over 2000 episodes which reached over 700 stations throughout North America, the Pacific Rim and even to Europe. It helped launch the career of hundreds of musicians, hula dancers and lounge performers who would continue to perform in the hotels and tourist sectors of Hawaii for years to come. This influence is still alive today as any tourist coming to Hawaii has become to associate “Hawaiian” music with this sound. Whether it is Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” or Elvis” “Blue Hawaii” all these songs owe their existence to the Hawaii Calls radio programs. Next to the Kamehameha Schools music program, it is the single most important and influential source of Hawaiian music and musicians in the entire world.

You can read more about Hawaii Calls from the broadcaster himself Web Edwards in this excerpt from the program of a performance at the Hawaii Theatre someone reproduced on a music forum.

Through the popularity of the first recordings of Hawaiian music in the 1920s, the exposure of Hawaii through servicemen passing through in the 1940s to the popularity of the Hawaii Calls radio program created a massive tourist industry in Hawaii that is still going strong today and remains the number one industry in Hawaii. As this industry has grown, so has the demand for music that is “Hawaiian.” People want something that is familiar, likable and easy to enjoy. By incorporating elements of Jazz, Ragtime, Blues and Swing, a unique musical genre called “Hapa-Haole” music was created. These songs, usually easy going in nature with song topics centered around the beauty of Hawaii and the relaxed lifestyle supposedly found here, created a high demand for musicians in and around the Waikiki area who could supply this music. Highly versatile singers were desirable and ones that could not only play the well known songs from the Hapa-Haole genre, but popular songs of the American Songbook as well, as people were nostalgic for the songs of their homeland while far way in the islands.

Musician and Singer Don Ho systemized and standardized this type of performance. By the 1960s after statehood was established in Hawaii, the tourist industry had become completely commercialized. By adding even more layers of approachable pop elements, such as light strings and organ, into the arrangements, Don Ho represented all that this new emerging tourist industry wanted.

So while the original intention of the Hawaiian musicians of the 1940s into the 1950s was to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries, by synthesizing Jazz, Blues and Swing into their music, by the 1960s the music of Hawaii was anything but boundary pushing. To soothe the demands of the tourist market, the music became homogenized and watered down. The distinguishing elements of Hawaiian music, the syncopated rhythms, the bouncy improvised steel guitar and the poetic double entendre imagery of the Hawaiian language were replaced with pop-based string arrangements, simple universal themes of love at a faraway place and the crooning vocals typical of a Las Vegas nightclub musician. This led to other convoluted musical forms such as tiki music and exotica that blurred the lines between something uniquely Hawaiian and based on the root forms native to the Polynesian area with something created and perpetuated from an outsider’s viewpoint with an emphasis on musical and cultural elements not felt or experienced by the native Hawaiian or kama`aina individual.

The years from the 1940s to the 1960s were an exciting and dangerous time for Hawaiian music and its musicians. As interest in Hawaii grew and demand for things Hawaiian exploded, the music reached a tipping point in which it teetered on the edge of become a mockery of itself. The distinct sound created here had been absorbed and adapted by American musicians and now Hawaiian musicians were adapting that new sound, which they had a hand in creating and developing in the first place, into their own music. Hawaiian music was caught up in a maelstrom of its own creation in which it was in danger of losing its identity through the demands of a highly commercialized tourist industry that wanted to commodify the Hawaii culture for its own consumption.

All this time Hawaiian musicians were simply interested in working and supporting their families. Being a new state and isolated from the consumerist and capitalistic ways of the American public, the Hawaiian was not aware of this commodification that was occurring at the expense of their Hawaiian culture. At home and in the schools and governments, demands to become more American distracted the people of Hawaii from nourishing and developing the unique characteristics that gave Hawaii its worldwide appeal in the first place. And unfortunately as victims of their own isolation and innocence, Hawaii was very close to losing this completely as the American commercial monster is often too big for any native culture to bear.

But as with anything, often it is at the breaking point that the most important changes and developments occur. My next blog post will look at how a select group of Hawaiian musicians, searching for their identity in the complex web of American commercialization, discovered their roots and thus their soul. I will look to establish that as a world wide consciousness began to unfold, fighting the established norms of homogenization that were trying to take over the world, cultures and folk identities of the people took root once again in Hawaii. I will look at how next the true moment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries began to express itself. It is often in the moment when all the lines are blurred and no boundaries are present, that true breakthroughs can occur and be felt the strongest. EO!



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