Defining the Undefinable

Each time the issue of defining slack key is addressed by either a specific artist or some governing body of musical societies, I find the divisiveness of these definitions and categories on the one hand interesting, but also unfortunate on the other. I do see it as a basic human trait to try and classify things into specific groupings, it is something we have been doing since the advent of language after all. But when it comes to the arts I struggle to see the need or inherent necessity of doing this other than to create differentiation and separation among people all trying to achieve the same thing, a desire to express their inner most emotions and feelings into a tangible form.

This issue as it relates to slack key guitar playing recently came to mind while reading an essay by Makana titled “What Is Slack Key Guitar”. Now right off the bat I was a little skeptical as he is clearly stating that he will attempt to define something that to me as an art form is undefinable. Please read his essay yourself to get an idea about his view point directly from the source, but I will clarify some of the main points here.

What I really struggled with when reading his essay is that in defining slack key guitar he actually makes the definition more muddled and convoluted. In the process of defining what slack key is, he mentions so many exceptions to its components that I was left scratching my head as to how you can decisively define such a varied and ever evolving style of guitar playing. For example he says “The strings are tuned relative to each other so that when strummed open (without fretting) the final result is a CHORD. Doing so emancipates the fretting hand from having to hold chords- the guitar is already holding a chord for it (there are exceptions, of course)” (emphasis mine). Also “Often (again, there are exceptions) some of the strings are “slacked” or loosened, hence the name “kī hō’alu” (“to slacken or relax”) (emphasis again mine).

So according to this the strings can or cannot be tuned to result in an open chord and the strings can or cannot be loosened. Basically in one fell swoop he covered every possible guitar tuning known in the history of the instrument, amazing!

He then moves on to the technique aspect of playing slack key. The first technique he addresses is an alternating bass line using the thumb. He goes to state that “Uncle Ray Kane as well as Uncle Sonny Chillingworth were VERY STRICT about this.” (emphasis his in this case). But then he follows that up that “when you listen to Peter Moon (Sr), and the Gabby BAND (not solo) recordings, the two of them aren’t playing the bass a lot of the time.” (emphasis on BAND his). So again a major contradiction is being presented here.

According to Makana an alternating bass pattern is a fundamental aspect of slack key guitar playing, in fact it may be the most important as it is the first one he lists. Also it was emphasized by two leading masters he mentions Sonny Chillingworth and Ray Kane, but two other leading masters of slack key didn’t play in an alternating bass style? He does qualify this statements saying “that is because they had multiple instruments accompanying them..this is still often considered “slack key” as they used the tunings and the melodies of Hawaiian mele”. All in all these are confusing and contradictory statements.

So again, if I tune my guitar in a slack key manner (which according to his opening section on tuning can mean anything really) I am still playing slack key if I play the melodies of Hawaiian mele?

For the second component of slack key playing Makana says “Fingers of picking hand execute the primary melody of the piece. This usually occurs on the two or three highest pitched strings, but of course varies broadly”. Again, I use the highest two strings to execute the melody, but it “varies broadly”. Here he seems to be even more inclusive of all variations of how the melody is played on the instrument. It can be played with the bass strings then I assume, or any of the middle strings as well.

Then for the final third component he says “Both thumb and pointer finger occasionally impart what I call a faux rhythm, to infer the illusion of an accompanying background strumming rhythm guitar. This is more apparent in styles like Gabby’s solo work as well as that of Atta Isaacs. It is a technique that is very difficult to articulate/ teach, therefore it is rarely incorporated, but it is witnessed in the playing styles of the legends.” What does this even mean? There is some sort of fake rhythm that is generating as an illusion, but it can’t be taught or explained and it is rarely incorporated? That makes absolutely no sense. Something exists, I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it  and it is rarely ever incorporated…but it’s there! My response would be, well then why are you even bothering writing an essay titled “what is slack key”.

Actually for me this component three seems to best summarize the entire definition of slack key. The whole thing is an illusion. Why even bother defining it. It just is. I do like the quote that Makana includes that Led Ka`apana uses to describe slack key, “slack key is the way we love each other, the way we share our Aloha with each other.” That to me is more tangible and more easily accessible than Makana’s definition full of contradictions and fuzzy logic. Because if I were to summarize Makana’s definition in my own words I would say “Slack key involves tuning your guitar in some manner that may or may not include slacking or loosening the strings and it may or may not result in an open chord. The guitar should be played with an alternating bass rhythm as it is an integral component as taught by the original masters, but often other master players ignore this component and don’t play with an alternating bass rhythm especially when playing in a group setting. The melody can be played on any string and there is great variations to what strings play the melody. And finally there is an unexplainable background fake illusionary rhythm that exists in the playing but it is very scarcely ever heard or seen and I can’t be taught.” How does that sound? Again, he is basically just explaining finger picked guitar, other than the esoteric “faux rhythm” part.

And I’m gonna stop there with referencing Makana’s essay as I can’t really accept much of anything of his conclusion based on the contradictions found in the entire body of his essay. What I can say is he goes on to explain in a whole host of lengthy justifications about what is and isn’t slack key and who can and can’t play it. You can read the essay for yourself to hear his explanations and justifications for these viewpoints.

But all kidding aside I think my points have strong validity and good reason to be brought up, and here’s why. A few years ago there was a big uproar in the Hawaiian music community over who was and wasn’t getting a very prestigious music award for best Hawaiian music album. The winners were consistently playing in what they called a slack key style and for the most part either resided outside of Hawaii or were produced by people not born or raised in Hawaii. The arguments and name calling that resulted ended with the particular awards committee dropping the category for best Hawaiian music album all together. We got so caught up in trying to define who we are that the broader music community said, you know what, since you guys can’t figure it our, we’ll just shut you out all together and just make your recordings available for the “American Roots music” category. Now this is fine by me, but I think has resulted in a vast void of self identification of what Hawaiian music is or does.

But for me as a musician living and working in Hawaii is a pretty apt summarization of where the industry as a whole is. So what am I trying to say? Well, that for Makana to try and define what slack key is he is doing himself and slack music as a whole a great disservice. As we say in Hawaii “just let the kids play”. Is there a deep and long history of a specific style of finger picked acoustic guitar playing in Hawaii? Yes or course! Does it matter what we call it, no I think not. It is a traditional folk style, that at this point is dead and has evolved past any specific labels or definitive components that can be easily establish, defined and categorized. Just get over it!

What I would like to see, and what I have tried to do in my capacity as a music teacher and educator is to do what I can to show and teach kids about his style of playing so it can hopefully live on in what ever capacity that it can. And good for Makana that he brings this up “we must encourage the keiki to learn Kī Hō’alu at a young age”. Now what he is doing to accomplish this I don’t know. I have not seen or be heard about what he is doing to actively engage and facilitate the learning of slack key guitar playing in the next generation. I really feel like he blowing some hot air here and just saying something that he thinks sounds and looks good. And in the context of his statement he was trying to justify his point that unless the very first guitar style you learned how to play was slack key you’re not playing real slack key. So if you were really breaking it down he is using the veil of the need to teach kids slack key as a way of proving his points about how he thinks slack key should be defined, pretty offensive if you ask me.

I have seen Makana in concert multiple times and if I were to make a general analysis of his demographic I would say they tend to be in the 50-65 year old category. I will say that judging by some recent promotional materials he has put together that it appears to be his desire to change this. You can see this particular you tube video that attempts to market his upcoming mainland shows to a new audience with the goal of changing the perception of what Hawaiian music is. In addition, his recent composition showing political support of Bernie Sanders may open up new audiences to his playing, I don’t know.

What I do know is that I would challenge Makana to really use his connections, resources and musical influence to get kids playing, learning and performing slack key music. If he values this deep cultural heritage and if he is so adamant about the fact that “Kī Hō’alu’s PURITY must be understood, valued, and considered, always.” He better get on it because it is disappearing and it is disappearing fast. I can see it and hear it in how the guitar is played by many of the next generation of guitar players in Hawaii, Makana included.

The Real Top Five List

eddie-kamae-03

Another day, another list of the top fifty Hawaiian music albums, or the ten best Hawaiian songs or top five essential ukulele albums. While these lists are valuable in exposing outside audiences to Hawaiian music artists and albums they may have otherwise not heard about, they still are far from comprehensive in my humble opinion. As Hawaiian music, and the ukulele in particular, continues to be pushed into the limelight outside of the islands, the more people without the proper knowledge of Hawaiian music history are trying to define what is the “best” most “important” and most “significant”. And while I usually ignore these lists, two in particular I came across this week really drew my attention, so I felt it was time for a little clarification and education from my own perspective. The two lists I am speaking of are the following: The All-Time Best Hawaiian Playlist and Ukulele Magazine Five Essential Ukulele Albums.

The first list I can ignore because it say it was reader generated, so looking at that lit I would assume they no nothing about Hawaiian music or its historical significance. While there are some nice songs on there, any list without a song by the Sons of Hawaii, Hui Ohana or Kahauanu Lake Trio is meaningless.

The second list I would like to ignore as well, but this one I feel needs a rebuttal, and here’s why. That list was published by a reputable ukulele magazine. By attaching the word “essential” to their article, people doing basic internet searches will probably come across this list and think they have found the true answer to the question of what are the top five Hawaiian ukulele albums. But I am sorry to say they have missed the mark. I do want to give kudos to them for attempting to make a list that is presented as a “those other than Jake Shimabukuro” list. And looking at the list they were going somewhat in the right direction with the inclusion of the Sons of Hawaii, Kahauanu Lake Trio and The Sunday Manoa. But if you want to talk about essential UKULELE albums, there are some glaring omissions. (author note: after posting this on their discussion board the writer of the Ukulele Magazine article responded by clarifying as such “I have to say, this piece is not a ranking —- it’s only five (out of dozens? A hundred?) of great Hawaiian ukulele-driven records — and one that makes no claim, anywhere, that it’s the ‘Top 5.'” I would like to note I appreciate and acknowledge this clarification and feel it is important to point out this distinction by the author).

But before I start, I think it is important that I qualify myself if I am going to make such broad judgements about lists made by such “reputable” sources as Ukulele Magazine concerning the historically complex and comprehensive body of work that is Hawaiian music, and the recordings of ukulele music. First off you can refer to my detailed blog post here where I discuss the history of the ukulele as part 4 of an eight part series of the history of Hawaiian music. From there I would recommend that you link to the other parts in my eight part series on the history of Hawaiian music. For your convenience they are as follows part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5, part 6, part 7 and part 8. In referencing those posts I think you can see that I have familiarized myself with the history of Hawaiian music and I am not sharing my thoughts simply as a matter of providing further uninformed chatter, but rather as an interested contributor to the proper documentation and perspective of Hawaiian music in the realm of world folk musics.

So I would like to present to you in a very particular order, the most significant, important, essential, monumental, ukulele albums in the history of all time. I hope to include those words throughout this blog post in hopes that I will catch some internet or google search algorithm along the way and introduce people to these oh so essential, important, monumental and historically significant ukulele albums.

1. Eddie Kamae “Heart of the Ukulele”

I have written extensively about this album in two separate blog posts here and here. I would highly recommend you refer to them for my comprehensive analysis of this important album. To summarize, no ukulele album has done such a thorough job of redefining the instrument in terms of technique, song selection and tonal delivery. Here Eddie Kamae is firing on all cylinders, presenting the ukulele as diverse instrument that can shine in a variety of genres and moods. Not only does Kamae solidify himself among the greatest ever through those elements, but it is all done in a tasteful musicality that should tickle the year of the most discriminating musical critics. And I still believe to this day that no one has still yet been able to top this album. Much like Wilt Chamberlin’s 100 point game in the NBA in 1962, it is possible the apex of individual performance was reached some 50 years ago, the rest of the world still vying to catch up to this masterful performance.

2. Jesse Kalima “Jess Uke”

Around the same time as “Heart of the Ukulele” came this almost equally as impressive and complex album. And in terms of breathe and scope this album is every bit as close to being on par and an equal to the Kamae’s ukulele album. So while this album does have the advantage of a clearer and higher fidelity recorded sound compared to that of Kamae’s album, and in addition is does feature many of the same techniques that Eddie showcase in the “Heart of the Ukulele” album, Kalima just falls short in terms of song selection and emotional depth. The clarity of his picking lines and well as the precision of his tremelo picking is there, right along side Kamae’s, but Eddie had that unmistakeable ability to find a song typically found outside of the traditional voicing structure of the ukulele, and get it to sing a new way under his deft and careful ukulele manipulation. Kalima’s album is chalk full of complex, careful and exact technique in the realm of traditional Hawaiian tunes, but it is not able to find that other gear in the environment of an American standard or Latin ballad. For those reasons I have to place this very significant and compelling album right behind Kamae’s.

3. Herb Ohta Sr. (Ohta-San) “Pacific Potpourri”

Time after time I am amazed that people who should be in the know are not familiar with this album. Some ten years after Kamae’s and Kalima’s albums were released, Ohta-San comes back with the album that borrows upon the forward thinking application of the ukulele demonstrated by those two masters and updates it with the additional orchestration of electric piano, guitar, electric and standup bass, congas, steel guitar and drums. This creates a very modern yet vintage sound. Here the ukulele finds its new found place as the true solo lead instrument. Rather than being a “solo” instrument in the sense that it is performing a solo piece with rhythmic accompaniment, the ukulele is now the feature, developing a distinct and separate voice within the environment of a full band. Like the lead saxophone or trumpet of a jazz quartet or quintet, Ohta-San shows the ukulele is the true star. The techniques put forth to vinyl by Kalima and Kamae are now refined and carefully placed within the melodic framework of a specific song so it can be showcased and enjoyed for what they are, true revolutionary presentations of never before heard instrumental technique much like Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy did with what Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins had done with the saxophone previously.

4. Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii “Music of Old Hawaii” 

While it may seem repetitive to include another album with Eddie Kamae’s playing, it is important that this album’s significance be recognized in the development of the ukulele. While Ohta-San and Jesse Kalima and Eddie Bush (more on him later) took what Kame laid down and continued to develop and refine it, Kamae moved in a new direction. With a renewed love for Hawaiian music, Kamae abandoned the Latin ballads and American standards and instead focused on redefining not only the ukulele in the realm of Hawaiian music, but string instrumentation in Hawaiian music in general. The fact that he used the ukulele to accomplish this, makes for a very very important album indeed. What you will hear on this album is the ukulele not only taking the instrumental lead solos, but also providing sonically interesting musical interludes and vamps in the beginning, middle and ends of songs. Here the ukulele finds a third life, now not only as rhythm and solo instrument, but important member of a string ensemble. Without this important realization and application, the music of Peter Moon and Moe Keale in later recordings in the later 60s into the early 70s is not possible. Here the ukulele finds a way to supplement and compliment the slack key and steel guitars. Now the ukulele has become not only the quarterback that throws for numerous touchdowns a la Bret Favre and wins Super Bowls a la Joe Montana, but can run out side the pocket and use his feet to scramble and gain yards as well a la John Elway. Finally the ukulele has reached its fullest potential and has now expanded itself to its farthest reaches. What Eddie Kamae has done with this album in addition to “The Heart of the Ukulele” is put to record the blueprint for all to follow.

5. Eddie Bush “A Man and His Ukulele” (I can’t link to this album as it is out of print, does pop up on ebay in vinyl)

This was probably the hardest place to decide on. And here I would like to praise Ukulele Magazine for attempting to pay proper homage to some fantastic and historically important albums. Yes it is true Kahauanu Lake Trio was extremely significant in creating a sound and role for the ukulele that places it as an important musical element of a Hawaiian group much like Eddie Kamae did with the Sons of Hawaii. And yes it is true as well that Eddie Kamae and Moe Keale do a lot of this as well on the “Folk Songs of Hawaii” album. And thirdly yes it is almost blasphemy not to include Peter Moon’s work on “Guava Jam” as what he does on “Kawika” should be recognized for what it is, an extremely high level of ukulele instrumentation. And if “Pua Lilia” was on the “Guava Jam” album rather than “Cracked Seed” I’d be very tempted to put that album on this list, but it isn’t, so I just don’t think as a whole “Guava Jam” can make the cut. Many of you might be thinking Eddie Bush? Really? Yes really. While this album is out of print and hard to find, it is important that we recognize what was done on this record. Along the same vein as Kalima’s and Kamae’s two ukulele albums of 1962, this album from 1969 has all the same ukulele techniques found on those records. Sometimes it is in an environment that is more hapa-haole or pop orientated, but it is none the less the same equally complex and precise. Where Kamae succeeded in his variety in song selection, and Kalima succeeded in presenting versions of traditional Hawaiian numbers, Bush’s work on this album lies somewhere in between. Other than for the lack of cohesion maybe between the numbers, Bush proves himself to be every bit the ukulele master as anyone else to have ever picked up the instrument, he just fails to get the recognition. To me he is a Harmon Killebrew or Jimmy Foxx of the ukulele. He may not have the name recognition of a Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, he can still slug with the best of them on any given day of the week.

So there you have my definitive top five greatest, best, most significant and important ukulele albums ever recorded. And I could keep going and still not make it to Jake. Obviously Jake is an amazing talent, but until he can present the complexity and depth of innovation and inventiveness shown by these players, as well as by Lyle Ritz, Gordon Marks, Byron Yasui or Benny Chong, he will just be searching for his sound. But when he finds it watch out. And who knows, maybe on this upcoming album he does find it, I hope so, otherwise we will be pigeon holed by various internet top ten lists about the best this and the best that and never really get the full picture.

As always, my theme for these posts is “Ho`analu; To Go Beyond Known Boundaries”. Unfortunately with some of these lists, because they often have to pander to outside audiences with a limited view and scope of Hawaiian music, they present stock lists that don’t think beyond the normal confines of how we can define music and present the components of a specific genre or category of musical expression. I feel it is my job as a teacher and writer to present a differing view point to better help in painting a fuller picture. As always, HO`ANALU: GO BEYOND THE KNOWN BOUNDARIES!

Mele Aloha `Aina

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 7.52.29 AM

With the recent shift in ideology surrounding the A`ole TMT movement towards that of Hawaiian Sovereignty, I thought it fitting to offer a summary of three of the well known songs that are centered around the theme of sovereignty. Before I do that I would like to say that I offer this summary purely with factual interest in the music, the songs, the performers and the songwriters. I do not feel it fitting for the purpose of this blog to put forth any opinions on the sovereignty movement nor present this information with any particular agenda. I hope you are reading this with the same interest.

Anytime you are discussing songs about Hawaiian sovereignty you must start with “Kaulana Na Pua”. For a comprehensive background of this mele I highly suggest you visit this page and read this essay written by Eleanor C. Nordyke and Martha H. Noyes. Here you will find a comprehensive breakdown of the important elements behind its composition, meaning, initial performance and subsequent reworking of its melody. To hear an early version of the song I would suggest hearing the version found on the “Folk Songs of Old Hawaii” album. You can listen to this album streaming on Spotify or purchase it on iTunes. For the track “Kaulana Na Pua” go here.

Over time this song has been recorded numerous times, one of the most well known versions being by Peter Moon from his album “Tropical Dreams” in 1979 with this version here:

This version is up beat with a spoken word introduction summarizing the meaning of the song. It moves into an instrumental introduction section that is repeated throughout the song featuring a complex guitar riff that sets up the bouncing slack key solo in the middle of the track. The song is powerful and strong with a depth of arrangement, rhythm, choral repetitions and instrumentation that makes it one of the most standout Hawaiian recordings ever put together. This song is not for the light of heart. Listening to it is a summary of all that is Hawaiian music and the Hawaiian mentality. It is complex, well thought out, yet free and simple at the same time, presenting the ultimate dichotomy of the Hawaiian perspective.

Another well known version is by the Makaha Sons from their 2001 album “Na Pua o Hawaii”. Listen to it here:

Here the song is presented at a slower tempo with more emphasis placed on the lyrics and the complex vocal stylings of Moon, John and Jerome with contributions by Manu Boyd and Teresa Bright. Here the song is nostalgic yet up lifting. It reminds us of the past with its melancholy choral arrangement yet offers hope for the future with its key modulations and uplifting choral vocality.

A recent version that really puts a modern stamp on the tune is by the ProjectKULEANA group. This well crafted video presentation of the song starts with a chant by Na Haumana o Ke Kula `O Samuel M. Kamakau and then moves throughout the islands to different locales and features different established Hawaiian entertainers singing various lines of the sings to the same rhythm track. You can see and here it here:

With the familiar guitar, ukulele and stand up bass along with interjections of an ipu rhythm, piano, slack key and steel guitar solos really fill out of the sound of this song complimenting the variety in vocal deliveries and phrasing by each singer. Each sections is set up with different back grounds offering a variety of visuals from `Iolani Palace to the back streets of Honolulu to Mana road in Waimea. It is truly an amazing compilation of audio and visual greatness, presenting the song as part of a bigger picture of the struggle of the Hawaiian in today’s world.

Next to “Kaulana Na Pua” the second most significant and recognizable song about Hawaiian sovereignty is “Hawaii ’78” by Israel Kamakawiwo`ole. This song has a fascinating history that was relatively unknown until the creation of this website by Kawika Crowley one of the original co-composers of this song. To learn the true history of this song I would suggest you visit this website and read his description of how and who composed originally composed this powerful song.

Listen to IZ’s version here:

While not a true sovereignty song in the sense that it directly calls for the establishment of an independent Hawaiian nation, the imagery of the lyrics concerning the “land that was taken away”, “the people in great great danger” and the repetition of the phrase “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono” clearly points towards a dissatisfaction with the current state of Hawai`i and a call towards an older time.

Regardless, the song has become an anthem of sorts with its haunting vocal introduction and meditative ukulele picking. This is all complimented with the powerful message that the lyrics present, telling the story of the kings and queens of the past crying upon visiting the modern world and seeing all the changes modern man has made to the the land. This imagery is matched by the strength of IZ’s vocal delivery when he sings “how would he feel”. By asking this open ended question is forces the listener to really look at and ask themselves in their heart where they stand on this most fundamental of questions, how would those from the past react upon seeing all this that has been put built on this land.

Finally I would like to present Liko Martin’s “All Hawaii Stands Together”, a song that has also been redone by the aforementioned ProjectKULEANA group. Here is the most well known version sung by Dennis Pavao’s:

At first with its geographical references to various places throughout Hawaii the song appears to be a simple call for the people of Hawaii to stand together in support of unity moving forward. But upon looking deeper the lyrics present a more poignant and powerful message beyond a simple call for unity. In the first chorus Liko tells the listener to “hold their banners high”and that “we shall stand as a nation” references to the banners in support of the re-establishment of the Hawaiian nation.

In addition, towards the end of the song Liko uses the phrase “Onipa`a kakou”. This is a phrase accredited to Queen Lili`uokalani meaning “to be steadfast, establish, firm, resolute and determined.” (credit: Queen Liliuokalani Trust website)

For another version of this song see the video project by Project KULEANA here:

For the same reasons I suggest you see the ProjectKULEANA version of “Kaulana Na Pua” I suggest you watch the above video as well.

While this is not a comprehensive summary of all the songs that reference or present ideology of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, these three songs are a good place to start. I would suggest you also listen to Palani Vaughan’s “Ka Mamakakaua”. Lyrics can be found here. Also “E Ola Ke Aliʻi Ke Akua” would qualify as would “Hawaii Pono’i” and “Hawaii Aloha”. Finally I would suggest “Ka Na`i Aupuni” while not an anthem of sovereignty definitely has the potential to take on this role.

As the Hawaiian sovereignty movement changes and develops over time more music will come to the forefront that expresses the feelings and political goals surrounding this movement. While this blog post is just a tip of the iceberg in analyzing the music surrounding the issue of sovereignty, I hope it encourages you to look deeper into this issue and learn more about the facts involved.

The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 4: The Madeiran Musicmakers

Image

The history of Hawaiian music was altered forever with the arrival of three woodworkers from the Madeira Islands in 1879. The Portuguese had been arriving in Hawaii in small numbers since the 1850s, mostly as cast aways from whaling ships. But it wasn’t until 1878 when the Hawaiian government made a concerted effort to import Portuguese labor from the Madeira and Azores Islands to balance out the increasing number of Chinese laborers found on the sugar plantations that the Portuguese population significantly increased.

It was a very conscience decision to bring in labor from these islands. With a majority of the sugar plantation labor being of Asian decent there was a desire by the plantation owners to diversify the labor population. Various European options were explored, but it was decided that the islanders of Madeira and Azores with their familiarity with sugar cultivation, comfort with island living and a similar terrain and climate to Hawaii, would be the best source of new labor. So starting in 1878 and over the next ten years about 10,000 Portuguese people arrived in Hawaii with about 3,000 of them serving as sugar plantation workers.

The second ship to arrive in Hawaii from the Madeira Islands with plantation labor and their families was the Ravenscrag. Among the 419 people on this ship were Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, who were cabinet and instrument makers from Madeira. It is believed that not only were those interested in working the sugar plantations brought to Hawaii, but those with specialty skills as well to help diversify the plantation labor and encourage stability among the workers. And in fact Madeira was well known for its wooded forests and talented woodworkers, thus these islands were named Madeira for this reason, as Madeira is Portuguese for wood.

Woodworkers held an important role in Madeiran society, they built cabinets, furniture and almost more importantly musical instruments. Madeira has a strong folk music tradition and it is said that almost every Madeiran has some familiarity with playing one of the many small stringed instruments native to those islands. Most of these stringed instruments are versions of those found on mainland Portugal. One of these is the cavaquinho which was brought to Madeira in the 1850s and renamed the braguinha. Braguinha means “little braga” and is a reference to the its small size relative to the well known braga which was already familiar to the Madeirans.

Here is a picture of the cavaquinho:

Image

And here is a picture of a braguinha:

Image

 

So it was the braguinha that was one of the two instruments brought to Hawaii by these Madeiran wood workers. Along with the braguinha the other instrument brought here on this fateful voyage was the rajao. Here is a picture of a rajao:

Image

As you can see from these pictures all three of these instruments bear a striking resemblance to the ukulele so closely associated with Hawaii today. This is because the ukulele is the offspring of the braguinha and the rajao. It is interesting how the ukulele came to be by combining elements of each instrument’s size, tuning and style of play. In Madeiran folk music the rajao played the rhythm while the braguinha played the leads. By taking the size of the braguinha and adding the tuning and playing style of the rajao, the ukulele was born.

From the Hawaiian perspective they must have been highly intrigued with these new instruments. According to legend when the Madeiran immigrants landed in Honolulu they kissed the ground and started playing music and singing songs on their braguinha and rajao. The Hawaiians were probably familiar with this passionate singing and playing as it is not to far removed historically and culturally from the Mexican Ranchera music brought here by the vaqueros (see part 3 of this series). Again, Hawaiians at this time were fascinated with things from the outside world and had a strong desire to take these things and adapt them to make them their own.

Soon after arriving here and seeing an interest in their native instruments, Nunes, Dias and Espirito Santo began building versions of the rajao and braguinha. According to Nunes’ granddaughter he simply removed the top fifth string from the rajao to create the first ukulele. This would correspond with the original Hawaiian g, c, e, a tuning. Whether it was a matter of convenience, efficiency or appeal, the smaller bodied braguinha was preferred for the design of the instrument. These first ukulele were built using the most common large hard wood in Hawaii the acacia koa tree. Some of the first ukulele looked like this:

Image

Soon Hawaiian makers emerged as well. One of the most well known in the early years was Jonah Kumalae and later Ernest Kaai. Soon after other Hawaiian makers started shops including the most well known and only one still in business today Samuela Kamaka. Here is a picture of a Kumalae ukulele:

Image

And a Kamaka:

Image

So how did all of this change Hawaiian music? It is interesting how the musical influence of the Mexican vaqueros set up a need for a more accessible and easier to play stringed instrument in Hawaii. You have to figure that after the vaqueros returned to Mexico and left their guitars here, there weren’t a large number of instruments available for the Hawaiian public. With no knowledge of how to build them or access to the wood making tools needed to make such a detailed product, there were only a small number of instruments to go around. There may have been a  few guitars brought here on whaling ships or by church missionaries, but considering there is little of any documentation of this and given the limited cargo space available on those long voyages, it is unlikely.

So while Hawaiians had created a specific style of singing and song composition based on the Mexican ranchera music and church hymns with roots in their native language and chants, they had no easily available instrument to play on. The ukulele was a perfect accompaniment, it was small, easy to play and had a strong rhythmic quality that would support this new form of music developing here. They were also easy to build and not long after the Medeirans arrival here they were being produced in large numbers and available for a relatively cheap price. Unlike the guitar which was large, hard to build and not easy to get, everyone began to play the ukulele. This made every Hawaiian a music maker. Anyone could get an ukulele and start writing and making music. With the spread of church culture and church based education systems in Hawaii, singing and song composition were skills available and known to anyone. These combining factors allowed for a hot bed of new music emanating from Hawaii. All the stars were aligned for HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. Songs, lyrics and melody could be created and shared by everyone with no limits placed on what was the norm or the accepted folk form. It was being created in real time without prejudice or bounds.

So that leads us to the million dollar question, where did the word “ukulele” come from? Great question and there are three main theories behind this. The most commonly shared one is that upon observing the playing style required by the fingers of the first Madeiran performers, the Hawaiians called it “uku lele” which would translate as “jumping flea” as that is what the motion of the fingers on the strings resembled. A second theory is that “uku lele” stands for another translation of the tearms “uku” for “gift” and lele” for “flying.” This interpretation says the Hawaiians saw the ukulele as a gift that “flew” here from afar. And finally the third theory is that “ukulele” comes from a simple alteration of “ukeke” or a combination of “ukeke and mele.” Ukeke being the simple single stringed gourd harp native to Hawaii and “mele” meaning song.

We will never know for sure. It is common in the Hawaiian language to simply “hawaiianize” an outside word to fit it into the phonetic system of the Hawaiian language. See “kika” as a term for “guitar.” With “braguinha” and “rajao” neither really fits in nicely with any Hawaiian linguistic sounds or syllabic structure. Also, the original instrument was altered so it would make sense that a new term was necessary, not a “hawaiianization” of the original word. The “jumping flea” interpretation is plausible as Hawaiians often came up with terms for new items by describing the action being done, or the event taking place with the new item, see bicycle “ka`a hehi wāwae” “vehicle feet press”.

For the interpretation of “uku lele” as “flying gift” it is documented that this term was coined by Queen Liliuokalani. My interpretation is that looking for a more poetic and lofty description if this instrument, Liliuokalani devised her own interpretation of “ukulele” to fit in with her heightened view of Hawaiian music and musicians. Something that the term “jumping flea” did not accomplish.

As for the third theory, this one makes the most logical sense to me, but the linguistic history doesn’t support it. It is rare for Hawaiians to change a native word to fit in to describe a new item. While the ukeke does have a string on it making somewhat similar to a ukulele, the similarities end there. They are completely different in size, use and function. On top of that it is rare for the Hawaiians to alter a native word. The jump from “ukeke” to “ukulele” isn’t something that happens in the Hawaiian language. I can see the possibility of the name “ukeke mele” as the ukulele is like a musical, “song-y” variation of the single string “ukeke” but there is no evidence of Hawaiians shortening or combining parts of two words to create a new word. Sometimes Hawaiian words get changed by non-native speakers when they are hard to pronounce, but because ukulele were being built and used in Hawaii by Hawaiians I don’t se how a bastardization of “ukeke mele” (if this is the actual source) would get changed to “ukulele.”

So I think it is a combination of all of these. The Hawaiians were very fond of word puns and subtle relationships between words. Word play was common and similarities between sounds and meaning were often explored and appreciated for the possible variation in meaning and interpretation. With only 13 letters and limited rules for syllabic structure, this was necessary to create a diverse language to describe the diverse world and world view available tot he Hawaiian speaker. So the fact that “ukulele” filled three functions, described the manner in which it is played, gave it a poetic description and also subtly referenced the only known stringed instrument in pre-contact Hawaii, “ukulele” was the perfect fit!

We may never know the exact reason for the naming of this new instrument the ukulele. But for the purposes of this blog entry we can look at the influence this instrument had on the development of music in Hawaii. Again, most importantly the accessibility and ease of playing the ukulele made in instrument of the commoner. This opened up the possibility of song creation and song performance by almost anyone. Also the rhythmic qualities of the ukulele supported the syncopation and bouncy tempos of Hawaiian music.

Over time, most significantly through the contributions of Eddie Kamae (see my post on the Heart of the Ukulele and part 2) and Jesse Kalima, it became a solo instrument. Filling the gap left by the waning popularity of the steel guitar, the ukulele became a lead instrument in the hands of these talented players. This was later developed by Herb Ohta, also known as Ohta-San, (my favorite album being “Pacific Potpourri”) who made important physical changes tot he instrument. Replacing the high re-entrant “g” string, with a low wound “g” note that made for a linear progression of the strings from low to high and opened up new melodic range and possibilities. He also asked the Kamaka family to build a larger sized body and neck length to support more notes and the increased demand on tonal variation.

This was taken to new levels by Peter Moon in his work with The Sunday Manoa as he explored deeper chordal, melodic and technical possibilities with the ukulele. See the song “Pua Lilia”. From there, building on the advancements of these four important figures in ukulele playing, the doors were open for other skilled players like Tony Fernandez and Kelly Boy DeLima. And of course this culminated in the amazing skills of Jake who is not a Hawaiian musician per se, is without peer in modern ukulele playing and has shown the amazing complexity possible with this small four stringed instrument with roots in the Madeira Islands.

And there are many gaps in between these important players that could be filled with a thousand blog posts, some of which I hope to cover in the future. From the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 to the vaudevillian appeal of the ukulele in the 1920s to the tourist culture of 1950s and Elvis’s subsequent use of the ukulele in popular movies to Arthur Godfrey’s lessons on his popular radio show to Tiny Tim’s eccentric playing on the Tonight Show and to Jake Shimabukuro’s YouTube video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the ukulele has a long and storied history.

While the music of Medeira never took hold here in Hawaii, its instruments surely did. That’s why I titled this post the “Medeiran Musicmakers.” They literally “made” music by building these first ukulele. Using their hands and the woodworking skills native to their homeland these three simple Medeiran cabinet makers changed the course of Hawaiian music forever. There was a movement to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. The people of Hawaii took this small four stringed instrument and adapted it to their music playing, and in return their music playing adapted along with it.

If you haven’t already please see the first three parts in this series where I cover the Polynesian music foundation, the church influence and the music of the vaqueros. Stay tuned for future posts about 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.