Music Thursdays with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele: Hawaiian Music

May 24, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

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Tony Sarabia:

What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions Hawaiian music? Don Ho, the ukulele, steel guitar or Elvis? Even though, amazingly, the Hawaiian language doesn’t have a word for music, Hawaiian music is so much more than that. (I can do without the Don Ho tunes, but that Elvis in Hawaii broadcast was pretty phenomenal.)

Did you know, for example, that Hawaii’s Honolulu Symphony Orchestra is the country’s oldest orchestra west of the Rockies? It was founded in 1900. Then there’s the electric lap steel guitar – prevalent in the best twangy country music – which was actually invented specifically for Hawaiian music by Texan George Beauchamp. And we can thank Mexican cowboys for bringing the guitar and yodeling/falsetto style of singing to the islands.

Oh and you know who was really hung up on Hawaiian music? Al Capone! Who knew?

In my search for Hawaiian music, I tried to show a range of styles but note the ever present lap steel; it’s just so Hawaiian.

Let's start with Hawaiian icon Lena Machado, known as Hawaii’s Songbird. Any serious student of Hawaiian music knows Machado's importance. Her career spanned 50 years during which time she penned both the music and lyrics for some of Hawaiian music’s most recognizable songs.

"Mai Lohilohi Mai Oe" features lap steel before Machado’s soprano comes into the mix. This is a beautiful lilting song that adds a short vibraphone solo, for good measure:

Slack key guitar and Gabby Pahinui are inseparable in Hawaiian music. Slack key guitar is a finger style genre that originated in Hawaii. Its name refers to its characteristic open tunings. Slack key came about as a way to accompany dance and the melodies of Hawaiian chant.

Pahinui is a master of steel guitar but that sometimes took a backseat to his slack key playing and, of course, his emotive singing. He recorded his first song in 1946 and many consider it the first Hawaiian tune to use the slack key method.

But Pahinui's importance reached beyond music. Hawaiian cultural historian DeSoto Brown once said that Pahinui "was not only an outstanding musician and entertainer, and a central figure – maybe THE central figure – of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the '70s, but that he was an inspiration to others. Thousands of Hawaiian kids learned that they were worthy as a people because of Gabby's example.”

Now for some country music Hawaiian-style, and why not? The steel guitar and country music go together as naturally as, well, steel guitar and Hawaiian music. Country or cowboy music in Hawaii is known as paniolo and one of its biggest practitioners is Melveen “da Tita” Leed. She’s perhaps the only Hawaiian to appear at the Grand Ole Opry.

Leed says she sang for her first audience at the age of three, covered in mud while belting out a tune for a group of her grandmother’s friends. Maybe that fateful day prepared her for her many singing honors later in her adult career: She won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Best Female Vocalist five times. Leed was an all-around entertainer: Miss Hawaii runner-up, Opry singer, and a semi-regular on the original Hawaii Five-O TV show. You also need to take a listen to her rendition of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

I thought I’d wrap up with something from the kids: some Hawaiian hip hop/soul from Mana Hasegawa and Kapu aka Lai Jin Den. The duo is from Kailua Kona. I don’t know much about them but I really enjoy this song.

Richard Steele:

Bobby Ingano is a 59-year-old Hawaiian whose family moved from the small town of Lanai City to Honolulu. He was seven years old when he was diagnosed with polio. During the next seven years of hospital treatment, he relieved himself of boredom by learning to play the ukulele. He listened to a lot of different music during that period and felt a special connection to the blues.

As a 10th grader, Ingrano played with a band, but did not become a master Hawaiian steel guitarist until many years later. Today he’s an inspiration to many young Hawaiian entertainers. On this recording Ingano plays a 1920s composition written by a very well-known Hawaiian songwriter named Johnny Noble. The song is called “Hulu Blues.”        

The Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, have more than 35 recordings to their credit. They had a 2004 Grammy nomination for Best Hawaiian Music Album, but their most significant surge happened in the 1970s when there was a tremendous resurgence of interest in Hawaiian music and culture. The Brothers Cazimero played a significant role in that, performing the chants, dances and songs of their ancestors. They helped create new interest in music performed in the Hawaiian language with a contemporary sound. Their onstage presentation includes the native hula dance with men and women performers. The song we’re featuring is “Pua Lilia,” which has a beautiful lilting island quality to it:

Jeff Peterson is one of the island state's best-known contemporary musicians with a focus on Hawaiian slack key guitar. He’s also delved into classical and jazz music forms. He was introduced to the richness of Hawaiian music by his dad, who was a Hawaiian cowboy (paniolo, again).

The history books say that Mexican and Spanish cowboys were brought to Hawaii during the 1930s to teach Hawaiians how to handle an overpopulation of cattle, and those cowboys brought their guitars over with them. When they returned home a few years later, many left their guitars to the paniolos. The Hawaiian cowboys blended that music with their own traditional chants and rhythms and created a new form.

In addition to Jeff Peterson’s many accolades, he wrote and performed a song called “Hawaiian Skies,” which is featured in The Descendants, the Oscar-nominated movie featuring George Clooney. The track we're featuring, "Maui On My Mind," is dedicated to Peterson’s birthplace. 

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