Ku‘uipo Kumukahi has been speaking in public forums on a conflict between two different approaches to Hawaiian music: culture vs. commerce. Letʻs run with this framework.
On Hawaiian music as CULTURE: this perspective views Hawaiian music as an inherited cultural legacy, handed down from the ancients. The inherited tradition is priceless. Many performers will talk about learning as a privilege or a gift, and payment was neither given nor demanded for the transfer of knowledge from master to student, kumu to haumana. This legacy must be safeguarded against undesirable change, against exploitation, against crass commercialization, against bastardization. Preservation is an important value. It has become even more important for Native Hawaiian culture, precisely because we came so close to losing so very very much, that we treasure and hold dear what has been passed from the past.
On Hawaiian music as COMMERCIAL product: When producers see music and dance as potential sources of income–of generating revenue–then Hawaiian music and hula become commodities subject to market forces of supply and demand. Hawai‘i has been fortunate that Hawaiian music has come to national attention and popularity multiple times over the past century–the national craze for ‘ukulele and steel guitar following the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, the swing-band music of folks like Andy Iona and Sam Koki that made its way into Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, the attention to Hawai‘i in the 1960s when Elvis made not one but two movies with Hawaiian/local culture figuring prominently in the plots, attention to slack key guitar in the 1990s, fueled byDancing Cat recordings and touring (not to mention subsequent familiarity of slack key to GRAMMY voters), and most recently, the ‘ukulele resurgence, standing both Iz’s eloquent “Over the Rainbow” and the bold dazzling virtuosity represented by Jake Shimabukuro. Undergirding these moments of national attention is the importance of Hawaiian music and hula in Hawai‘i’s economic engine–tourism.
The two perspectives are inherently antagonistic. Culture requires stability, preservation, reiteration, replication. Commerce requires innovation and creativity. Cultural proponents object to money being generated off cultural products. Commerce proponents not only value the challenge to keep things fresh, but also, in many cases, depend on the income as part of their livelihood.
In such a conflict, there is no absolute right and wrong. Each side has its merits. Each side also has its downside. Just as no one can deny anyone else the means by which a livelihood is gained, neither can anyone impose on artists “only replicate; do not change; do not create.”
So how are we to make sense of criticism from the cultural perspective toward a commercial industry trade association such as The Recording Academy, whose GRAMMY awards celebrate excellence in the commercial world? On what grounds can cultural proponents demand control over processes such as GRAMMY voting when many voters come from the world of commerce? Should the commercial world be held accountable to the demands of the cultural sector when the demands are not commercially viable? Should the commercial world be held accountable to the demands of the cultural sector when such demands impose limitations on artistic license?
On what grounds can culture and commerce coexist?
More thinking yet to come.
© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All rights reserved.