Thinking Aloud: On Defining Hawaiian Music

Aloha Dear Readers. In anticipation of turning my attention back to the long-unfinished book projects, I am going to start thinking aloud.

At the “Debating Culture” event on April 21, Jeff Au Hoy stepped to the microphone and asked each of the panelists to give our definitions of “Hawaiian music.” The question might as well have been “what is green?” Lime green vs. kelly green vs. hunter green vs. mint green vs. sage green . . . Stop by any paint store, or any paint department in your local home improvement store, and youʻll see endless varieties of green.

My response? Well, I really should share a transcript of my response that evening. And when I get to that section in my transcribing, I will post a direct quote. After all, what better than straight from the horseʻs mouth, ʻeā?

But in the meantime, here are some opening thoughts. Consider the history of Hawaiian mele and performance. We have had so many creative sparks as well as influences from outside. So, first off, at what point does one draw boundaries?

  1. Some passionate fans insist that only pre-contact traditions are Hawaiian, and everything else since is westernized–thus, somehow, less Hawaiian than pre-contact traditions.
  2. Other fans insist on using language as a dividing line. This is a sure way to exclude the grotesque pseudo-Hawaiian distortions of Tin Pan Alley songwriters–the “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula” garbage. But it would also exclude songs like “Sophisticated Hula” written by Hawaiian songwriter Sol K. Bright, and performed & recorded & danced by many many Hawaiian musicians & dancers.
  3. Is a song Hawaiian just because a Hawaiian writes it? Nobody would dispute Keola Beamerʻs “Honolulu City Lights,” but would Henry Kapono’s “Stand in the Light” be equally undisputable?
  4. Is a song Hawaiian just because a Hawaiian sings and records it? Letʻs look no further than Izʻs “Over the Rainbow.” (!)
  5. Did “Kona Kai ‘Opua” [kahakō over capital “O”] become less Hawaiian when Richard Kauhi rendered it in a jazz arrangement?

© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All Rights Reserved.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: On Defining Hawaiian Music

  1. Beckee Morrison says:

    OK, first let me situate myself in terms of Hawaiian culture: I’m not just a haole, I’m a hillbilly who grew up in the Freedom Hills of Alabama. OK, now that I’m situated as an outsider, here’s my mana’o.

    Years ago on the island of Oahu, I attended a performance of Lakota dancers. I noticed that they had mylar in some of their costumes, and my knee-jerk reaction was to criticize it as “inauthentic”. But to insist that a tradition be frozen in time to be authentic is a way of declaring it dead, and living cultures have to evolve, have to incorporate things they are relevant or “cool” in their own lives.

    I adore some of the hapa haole songs, not a big fan of others. But they are an authentic part of history. They do reflect something about the lives of the performers and composers. They are a hybrid in the same way that the rap of Sudden Rush is a hybrid, but I find that mixture of cultural influences to be a very rich and creative vein, whether it’s Afropop or various genres of Hawaiian music.

    Though there is something very deeply satisfying about the ancient chanting styles and the rhythm of the ‘ipu as well. Even with hula kahiko, compromises are made for modern sensibilities. There are no clear, non-arbitrary dividing lines separating this tradition from that.

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