On Defining Hawaiian Music 3

Much has been said about who has the right to make and create Hawaiian music. In recent years, the race card has come into play: some people argue that only Native Hawaiians have the right to create Hawaiian music and define it. This exclusionist position has its opposite: there are folks who believe that Hawaiian music is Hawaiian peopleʻs gift to the world, and is open to all who embrace it and honor it.

Which of these positions should prevail as the answer to the question of who should make Hawaiian music?

I ask this question very provocatively, because it is precisely my intention, to provoke.

And to critique the question. Are these two positions the only options to select from? Should such a question even be asked in the first place? Is such a question productive to dialogue, understanding, and support? Will a resolution of such a quesion provide relief from confrontation and contestation? What will we have gained if such a question is asked and one position is somehow designated to prevail?

If you have been tracking my antics of late, you will notice that I am developing a fondness for reframing questions.  Hereʻs the thing. Questions like “What is Hawaiian music” and “Who should make Hawaiian music” have led us down the path of divisiveness. So letʻs back up, look at how such questions might be redirected, and find a path where constructive and even productive dialogue might happen, where disagreements might be tolerated, and where differences are not a license for disrespect. The questions of “What is … ?” and “Who makes … ” surrounding Hawaiian music are important ones. But from my perspective, after a year here in Honolulu on the ground, I have seen these questions provoke monologues that wound and main. The righteous pull rank on the well-intentioned, and by the end, everyone is somehow diminished. This is all needless and counterproductive, and I, for one, would like to try to change things up a bit.

Here is a bit of a paraphrasing from the April 21 “Debating Culture” event in the “… aia i ka wai … Dialogues …” series at UH. I was responding to a question about the historical population demographics that complicate efforts to restrict Hawaiian music to Native Hawaiian people.

We know Hawaiian music is the expression of the indigenous settlers of this particular land, Hawai‘i. But at the same time, Hawai‘i has a history of over 200 years of other people coming in with other ideas and expressions, and of Hawaiians welcoming other peoples and embracing other ideas and expressions. Hawai‘i also has a history of over 200 years of indigenous Hawaiians traveling elsewhere, seeing and experiencing other expressions, and bringing those ideas and experiences back to Hawai‘i.

Hawai‘i‘s current population diversity is owing in part to the initial colonial interests of Americans and Europeans. But connected with that is the importation of thousands of laborers from Asia, starting in the 1860s. The plantation experience gave birth to practices of intermingling that, over the decades, has congealed into a shared local culture. This shared local culture was initially born out of a shared language–pidgin. Pidgin was a means for multiple groups of people, from different cultural backgrounds and different language backgrounds, to be able to communicate with each other. (Pidgin is now officially recognized by linguists as Hawai‘i Creole English.) Out of that environment came a shared culture in which language, people, and material sustenance items like FOOD and DRESS mixed. Our population in Hawai‘i includes a substantial number of residents whose very DNA is multicultural, comprised of multiple cultures simply by virtue of family and home.

There IS a local culture in Hawai‘i–albeit a culture that does have a very strong foundation in Hawaiian language and Hawaiian culture at its core. Hawai‘i is very distinct in this respect, of having this historically grounded local culture that is not exclusive to any one specific ethnic group; it is a mixture of ethnic and cultural things and practices, and people coming together. This culture is available to anyone who is born into it. It is also available to anyone who comes to it and absorbs it and abides by its ethos.

This local culture crosses ethnic and racial lines. There are folks who are not of Native Hawaiian ancestry but of this culture. Similarly, there are folks of Native Hawaiian ancestry who have been separated from this culture, either by birth or by choice. (Letʻs face it–nobody has any choice in exactly where we were born or who our parents were.) Local culture is now shared by more than just people who are racially or ethnically Native Hawaiian. It is shared by people whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents accepted and practiced mixture.

Hawaiian music is in there, a prominent part of the soundscape of local culture. Local culture includes island contemporary music that many Hawaiian music fans reject. But local culture also includes Hawaiian music, and so it is part of the cultural soundscape for many locals who are not racially or ethnically Hawaiian, but who are culturally local. And the practice of Hawaiian music has historically been open to those who would make the effort to learn and honor those practices. Increasingly more people are finding their way to Hawaiian music; many of these folks are neither of Native Hawaiian ancestry or conversant in the ways of local culture. Are these folks to be told that their demonstrated commitment and potential contributions are unwelcome because they are neither Hawaiian nor local?

We cannot turn the clock back. We cannot unravel the mixture of peoples locally, or the local culture by which so many people live their lives, or the feelings of connection that have bonded diverse people to Hawaiian music–for better or worse.

This is a clear case where boundaries of culture, race, and ethnicity do not align.

That is the answer. The question is: why is it so difficult to talk about who has the right to make or create Hawaiian music?

© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All Rights Reserved

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4 Responses to On Defining Hawaiian Music 3

  1. Wanda Certo says:

    Importation of Asians in 1960 as you posted or in 1860’s?

    For me the reasons it is difficult to talk about who has the right to make or create Hawaiian music is first of all because I consider myself an “outsider” – a mainland haole who has come late into the realm of Hawaiian music. Secondly, I am so afraid of hurting people’s feelings or getting people angry at my honest and heartfelt discourse on the subject. It is so hard to separate personal tastes and feelings from an “academic” discussion. Hawaiian music is so well loved precisely because of the emotions it invokes and that emotionality comes out in just about any discussion about what is Hawaiian music or who has the right to create Hawaiian music. As you know, I wrote a song in the Hawaiian language for two of my very good friends who are indeed part Hawaiian by blood. However, I do not consider the song to be Hawaiian because I am not Hawaiian, I am not a resident of Hawai`i nor do I have anny connection to the island or people other than my deepest aloha for them.

    • amykstillman says:

      Hey Auntie Wanda — thanks for the typo catch! Funny, I proofread this post so many times. Typo is now fixed above.

      So hereʻs a question out of your own comment: Why is it that you would be afraid of people getting angry at your “honest and heartfelt discourse” if your discourse is indeed “honest and heartfelt”? If Hawaiian music is “so well loved precisely because of the emotions it evokes” then how is it that honest and heartfelt discourse could evoke anger?

      There is anger–that is absolutely and unequivocally true. There is a lot of anger in circulation. But . . . is anger ever pono? Is anger ever a license to behave in ways that cause further hurt?

  2. Pingback: On Defining Hawaiian Music 3 | Hawaiian Music for Listening Pleasure | Hawaii Facts

  3. Retro says:

    Wisdom comes in a multitude of flavors, but anger makes everything taste bitter.

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