Like many forms of music, Hawaiian music has its origins in chants accentuated with beating drums from years gone by. In attempting to preserve the cultural history passed down from their ancestors, early Hawaiians would recite and repeat historical stories in a rhythmic chant so as to make the story easier to remember and thus repeat. As these stories predated written communication by hundreds, or even more years, this “gimmick” for remembering the stories was important indeed. It is far from unique to Hawaiian music, as Gregorian Chant was considered to be the genesis of Western Classical music as well, and, indeed, the many forms of music that branched out of the classics as the development of musical instruments followed to augment the chanted sounds.
In Hawaii, the original instruments were gourds and drums fashioned from hollowed-out logs with shark skins stretched over them. Animal bones were struck for the different tones made possible by the different length of, say, the rib cage bones. There is no historical record of Hawaiian music before the mid-to-late 1800s. That is when the Europeans started to come to Hawaii in numbers, bringing with them several different instruments such as the Portuguese forerunner to the Ukulele, the braguinha. Legend has it that one Portuguese immigrant by the Name of Joao Fernandes was so adept at playing this instrument that onlookers would describe his fingers as flying over the fretboard like little fleas. The Hawaiian successor to the braguinha was thus named ukulele, Hawaiian for “jumping fleas”. Fernandes would become well-known and popular for his abilities on the Uke, much like today’s virtuoso, Jake Shimabukuro, who plays it with the adeptness of a Jimi Hendrix albeit with only four strings!
The guitar, also brought by not only the Portuguese but also the Mexican Caballeros as well, who came to tend cattle on the Big Island and gained the name “Paniolo” in the process. Add a string bass and you have the foundation for basically all the great Hawaiian music that followed, including one Island variation, that of slack key guitar, a tuning and playing style that originated in the Islands and has gained adherents all over the world.
Another contribution to instrumentation, courtesy of Hawaii was the Hawaiian steel guitar, which would travel to Mainland America and gain prominence in American Country and Western music. The story on the steel guitar was that a sailor tried using his comb to depress and slide across the strings and created a pleasant sound in so doing. The adaptation of the comb into a steel bar gave the instrument its name, though many people erroneously thought the actual guitar was made of steel, which is untrue.
Though original Hawaiian music was, of course, performed in the Hawaiian language; its popularity would soar when English words were set to Hawaiian rhythm and instrumentation, giving rise to the most widely known genre of Hawaiian music called “Hapa Haole”.
The Hawaiian sound was given a real boost when a radio show called “Hawaii Calls” hosted by Webley Edwards originating from the Moana Hotel in Waikiki hit the airwaves in the 1930s both boosting the tourist market and bringing the music itself into the living rooms of thousands of homes in the US Mainland.