Hawaii Music: Traditions and Styles

The traditions and styles of Hawaiian music have evolved over the centuries

Sounding Off

The cultures of many different ethnic groups have helped to shape the music of the Hawaiian islands. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Polynesians had their own traditions of song and dance that were mainly used for religious purposes. When Europeans came to the islands, they brought with them various instruments and song styles, which influenced the sounds of Hawaiian music.

Folk Music

Ancient Hawaiian folk music was used for many different purposes, like giving praise to the gods and goddesses, delineating genealogy (mele koihonua), and telling mythological stories. Prior to Western contact, the Hawaiian word mele meant any poetic expression, but it now literally translates into'song'. Folk music was often accompanied by games, festivals, and other celebratory events. The chants, which were the root of folk music, were used to express various emotions like anxiety over something, affection, or to ask a favor of someone. Chants could also be used for naming a child (mele inoa), for prayer (mele pule), or for surfing (mele he'e nalu).

These early people of Hawaii were very religious and believed in a number of spirits, gods, and goddesses, to whom they prayed and held ceremonies for. Religious ceremonies included the performance of dance, music, and chanting, or mele oli and mele hula. Mele oli were a capella songs, while mele hula was song accompanied by dances performed by a group. Strict rules were enforced during the mele chants, and the mele performers (haku mele) were composers who underwent extensive training to give their performances. The haku mele could perform the chants in a number of ways like the very fast kepakepa, and the well-pronounced koihonua.

Modern Music Styles

Although Hawaii's own musical styles have always been favorites, its people have also embraced music from the outside world.

  • Jazz became so popular on the Hawaiian islands, there is an annual festival held for this music genre on the islands. Some notable Hawaiian jazz musicians include Gabe Baltazar (saxophone), Robert Shinoda, Tim Tsukiyama, DeShannon Higa (trumpet), Danny Del Negro, Abe Weistein (saxophone), David Choy (saxophone), Rich Crandall (piano), Abe Lagrimas Jr. (drums), John Kolivas (bass), and Adam Baron (drums).

  • Hip-Hop: The influence of hip hop music first reached the Hawaiian islands in the early part of the 1980s. Hawaii's A.M. radio station began playing hip hop music during prime time. Efforts to keep Hawaiian hip hop on the air came from various radio personalities including Kavet the Catalyst of the LightSleepers camp, who hosted a radio show at the University of Hawaii.

  • Jawaiian is a form of Hawaiian reggae music that evolved in the late 1960s and early'70s from Jamaica. The genre of reggae music has become extremely popular worldwide. During the 1990s, Hawaiians and other islanders began to incorporate reggae with local music. At the end of the decade, Jawaiian music became so popular that it dominated the islands' music scene.

Musical Festivals

Hawaii celebrates its musical traditions and various genres by holding a number of musical celebrations and festivals throughout the year. Here are some of the most popular music festivals held annually on the Aloha Islands:

  • Merry Monarch Music Festival - gathering of hula groups from across the world

  • Steel Drum Festivals - Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival, Steel Guitar Association Festival, and the Gabby Pahinui/Atta Isaacs Slack Key Festival
  • Aloha Week - a popular musical event that draws numerous tourists and visitors to the islands during the month of April

  • Moloka'i Music Festival - held around Labor Day, it's popular even among tourists Hawaii International Jazz Festival - founded in 1993, it features performances on Maui, Kauai, and Oahu

Many of the islands' hotels provide live musical performances in the afternoon as entertainment for their guests, including the well-known Hilton and Sheraton hotels. Larger music venues in Hawaii include the University Theater, the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center, and the historic Lanai Theater.

Because of its regional isolation from the U.S. mainland, Hawaii has developed its own regional music industry. Although some American influence is present in the Hawaiian styles of music, the Aloha State has retained melodies from traditional Hawaiian music.


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