Music has always played a central role in Hawaiian culture. In early Hawai'i, mele, or chant, was the most important means of remembering myths of gods and deeds of powerful people. Today, Hawaiians continue to use music to define themselves and celebrate aloha 'aina, or love of land.
Western string instruments and Christian hymns, or himeni, introduced to Hawai'i in the nineteenth century, transformed earlier forms of Hawaiian music and provided ingredients for new musical forms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a newly created tourist industry began to employ musicians and hundreds of Hapa-haole, or half Hawaiian-half English, tunes were composed. These songs reflected some aspects of the older traditions but were primarily a popular commercial genre. Hawaiian music was transformed by the success of these songs on the American mainland.
Steel guitars were originally invented and popularized in Hawaii. Legend has it that Joseph Kekuku, a Hawaiian schoolboy, discovered the sound while walking along a railroad track strumming his guitar. He picked up a bolt lying by the track and slid the metal along the strings of his guitar. Intrigued by the sound, he taught himself to play using the back of a knife blade.
Other persons who have been credited with the invention of the steel guitar include Gabriel Davion, an Indian sailor, around 1885, and James Hoa, a Hawaiian of Portuguese ancestry. Within a short period of time, the popularity of Hawaiian steel guitars increased to the point where Hawaiian musical groups playing steel guitars were a big hit at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. From there the sound of the Hawaiian guitar spread rapidly throughout the United States, and between 1915 to 1930, a large number of Hawaiian guitar methods and songs were published by the major music publishers throughout the world. Ultimately, the sound of the Hawaiian guitar transcended merely Hawaiian music, and was adopted by popular rock and roll, blues and country music bands in a variety of their live concert and studio performance.
The following is a list of popular Hawaiian musical instruments that have been used throughout the 20th century and are currently used today in a variety of traditional ceremonial rituals such as luaus and weddings on the islands of Hawaii:
ukulele - [YOO-kə-LAY-lee] also spelled ukelele (particularly in the UK), or alternatively abbreviated uke, is a chordophone classified as a plucked lute; it is a subset of the guitar family of instruments, generally with four strings or four courses of strings.
The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of small guitar-like instruments brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century, and from there spread internationally.
Tone and volume of the instrument vary with size and construction. Ukuleles come in four sizes, soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.
The ukulele is commonly associated with music from Hawai‘i where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea". According to Queen Lili'uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here”, from the Hawaiian words “uku” (gift or reward) and “lele” (to come).
Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on a small guitar-like instrument, the cavaquinho, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants.
Typically ukuleles have a figure-eight body shape similar to that of a small acoustic guitar. They are also often seen in non-standard shapes, such as an oval, usually called a "pineapple" ukulele, or a boat-paddle shape, invented by the Kamaka ukulele company, and occasionally a square shape, often made out of an old wooden cigar box.
These instruments may have just four strings; or some strings may be paired in courses, giving the instrument a total of six or eight strings.
Other traditional Hawaiian instruments used for a variety of musical occasions, are listed below:
kâ`eke `eke - [KAH' eh keh eh keh] - bamboo pipes or tubes of varying length.
These are held vertically and stamped or tapped on a mat or on the ground. Several musicians may play together.
kuolokani - [koo' (w)oh loh kah' nee] - large drum; ancient musical instrument; a timbrel.
nî `au kani - [NEE' au kah nee] - a true jew’s harp, made of a thin strip of wood, with a nîau (coconut midrib ) or bamboo strip lashed lengthwise.
`ohe hano ihu - [oh' heh hah' noh ee' hoo] - nose flute made out of bamboo. In earlier days, they were used to accompany chants, but most often to carry sentiments between lovers.
pahu - [pah' hoo] - a large drum, brought from Kahiki (Tahiti) five to six centuries ago. This is considered to be the most important musical instrument of the traditional hula, as this traditional drum is struck continuously in rhythmic motions while the hula perform their ancient chants.
pahu pa`i - [pah' hoo pah' ee] - small sharkskin drum, beaten for the hula.
pû - [POO] - large triton conch or helmet shell
This is used more as a ceremonial trumpet than as a musical instrument, capable of emitting a sound of great volume, the secret of the production lying not in the breath, but in the manner of blowing. Sound has been known to travel two miles.
In old Hawai`i, it was used to announce the arrival of personages or to summon people to events. Today, it is used to announce the opening of pageants, ceremonies, and performances.
pûniu - [POO' niu] - small knee drum made of coconut shell with a tympanum of ala (fish skin).
`ûkêkê - [OO' KEH' KEH'] - a variety of musical bow, with two or commonly three strings drawn through holes at one end.
The strings are strummed. The old experts made no sound with the vocal chords, but the mouth cavity acted as a resonance chamber. The resulting sound suggested speech and trained persons could understand it. It was sometimes used for love-making.