Saturday, February 20, 2010

Everybody Does It in Hawaii

Check out the view from our hotel room!

During our week in Hawaii, I was struck by the paucity of contemporary literature and music. The literature part I understand: Despite the inspirational setting and rich history, the island chain is isolated and had no written language until missionary Hiram Bingham helped devise a spelling system for Hawaiian and translated a number of books of the Bible. For these and other reasons, Hawaii has never been able to jump start a literary tradition. As near as I can tell, the best novel of Hawaii remains James Jones From Here to Eternity (1951), set in the Army culture in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor.

Music is another matter. Traditional Hawaiian music is rich, atmospheric, and sets a high bar for musicians and singers. It's fair to say that the Hawaiian guitarists of the early 20th Century virtually invented steel guitar virtuosity.

Collections of Hawaiian music from the late 20s and 30s reveal a musical tradition at the top of its game, a vibrant traditional base soaking up jazz, blues, and country influences brought to the islands by soldiers and sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor and Schofield Barracks. The music of that period is so good and so invigorating that you can practically select a CD at random and be rewarded. I'm partial to Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics: 1927-1938; History of Hawaiian Steel Guitar, which includes a wonderfully illustrated booklet; Legends of the Ukulele; King Bennie Nawahi, Hawaiian String Virtuoso: Acoustic Steel Guitar Classics from the 1920's; and Roy Smeck Plays Hawaiian Guitar, Banjo, Ukulele, and Guitar, 1926-1949.

Today, the passing of contemporary slack key masters like Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, and Gabby Pahinui appears to be an incalculable loss. I don't claim to be an expert in Hawaiian music, but music store racks look to include a preponderance of easy listening, New Age, Jawaiian, and every Iz Kamakawiwo'ole track ever recorded. Jawaiian, an effort to blend Hawaiian vocal styles with a reggae beat, is largely a misfire: Hawaiian tenors and harmonies and laid-back lyrics simply don't mix effectively with the revolutionary rhythms of Jamaican music. It's well-intended, certainly, but nothing I've heard is interesting or memorable. Kamakawiwo'ole is an undeniable talent whose act wears as thin as he was corpulent. As for the rest, the less said the better...

I can't help falling in love with you...

Paul Krugman explains why the California death spiral awaits us all if we don't get health care right...

The great E. J. Dionne writes that Democrats better get off the defensive and soon. I have some thoughts about this that I'll be developing in future entries...

The Sunday Funnies & Arts will be back next week! In the meantime, enjoy some classic Hawaiian tunes, starting with King Bennie Nawahi and "My Girl from the South Seas" (the photographs and vintage postcards are wonderful, too):



It's Sunday and Citizen K. hasn't posted any gospel music lately. Let's make amends with the Hawaiian gospel sounds of Bob Dylan favorite Sol Hoopii:





Finally, although not traditional, but here Merle Travis leads the dogfaces of From Here to Eternity in a chorus of "Reenlistment Blues":

7 comments:

Rastamick61 said...

A friend clued me into Three Plus a "Hawaiian reggae" group a few years back, good stuff. I like its sound but as you said it's not 'Burnin an a Lootin' by any stretch. With the way they were done by plantation folk years back you'd think there might be a little of that beneath the surface too.

K. said...

You would think that. But Hawaii's immigrant population has far outgrown the indigenous population, which might have something to do with it. There has been for some time a movement for Hawaiian rights and sovereignty, but that doesn't seem to be reflected in the popular music. Also, at no level does Hawaii suffer from the abject poverty of Jamaica, even though the indigenous people appear to be less educated and less well off economically.

Maybe another way to put it is that unlike other small nations with a history of oppression but who developed significant artistic traditions -- Jamaica and Ireland, say -- Hawaii has never been able to speak with one unified voice. A sociologist could explain what that meant for the music, but ultimately it appears to have had a homogenizing effect.

Steven said...

Great post! I am a big fan of Hawaiian music and I have some of the old Sol Hoopii songs. Never knew about the videos. As you said, There is no replacing Gabby and the others. If you want to hear some good Hawaiian tunes, check out KVMR FM on Sunday mornings.
http://www.kvmr.org/programs/kkp/index.html
You will hear a lot of the old stuff on here.
Back in the day, when I worked for a living, our company had a Honolulu branch office and I was able to find a reason to make a training trip over there many times. Poor me!

Roy said...

Great take on Hawaiian music! I've been listening to slack key guitarists for a while now and you're right, the heritage is in danger of being lost through sheer attrition. It makes me wonder why younger generations don't seem to be taking up the torch and carrying on the tradition. Is the lure of commercialized music from the US and elsewhere really that strong? Such a shame!

And I wish they had let Merle sing a little more in that movie. The man was a legend in his own right!

K. said...

The decline of the music through attrition is puzzling. It hasn't happened in Ireland, where there are any number of young trad groups. But, there are about 400,000 native Hawaiians and 4,000,000 or so Irish. Jamaica's population is nearly 3,000,000. Demographics have an inexorable impact on culture.

Steven, I'll be sure to check out KVRM.

Renegade Eye said...

The Hawaiian music references were really good.

I remember seeing the movie Hawaii with Max Von Sydow.

E.J. Dionne is in for a long wait, if he thinks the Democratic Party will go on the offense.

K. said...

The movie is based on the James Michener novel of the same name. It's an o.k. movie and a better book, although the book (written around the time of statehood) ends on a note of cultural imperialism that at the time was an expression of melting pot orthodoxy. As I recall, when one character lamented the slow disappearance of indigenous Hawaiians, another comforted him by saying that they had been absorbed into new Hawaiians, who were multi-ethnic.