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Before the missionaries, the Hawaiians knew little about melody. Hawaiian vocal music was of two types, the mele oli and the mele hula:

The mele oli are performed as solo chants without accompaniment. The oli are chanted at ritual or ceremonial occasions using only a few notes in a simple melody.

Mele hula are chants accompanied by dance and often by musical instruments. These chants use more notes or pitches than the oli do, and they have a regular metrical rhythm. Instruments or implements that accompany the mele hula include the drum (pahu), the double gourd (ipu heke), the gourd rattle (uliuli), and slapping of the hands on the chest (pai umauma).

Though sonorous, Hawaiian mele were repetitive chants in which the emphasis was placed on historical accuracy and not on "making music". The Hawaiians, in short, didn't sing. But within a few years of the missionaries arrival, they were belting out good old Christian himeni (hymns).

The monarchy also played a part in Hawaii's musical history. King Kalakaua and his brother, Leleohoku, and sisters, Likelike and Liliuokalani, were musically gifted. They composed songs that mixed the emotions of Hawaii with the melodic tunes of Europe, producing a body of popular songs that are still favorites today. Queen Liliuokalani composed more than 100 songs including the famous "Aloha Oe". In 1836 Kamehameha III founded the Royal Hawaiian Band, one of today's few living links to Hawaiian Monarchy. In 1872, Heinrich Berger arrived from Germany at the request of King Kamehameha V. For over 40 years Berger conducted the Royal Hawaiian Band, and composed hundreds of Western and Hawaiian melodies including Hawaii's national anthem. He was also the original conductor of a group which became the Honolulu Symphony.

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Mele Hula

Uncle Walter
Uncle Walter

Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century helped create Hawaiian style music. Their biggest influence was a small, four-stringed instrument called a braga or cavaquinho (plucked lute of Portugal and Brazil, midway between a guitar and a mandolin). This was the prototype of a homegrown Hawaiian instrument that became known as the ukulele.

The bouncy ukulele, the falsettos of Hawaiian crooners, the smooth ring of the "steel" guitar, and the melodious strains of the slack-key guitar all became an integral part of traditional Hawaiian music.

Today, contemporary Hawaiian music has evolved into many varieties and become less stereotypical in its sound presentation. In the mid-1970's, Hawaiian music came of age. It graduated from the "little grass shack" hapa haole (literally "half-white") novelty tune and began to include sophisticated jazz, rock and contemporary rhythms.

The 1970's also saw a musical renaissance led by "Pops" Gabby Pahinui and younger musicians who are now composing new Hawaiian music, often in the Hawaiian language and using ancient Hawaiian instruments - an attempt to return to the roots of their culture.

Each musical genre has contributed to a change in Hawaiian music, from intonation to instrumentation. Today there is more and more traditional Hawaiian music being played. Hawaiian music has been one of the most dynamic forces in maintaining and revitalizing the culture.


Kealii Reichel  "Kawaipunahele"
Kealii Reichel

The local people say,
You know if the Hawaiian harmonies are good
if they give you "chicken skin".

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