Traditional Hawaiian music is characterized by percussion instruments, chanting, simplicity, and storytelling.
As missionaries and immigrants to Hawaiʻi introduced their vocal styles and instruments, Hawaiians adapted each one to create modern forms of music that remain uniquely Hawaiian.
Below we offer an introduction to traditional Hawaiian instruments and song styles, followed by modern forms adapted by Hawaiians through the use of string instruments, melodic songs, and vocal styles from other parts of the world.
Traditional Hawaiian music
Traditional Hawaiian music consisted primarily of chants and dancing (hula) accompanied by percussion instrucments. Like the world over, Hawaiians used music for religious ceremonies, celebrations, and entertainment.
Hawaiians used many interesting percussion instruments made from available materials, including gourds, bamboo, coconuts, wood, and shark skin. Listed below are the different types of Hawaiian percussion instruments.
Ipu: A gourd played while seated or standing. There are two kinds of ipu: the ipu heke (double gourd) and the ipu heke ʻole (single gourd). The two basic beats are “u” (downbeat) and “te” (upbeat). If seated, the downbeat is played by striking the gourd on the ground. If standing, the downbeat is struck with the heel of the hand. The upbeat is always played with the fingers.
Kāʻeke ʻeke: A simple drum made of a stick of bamboo (ʻohe) that is open on one end and closed on the other by cutting at the bamboo’s natural joint. Kāʻeke ʻeke are played by striking them on the ground.
ʻOhe Hano Ihu: A 3-holed bamboo nose flute played by blowing across the holes through the nose while pinching one nostril shut. Traditionally used throughout Polynesian cultures for courting due to its soft gentle sound.
Pahu or paʻu: A drum, preferably made from the stump of a coconut (niu) tree. Today the pahu is capped with cowhide. However, sharkskin was used ancient Hawaii. Pahu have long been sacred to Hawaiians, who made different types of pahu for religious ceremonies (heiau pahu or pahu puʻule) and for hula (hula pahu). It is the official traditional instrument of Hawaiʻi (with ‘ukulele being the modern one). The paʻu is played with the hands to produces a low but full resound.
ʻUkeke: A small, hand-held 3-string instrument, indigenous to Hawaiʻi. (So, the ʻuklele was not a completely foreign concept to Hawaiians.) Composed of a footlong piece of wood about one-inch wide, with three strings (traditionally woven from coconut fibers or hair) attached the length of the wood. It is played using the mouth as a resonance chamber while strumming with the fingers.
The following YouTube video features an ʻukeke demo by craftsman Mahi La Pierre playing an ‘ukeke that he made:
Mele (songs or chants)
Mele means song or chant in Hawaiian. There are two types of mele in traditional Hawaiian music: mele oli (sung a cappella) and mele hula (accompanied by dance).
Mele oli are ritual solo chants performed without accompaniment. These chants have simple melodies using very few notes. Oli often told stories that preserved the history, geneology, and cultural traditions of native Hawaiians.
Mele hula are chants or songs accompanied by dance. In contrast to the simple melodic line of the mele oil, mele hula are more complicated musically and use more notes and rhythm.
The following YouTube video features the “Aloha Oli” mele oli by Nona Kapuailohia Beamer performed by Jonathan Lopez near Malama Ki Forest Reserve, Puna, Hawai’i.
The meaning of this oli (in English) is: “I welcome you to this place of my heart, to this place of intimacy. Let us share in the Spirit of Aloha.”
If you watch the video on YouTube, you’ll find the complete Hawaiian text, which in typical tradition is nuanced in meaning and much more elegant in phrasing. It can give you great insight into—and hopefully appreciation for—ancient Hawaiian culture.
Modern Hawaiian Music
Modern Hawaiian music continues to evolve. Hawaiians adapted the instruments, melodies, and song stylings of those who arrived on her shores, and made them uniquely their own. These new Hawaiian music styles include leo kiʻekiʻe or male falsetto singing, the ‘ukelele, slack key guitar, steel guitar, and many beloved songs.
Read more about each of these music styles in the sections below, along with video examples.
Leo Kiʻekiʻe (aka Hawaiian falsetto singing)
Western falsetto and yodeling were introduced by Mexican cowboys to Hawai’i in the early 1800, which Hawaiians naturally adapted. Western falsetto is characterized by a smooth transition from the low to high notes.
Hawaiian falsetto exaggerates the transition from low to high by adapting vocal techniques, referred to as kauna, already used in mele oli.
Leo kiʻekiʻe (“high voice”) continued to blend in other musical forms introduced to Hawaiʻi, including Christian hymns, Spanish music, and Portuguese instruments. Today, popular music stylings may be adapted, everyone from the Bee Gees and Bob Marley to LeAnn Rimes.
As they say, the beat goes on.
Some of the legends of leo kiʻekiʻe include (by no means a complete list): George Kainapau (1905–1992), Bill Ali’iloa Lincoln (1911–1989), Andrew Kealoha Cummings (1913-1995), Benny Kalama (1916-1999) Thomas Kihei Desha Brown (1925–1978), John Pi’ilani Watkins (1928–1983), Mahi Beamer (1929–2017), Dennis Pavao (1951-2002). Hoopii Brothers (Solomon 1935-2006, “Uncle Richard” 1941-2018).
In the following YouTube video, George Kaianapau sings “Nalani” from 1955:
Contemporary falsetto singers include: (Ryan) Kamakakehau Fernandez, Ledward (Led) Kaapana, Kekoa Kane , Kuana Torres Kahele, and a trio Hū`ewa (pronounced HOO-EV-AHH) composed of three young men: Kekoa Kane, Kahi Young, and Kupu Dalire-Na`auao. Though it was forbidden in ancient Hawaiʻi, today female artists are singing in falsetto style.
In the following YouTube video, contemorary band Hūʻewa honors Ka Ua Kilihune, the kilihune rain with song and some hula at the bridge (of the music). It’s from their self entitled CD:
Several Hawaiian musicians led a music renaissance during the 1970s Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance to revive music and cultural traditions, including slack key, leo kiʻekiʻe, traditional hula, the Hawaiian language, and other repressed cultural practices.
We’re mighty glad they did.
Portuguese Braga and the ʻUkulele
Portuguese immigrants to Hawaiʻi brought their four-stringed instrument called the braga, more specifically the braguinha or machete de braga.
The braga is one of many types of four-stringed instruments known in Portuguese music as the cavaquinho. The steel-string cavaquinho is typically tuned to DGBD with linear tuning. However, the tuning and purpose can vary, for example for a lead, rhythm, or bass instrument.
Hawaiians uniquely adapted the Portuguese instrument to create the ‘ukulele. It is the official modern instrument of Hawaiʻi (the ancient pahu drum being the traditional one).
The standard ‘ukulele tuning is GCEA, with a high G, on nylon or gut strings. However, like the braga, the ‘ukulele has many alternative tuning systems, such as baritone tuning (DGBE linear), low-G Tuning (GCEA linear), and D tuning (ADF#B re-entrant tuning one step higher than standard).
‘Ukulele come in different sizes from 20 to 30 inches. From smallest to largest, they are: soprano, concert or alto, tenor, and baritone. Soprano is the most popular, most students learn on a concert. The “best” size is personal preference, often dictated by the size of the player’s hands.
There are many other types of ‘ukuleles, including: sopranissimo, pineapple, coconut shell, turtle shell, cigar-box, cutaway, double-hole, steel-string, six-string, eight-string, and the Liliʻu (8-string Concert ukulele).
In the following YouTube video, ukulele master Ohta-san plays “Hawaii”:
Ki Hoʻalu (slack key guitar)
Ki hoʻalu (Hawaiian for “loosen the key”) is is characterized by a finger-picking style while playing a guitar with loosened or “slacked” strings, which gives richness to the melody.
There are many different tunings for ki hoʻalu, often based on a Major key. Tunings were historically kept secret within families.
The melodies played were often meant to evoke nature: wind, rustling leaves, lapping water, or birds singing. Besides nature, there are also many haunting renditions about aloha, loved ones, and the beauty of the Islands.
Legends of slack key guitar include Dennis Kamakahi, Raymond Kāne, Ledward “Led” Kaapana, Leonard Kwan, Peter Moon, Gabby Pahinui, Cyril Pahinui (son of Gabby), and Fred Punahoa.
In the following YouTube video, slack-key master Led Kaapana Performs “Kolomona Slack Key” and makes it look as effortless as a breezy Hawaiian afternoon:
Kīkā kila (Hawaiian for “steel guitar”)
Hawaiian music includes the distinct sound of kīkā kila (“steel guitar”). Recognized by the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame as the inventor of the Hawaiian steel guitar, Joseph Kekuku from La’ie, Oʻahu (aka Joseph Kekuku’upenakana’iaupuniokamehameha Apuakehau) invented the instrument in the late 1800s. He had experimented with sliding different objects across a guitar’s strings (bolt, knife blade, comb, tumbler). While a student at Kamehameha School for Boys, Joseph raised the frets and changed the strings from gut to wire to develop the unique sound and playing style.
Born in 1874, Joseph left Hawai’i at the age of 30 and never returned. He eventually settled in New Jersey and is buried there in the Orchard Street Cemetery. Joseph traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, playing and teaching his customized laptop guitar. The Hawaiian steel guitar became embedded with American blues slide guitarists and country/western steel guitar players. The original tuning was A Major low bass. Bluegrass, folk, and other genre tend to use the banjo tuning, G Major low bass.
In Hawaiʻi, when you say “Hawaiian guitar”, it refers to slack key. Hawaiian steel guitar has also been called the Dobro, after an early manufacturer of the instrument, as well as a lap steel guitar or lapsteel. It is also incorrectly called a slide guitar, which is a method of playing a Spanish guitar. The following YouTube video demonstrates the Hawaiian steel guitar sound and playing style.
This is only a brief overview of the Hawaiian steel guitar. To learn more, visit History – Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association (hsga.org) or read The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians by Lorene Ruymar.
Aliʻi (Hawaiian Royalty) Composers
King Kalākaua (1836-1891) was descended from a famous traditional chanter. He became skilled in writing and composing modern music. He wrote the popular love song “Akahi Ho’i”. But his most famous songs is “Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī (“Hawaiʻi’s Own”), the Hawaiʻi State song.
In the following YouTube video, you can enjoy the Hawaiʻi State anthem “Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī, written by King Kalākaua:
After his death, Kalākaua’s sister Lili’uokalani (1838-1917) became queen, until the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17, 1893 by a group of American businessmen led by Sanford Dole. Like her brother, Queen Lili’uokalani was a gifted composer. Her most beloved melody is the poignant “Aloha oe,”, one of the most popular and well-known Hawaiian songs today.
In the following YouTube video, you can join Ukulele Underground for this Ukulele Play-Along of “Aloha ‘Oe” (Farewell to Thee):
And with that, we say Aloha and hope you know more than you did before about the range and beauty of Hawaiian music, then and now.
Regularly scheduled Hawaiian Music Concerts & Shows
We keep a short list here of the places you can expect to routinely listen to Hawaiian music in various styles—we update the list from time to time as we hear about new shows. For more Hawaiian music, see our calendar list of upcoming events below.
Maui: Slack Key Show | Maui Napili Kai Beach Resort. Slack Key show Wednesdays on Maui at Napili Kai Beach Resort in the Aloha Pavilion. In-person tickets: $40 GA, $60 VIP.
Oʻahu: Kani Ka Pila Grille | Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort. Nightly from 6-9PM. Kanikapila (“let’s play music”) at Outrigger Reef Waikīkī Beach (2169 Kalia Rd). Celebrates the local tradition of kanikapila (“let’s play music”). Named for the backyard jam sessions of the legendary Pahinui family, masters of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, you can enjoy award-winning contemporary musical performers along with ʻono (“delicious”) food and company in the Kani Ka Pila Grille.
Oʻahu: Waikīkī Beach Walk (227 Lewers St) shopping & entertainment district hosts regular shows on their outdoor stage. Dates, times, performances and activities are subject to change without notice – weather permitting.
- Weekly on Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. Free Kū Haʻaheo Hawaiian music & hula show on Waikīkī Beach Walk Plaza. Local Hawaiian music and hula by the award-winning performers combines traditional and classic dances of the hula art form and is truly a heartfelt show rooted in sharing the spirit of Aloha.
- Monthly on Sunday 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. “Mele hali’a” Hawaiian music showcase on Waikīkī Beach Walk Plaza. Mele hali’a means to recall fondly. These free outdoor concerts feature the incredible music of Hawaiʻi from award-winning local performers. Hear island culture and history come alive with harmonies and the spiritual, loving way these musicians share the traditions and folklore of their ancestors, their families, and friends.
Oʻahu: Blue Note Hawaii in Waikīkī inside the Outrigger Waikīkī Beach Resort (2335 Kalākaua Ave) features local, national, and international music and comedy act, including jazz, reggae, rock, pop, and Hawaiian music.
Streaming: Kanikapila Sunday | Hawaii Public Radio. ‘Kani ka pila’ means ‘play music’. Kanikapila Sunday features three hours of Great Hawaiian Music, including contemporary, traditional and hapa haole songs, slack key guitar and ‘ukulele instrumentals and more every Sunday from 1:00-4:00 p.m. Listen on the Hawaii Public Radio (HPR) app, or ask your smart speaker to ‘Play KHPR’! More info: Kanikapila Sunday on Hawai‘i Public Radio | Facebook
Upcoming Hawaiian music events
The following events from our calendar include traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music and hula.
Sunday, July 3, 2022
Monday, July 4, 2022
Tuesday, July 5, 2022
Wednesday, July 6, 2022
Thursday, July 7, 2022
Friday, July 8, 2022
Saturday, July 9, 2022
Sunday, July 10, 2022
Monday, July 11, 2022
Tuesday, July 12, 2022
Wednesday, July 13, 2022
Thursday, July 14, 2022
Friday, July 15, 2022
Saturday, July 16, 2022
Sunday, July 17, 2022
Monday, July 18, 2022
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
Wednesday, July 20, 2022
Thursday, July 21, 2022
Friday, July 22, 2022
Saturday, July 23, 2022
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Monday, July 25, 2022
Tuesday, July 26, 2022
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
Thursday, July 28, 2022
Friday, July 29, 2022
Saturday, July 30, 2022
Sunday, July 31, 2022
Monday, August 1, 2022
HPR-1 88.5 FM
Waikīkī Beach Walk, 227 Lewers St, Honolulu, HI 96815