There was a time, not so long ago, when the music of Hawaii was one of the greatest attractions of the islands. Lately there have been many complaints, particularly from older tourists, that it is next to impossible to find Hawaiian music in Hawaii any more.
Of course, what the tourists are looking for is the romantic, haunting sound of the Hawaiian steelguitar – the sound that introduced Hawaiian music to the world. But it is a sound that visitors can usually find only on records.
The hotels, the large restaurants, the airport and most department stores play background tapes of sweet steel guitar instrumentals, mostly made by Jules Ah See of the Hawaiian Village Serenaders back in the 1950s. Radio KCCN, the all- Hawaiian music station, still plays occasional steel guitar instrumentals and you can sometimes find steel guitar in a backup role at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki, at the Kahala Hilton’s Danny Kaleikini show, at the Polynesian Cultural Centre at Laie and at some luaus. Jerry Byrd, the Ohio boy who became one of the world’s best steel guitarists, can usually be heard sometime during the week at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. But the emphasis is on Polynesian spectaculars featuring fire dancers, Tahitian rhythms and lavish costumes, not on live guitar music.
The Honolulu newspapers and the numerous free tourist papers in Waikiki never offer a clue as to where steel guitar can be heard. They may list places for Hawaiian music, but this often turns out to be a couple of singers with ukuleles.
Joseph Kekuku first demonstrated the steel guitar in 1896 and his playing was a sensational success. Instead of pressing down the guitar strings with the fingers of the left hand, as with the classical or Spanish guitar, the steel guitar player presses the strings with a small metal bar, about the size of a pocket comb, giving the instrument a distinctive, slurring sound.
The established musicians were jealous. You can imagine how a band trumpeter would feel when a young lad playing Hilo March on a steel guitar received more applause than the whole Royal Hawaiian Band.
Pale K. Lua, a violinist with the Glee Club Orchestra, joined the trend, soon surpassed Kekuku, went to the United States, became one of the first recording artists and started an exodus that saw hundreds of steel guitarists leave Hawaii. They spread around the world and formed their own groups to entertain, to record, to teach and generally to do well.
Hawaiian steel guitar recordings were so popular that every phonograph company wanted some. If they had no contracts with Hawaiian artists, they borrowed them from other companies or persuaded top stars to record for them under false names. In the early 1920s, Frank Ferera, the most prolific Hawaiian recording artist, had as many record catalogue entries as Enrico Caruso or Fritz Kreisler. When the wind-up, table-model phonograph with 10 free records came out in 1920, three or four of the records were always Hawaiian.
The hungry 1930s reduced the number of recordings. Later, electric amplification gave the steelguitar sufficient volume to be heard in bands, it was discovered to be a fine backup instrument for vocalists. The singers became the focus of attention. Still later, pedal-operated steel guitars were invented and were adopted wholeheartedly by country and western artists, but not by the Hawaiians.
The Second World War years saw an increase in the popularity of Hawaiian music, because of Hawaiian movies. In California, Sol Hoopii, one of the all-time greats, Sam Koki, Andy Iona and Dick McIntyre (who backed up most of Bing Crosby’s Hawaiian hits) played steel guitar in the films. They also recorded, but the output could not be compared to the 1920- 1930 production.
With more hotels being built in Hawaii and more playing jobs available to steel guitarists, a surge of renewed interest in the style might be expected in the islands. But guitars have changed in the rock and roll era and what once seemed simple and attractive now presents a profusion of different types of instruments that have earned the reputation of being not only difficult to master but also very expensive.
The dozen or so really good steel players left in Hawaii were very busy in the fifties and sixties, backing up singers on records and playing for several outstanding Hawaiian groups. Starting with David Kelii, perhaps the best of them all, the Hawaii Calls radio program (1935-1975) always had steel guitar music, but on the printed programs and even on the covers of Hawaii Calls albums, the name of the steel guitarist was seldom mentioned. The steel player was considered an essential sideman but there was no honor, no special pay, no special credit.
When the stars grew old, there were no replacements. As they died off, the trend toward Polynesian spectaculars, vocal groups and rock and roll increased and suddenly in the 1970s, Hawaiians realized their music was disappearing.
Two organizations were formed. The Association for Hawaiian Music, striving for hit songs like Blue Hawaii and Sweet Leilani, ran songwriting contests which produced some numbers that became popular in Hawaii but were ignored on the U.S. mainland. The Hawaiian Music Foundation held a conference in November, 1971, but it did little to revive the art.
There are still plenty of Hawaiian style steel guitarists today in Holland, Britain, Japan, Indonesia and even on little Tonga. The International Hawaiian Steel Guitar Club with headquarters in Winchester, Indiana, has more than 200 active playing members. Regardless of what they do in Hawaii, the sweet, romantic sound of the steel guitar plays on.