The ‘ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument introduced to Hawai‘i by Portuguese immigrants. The name ‘ukulele roughly translates as “jumping flea”
The tone and volume of the instrument vary with size and construction. ‘Ukuleles commonly come in four sizes: soprano; concert; tenor; and baritone.
One of the most important factors in establishing the ‘ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was the ardent support and promotion of the instrument by King David Kalākaua. A patron of the arts, he made it an official instrument of the Hawaiian Kingdom and incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.
During the 1970s, new manufacturers began producing ‘ukuleles, and a new generation of popular musicians, led by Peter Moon and Isreal Kamakawiwa‘ole, took up the instrument and helped to re-popularize it.
Kīkā kila, the Hawaiian Steel Guitar
Kīkā kila, the Hawaiian steel guitar, refers to a type of guitar or the method of playing the instrument.
Developed in Hawai‘i by Joseph Kekuku‘upena-kana‘iaupunio Kamehameha Apuakehau in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a steel guitar is usually positioned horizontally; strings are plucked with one hand, while the other hand changes the pitch of one or more strings with the use of a bar or slide called a steel (generally made of metal, but also of glass or other materials).
The electrified steel guitar was first made in the early 1930s by Bob Dunn’s western swing band from Texas and was later picked up by country western musicians in the 1940s and early 1950s. Gabby Pahinui’s mastery of the instrument solidified the steel guitar’s popularity with a new generation of Hawaiian musicians.
Kī hōʻalu, Hawaiian slack-key
Kī hōʻalu, Hawaiian slack-key, refers to an open tuning guitar style rooted in nearly two centuries of Hawaiian history. The English term is a translation of the Hawaiian kī hōʻalu, which means “loosen the [or tuning] key”. It is achieved by detuning or “slacking” one or more of the strings until the six strings form a single chord, frequently such as C major. The style originated from Mexican cowboys in the late 19th century. These paniolo (a Hawaiianization of españoles—”Spaniards”) brought guitars to Hawai‘i, taught the Hawaiians the rudiments of playing, and then left, allowing the Hawaiians to develop the style on their own.
In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood kī hōʻalu, and the ability to play it was regarded as a special gift. Families held their own styles of tuning secret and passed them on from generation to generation. A more open spirit prevails today, and many of the best guitarists openly share their tuning styles.
Gabby Pahinui and the Pahinui ‘ohana nui made a significant contribution to its current popularity and world-wide recognition.