Monday, June 20, 2011
The last couple of years has seen an incredible rise in the popularity of the ukulele and in Hawaiian music generally. Here's a site devoted to Hawaiian sheet music. Beautiful images, and I wish the entire collection were mine.
The original sound of ukuleles and lap-steel guitars was appropriated by Western musicians and songwriters as early as the 1800s, so that what we think of as 'Hawaiian music' is actually about as Hawaiian as I am - ie not very. In fact there's a term for it: Hapa Haole (pronounced Howly), which means 'half white'. But the dreamy swooping sounds of a lap-steel and the chirrupping of ukuleles have become so embedded over the decades that we don't really care if the majority of songs were written by people who had never been anywhere near Hawaii, it's still Hawaiian music. The more complex influences of Jazz and Western Swing might have crept in, but the song themes remain constant - paeans to an imaginary paradise here on earth, where palm trees are always swaying and ukes are always playing.
The Hawaiian look is now fixed on one particular period, the 1940s, when US sailors were stationed in the South Pacific during the Second World War, and if you go to one of the burgeoning Swing/Jive weekends staged in this country over the summer (Hep Cats Holiday for instance) you'll certainly want to pack your sailor suit or hula skirt for the Hawaiian Evening. You'll also need a genuine Hawaiian shirt - always 100% rayon, never cotton.
Homer's Odyssey long ago covered the theme of sailors far from home, discovering a magical isle where their every need would be catered for by dark eyed girls who seemed to have mislaid most of their wardobe. I don't recall that there were any ukuleles on Circe's island, or that the Sirens were singing 'Wicky Wacky Woo', but it's essentially the same deal. And I suspect that in real life it could lead to trouble. We're probably wise not to draw too close to those little grass huts for two, and see exactly who was taking advantage of whom.
So back to the music, which has travelled to shores far beyond its origins. I personally know a Hawaiian band who are all Italian (the Honolulu Hula Boys) and here's a wonderful Japanese group: The Sweet Hollywaiians. We might be tempted to smile at their pronunciation of the lyrics, but if you're going to learn every word of 'My Queen of the South Sea Isles' phonetically, then you really have to want to do it. And that's love.