Traditional Hawaiian music was based upon mele oli and mele hula as performed in the pre-Western-contact era. Mele oli means plain chanting, while mele hula signifies chanting accompanied by hula.
Subsequently, mele hula kuʻi – chant and dance style with western influences – developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries from mele hula. These three forms served as the foundations of authentic Hawaiian music.
In 1879 in Hawaiʻi, Portuguese musicians (Madeira Islanders) played on “strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music” (this Madeiran guitar, the machete, was destined to become the Hawaiian ʻukulele.) (Hawaiian Gazette – September 3, 1879)
In about 1889, Joseph Kekuku began sliding a piece of steel across the strings of a guitar, thus inventing steel guitar (kika kila); at about the same time, traditional Hawaiian music with English lyrics became popular.
All of this helped set the foundational sound for a new music in Hawaiʻi.
From about 1895 to 1915, Hawaiian music dance bands became in demand more and more. These were typically string quintets. Ragtime music influenced the music, and English words were commonly used in the lyrics.
This type of Hawaiian music, influenced by popular music and with lyrics being a combination of English and Hawaiian (or wholly English), is called hapa haole (literally: half white) music.
In 1903, Albert “Sonny” Cunha composed “My Waikīkī Mermaid,” arguably the first popular hapa haole song; two years later he wrote “Honolulu Tom Boy,” which became immensely popular. (The earliest known hapa haole song, “Eating of the Poi”, was published in Ka Buke o na Leo Mele Hawaii…o na Home Hawaii in Honolulu in 1888.)
Sonny Cunha was also known as a talented pianist who incorporated the piano into a Hawaiian orchestra for the first time. As a composer, pianist and orchestra leader, Cunha attracted many audiences – residents and visitors alike – with his new type of music; although pure Hawaiian songs still retained their popularity among kamaʻaina residents.
The new style and tempo of Cunha’s music came to exert an enormous influence on another musician, Johnny Nobel (later called the ‘Hawaiian Jazz King;’) in 1918 Noble joined Cunha’s band on drums and xylophones, and thus embraced the new style of music. Nobel also learned composition from Cunha and began to compose in the new style of Hawaiian music.
Noble’s first rise to fame came as the leader of a major hotel orchestra, at the Moana Hotel. He felt that jazz and Hawaiian music blended beautifully and immediately began to shape the sound of the orchestra. With no brass in the orchestra, the mellow sound they produced became the standard of the time.
As a composer and arranger, Noble really became a great composer of hapa haole tunes including, “My Little Grass Shack”, “King Kamehameha” and “Hula Blues.” He was responsible for ‘jazzing up’ and making popular the traditional “Hawaiian War Chant” song.
In 1935, Noble became the first Hawaiian composer inducted into The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
The hapa-haole sound was a “new wave” in the Hawaiian music scene. The new sound undeniably met the tastes and attitudes of the audience in Waikīkī in the first half of the twentieth century.
The lyrics usually expressed attractive images of Waikīkī – sand, surf, palm trees and hula girls. The new style of Hawaiian music responded to the transformation of the American pop music scene. From 1900 to 1915, it was based upon simple ragtime rhythms and sometimes upon waltz-like melodies.
The hapa-haole sound adopted jazz and blues from 1916 to the 1930s and then it incorporated the big-band sounds from the 1940s to the 1950s, rock ‘n roll in the 1950s and surf-style in the 1960s.
As time went by, the sound became less and less Hawaiian, despite its lyrics referring to Hawaiʻi.
At the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, hapa-haole songs were featured in the Hawaii exhibits. The Hawaiian songs accompanied by ukulele fascinated the audience and triggered a Hawaiian boom on the mainland.
By 1916, there were hundreds of Hapa Haole (half “foreign”) tunes written. That same year, reportedly more Hawaiian records were sold on the mainland than any other type of music. And they came in all the popular styles of the day: in ragtime, blues, jazz, foxtrot and waltz tempos, as “shimmy” dances and–even–in traditional hula tempos, but jazzed up a bit.
In 1935, a radio program began, broadcasting live from the Banyan Court of the Moana Hotel on the beach at Waikīkī, and radios nationwide tuned in to hear “Hawaii Calls.” Not only did nearly every island entertainer cut his or her teeth on the program, many went on to become well known.
A number of non-Hawaiian continental musicians exploited the marketable commodity. Songs like “Yacka Hula Hicky Dula” and “Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo” reflected the Hawaiian vogue, but did not represent the hapa-haole sounds in the true sense.
In Waikīkī, composers and musicians carefully blended Hawaiian music with jazz and blues, and attached the music to the Waikīkī landscape.