The earliest mention of the yodel dates back to the 4th-century, when Roman Emperor Julian complained about the wild, shrieking songs coming from the mountain people to the north.
The earliest written record where a yodel is mentioned by name is found in a collection entitled Bicinia Galca, Latin Germanica, from 1545, where it was described as “the call of a cowherd from Appenzell.”
Many experts agree that yodeling was used by those living in the Central Alps as a method of communication between herders and their stock or between Alpine villages, with the multi-pitched “yelling” later becoming part of the region’s traditional lore and musical expression.
Yodeling is a form of singing that involves singing an extended note which rapidly and repeatedly changes in pitch from the vocal or chest register (or “chest voice”) to the “head register;” making a high-low-high-low sound.
In Hawaiʻi, in 1793, the first cattle were given as gifts to the King. This was followed shortly thereafter (in 1803) with the first gifts of horses.
Three decades before the American West was running cattle, in 1832, King Kamehameha III brought Spanish cowboys (paniolo, from español, meaning Spanish) from California to train Hawaiians in horse and cattle handling.
The paniolo who came to the Big Island from southern California may also have brought their yodeling. There is no concrete evidence to support this claim, though Mexican singers do use falsetto. Robert Sonomura wrote in his 1973 study of falsetto in Hawaiʻi that “the best of the early Hawaiian falsetto singers came from the island of Hawaiʻi.” (Kanahele)
Records indicate Band Master Henri Berger used yodeling in his voice instructions. Later, Theodore Richards began conducting the Kamehameha School Boy’s’ Choir in 1889. Charles E. King wrote in The Friend of Richards …
“He used many native songs in his work, and it was he who introduced the yodel which is now the rage with Hawaiian singers.” (The Friend, December 1 1928) By 1890 falsetto seems to have been widely known, often accompanied by yodels.
Many believe the Hawaiian falsetto, in part, was derived through the technique of yodeling – to reach notes out of the singer’s ordinary range, where only the edges of the vocal cords vibrate, as opposed to the whole length.
Falsetto singing is defined as the ability to go from a lower register “chest voice” to a higher register “head voice.” (Kanahele) (The word falsetto is derived from the Italian falso, ‘false.’)
Many Hawaiian chanters used a certain vocal ornament involving the transition from regular chest voice to falsetto voice. At this transition a characteristic break occurs. Mele with dialogues between male and female characters were reportedly chanted in two different registers, where the female response was occasionally delivered in falsetto. (Kanahele)
The origin and development of falsetto singing in Hawaiʻi is not clear; it is safe to assume that no single individual can be credited. (Kanahele)
Hawaiian falsetto is a blend of pre-European Hawaiian chant practices, early hymn singing and the popular European music of the latter half of the 19th century. (Kanahele)
It wasn’t until a 1973 Hawaiian Music Foundation falsetto concert that the Hawaiian falsetto was coined – Leo Kiʻe Kiʻe (high-pitched voice.)
“As for the word haʻi, Hawaiian speakers and owners of the Kawena Pukui dictionary alike know that the word translates as ‘break,’ and in this context refers to the technique of emphasizing the transition between a singer’s lower and upper vocal registers.” (Kanahele)
Likewise, many male Hawaiian falsetto singers insist that the aim of falsetto is not to imitate women’s voices. Likewise, the issue of whether women can accurately be described as “Hawaiian falsetto singers” has been complicated by the unfortunate use of the word haʻi as a gender-specific term for women who sing in a style that would otherwise be described as “female falsetto singing.”
“The modern Hawaiian term for Hawaiian falsetto singing by members of either sex is leo kiʻe kiʻe (it was previously known as leowahine (female voice.)) … Hawaiian female falsetto singers were falsetto singers, not ‘haʻi singers.’” (Kanahele)
The relevant translation relates to a style in which singers voice a break when moving between their lower register (“chest voice”) and upper register (“head voice.”)
Hawaiian falsetto singers use this technique to emphasize or add emotional intensity to a phrase or passage, whereas traditional European-American falsetto singers try to eliminate any hint of it.