Vinyl LP, , Compact Disc (CD)
The steel guitar is, without doubt, the most transformative cultural export to come from the Hawaiian islands. Invented sometime in the late 1880s, its distinctive style of play was, so the most popular origin story goes, born from a happy accident. While toting around an old Spanish guitar, 16-year-old Joseph Kekuku spotted a railroad spike on the ground. Picking it up, he was, later that day, struck by the inspiration to run the spike across the strings, making the instrument sing in an unfamiliar way. Kekuku would continue to experiment with teasing novel sounds from his guitar with objects; first he used the back of a knife, then a steel comb, before finally fashioning a polished metal bar similar to the type still used today. The resulting technique—a resonant tone with shimmering vibrato—spread rapidly across the islands, becoming one of the most preferred instruments for accompanying traditional Hawaiian song. But the steel guitar wouldn’t stop there, going on to dig its roots deep into American popular music. The influence of the indigenous style on everything from Delta blues to country music would go underrepresented in our music histories for over a century, but documents like A Chant About the Beauty of the Moon at Night: Hawaiian Steel Guitar Masters 1913-1921 are valuable for setting the record straight.
Sourced from 78s pressed during a period when Hawaiian music was flooding the American mainland, the compilation tells the story of the steel guitar’s rise to prominence. While the musical landscape of the island was experiencing a renaissance, Hawaiians were simultaneously fighting for their home and their identity. White business owners were privatizing communal land and displacing the native people, paving the way for the United States to move in and overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. The Hawaiian language and several cultural practices were promptly banned, politicizing the mere act of performing familiar songs. Amid this mercurial climate, many Hawaiian musicians fled to the contiguous states, hoping their talents would afford them a better life. To say that their skills were appreciated is an understatement; Hawaiian music would transcend the boundaries of class and race, appearing everywhere from the backwoods of the American heartland to ritzy Hollywood nightclubs. (Kekuku himself resettled in the states, playing vaudeville theater shows across the country.) By the mid-1910s, Hawaiian steel guitar records had become enormously popular.
Listening to the sampling of music on Chant, the give-and-take between musicians from all walks of American life is clear. Ben Waiaiole’s undulating vocals on “Moanalua,” slipping between deeper registers and falsetto, are not unlike the distinctive “blue yodel” of country music royalty Jimmie Rodgers, who would employ Hawaiian steel guitarists on many of his records. Ben Hokea plays a straight blues number on “Annie Laurie,” using long slides to make his instrument wail out in lament. Suddenly, it makes a lot more sense why great bluesmen like Tampa Red and Son House called their style of play “the Hawaiian way,” and why Lead Belly kept Hawaiian steel guitar songs in his arsenal all the way up to his final sessions.
It’s said that history is written by the victors; more often than not, that translates to the people with the most colonial power. Indigenous voices tend to get written out of the narratives, which necessitates being open to the stories we don’t often hear. There’s a lot of work to be done before the Hawaiian people are given their due for helping to shape the common language of American music—but fortunately, if you take the time to listen, the music speaks for itself.