Kaula Piko: The Source of Strings –
The Story Behind the Exhibit

By DeSoto Brown, Bishop Museum Historian and Exhibit Co-Curator

Bishop Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Kaula Piko: The Source of Strings, will tell the little-known story of the development of Hawaiian music from the 19th century and on, and how this genre of music become internationally popular and influenced American popular music.

Traditional Hawaiian music was mostly percussive, using instruments that were struck or shaken, which accompanied human voices. The only exceptions were the nose flute and the ʻūkēkē, or mouth harp. The latter uses plucked strings to produce sound, but was only intended to be used quietly and intimately, and was not played for crowds of people.

When Westerners began visiting the Hawaiian Islands in the early 1800s, stringed instruments like the guitar, violin and others were introduced and Hawaiians soon adopted these to use with the singing styles taught mainly by missionaries after they arrived in 1820, who wanted Hawaiians to participate in hymn-singing in Christian churches.

The Hawaiian Glee Club All-Star Band at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Back row, left to right: Jack Heleluhe, Dick Reuter, William McComber. Middle row: Tony Zablan, James Kulolia, July Paka, Charles Baker. Front row (seated): Mekia Kealakai, William Alohikea, David Nape. (Bishop Museum Archives)

Guitars were integral to Hawaiian music by the late 1800s when immigrants from Portugal developed the ʻukulele here. This instrument was also embraced by Hawaiians and incorporated into “hapa-haole” music, which was in the form of American popular song, but used a combination of English and Hawaiian lyrics. Also important in this era was the Royal Hawaiian Band, already a part of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi’s political and social life, which consisted of Native Hawaiian boys and men under the leadership of a German bandmaster, Henry Berger.

In the late 1880s came a significant invention in Hawaiian music: the steel guitar. Created by a boy named Joseph Kekuku, the distinctive and unmistakable sound of the smoothly rising tones of the steel guitar would capture the imaginations of millions of people in the years to come.

The political turmoil of Hawaiʻi in the 1890s, when the Kingdom was overthrown and Hawaiʻi was eventually made a Territory of the United States, was the backdrop for an extremely influential group of Hawaiian musicians and singers to perform in the United States and internationally. Some of these men and women achieved huge popularity in live performances on stages and even in traveling tent shows, along with radio broadcasts, Hollywood movies, and recordings. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, mainly children, signed up to take steel guitar lessons taught by franchised teachers.

The most long-lasting effect of Hawaiian music, which few know today, came through the electrified steel guitar. It replaced the acoustic steel guitar starting in the late 1920s. By the middle-1930s, the electric steel had established itself as a major part of the growing genre of country music — but even more importantly, it led to the creation of the electric guitar. This instrument was initially something of a novelty, but in the middle 1950s it suddenly exploded into prominence as the main sound of rock music. From then on, the electric guitar has remained the most well-known element of American popular music, heard all over the globe. And if not for the steel guitar, this would never have happened.

We look forward to inviting you to our upcoming exhibit, Kaula Piko: The Source of Strings, coming soon to Bishop Museum!

Photo: The Hawaiian Glee Club All-Star Band at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition; Buffalo, New York.  Image number SP 216219. Bishop Museum Archives. Image sharing on social media is welcome; for all other uses, please contact Archives@BishopMuseum.org.

2 Responses

  1. Very informative, DeSoto. I was unaware of the importance –and legacy–of the electric steel guitar in international “rock.” You state that the nose flute and ukeke were the only exceptions to percussion instruments in traditional Hawaiian music. Do you include the gourd or coconut whistles in the nose flute category? They were said to be used in a private, intimate setting between two individuals, not in public performance. Occasionally, their delightful, somewhat wistful, soft tones can be heard in recordings of contemporary Hawaiian music.
    This is a very well done, thoughtful introduction to an exhibit that I look forward to visiting.

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