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Revisit: The Music of Hawaii



Between 2016 and 2019, the GRAMMY Museum celebrated the rich cultural heritage of Hawaiian music with a series of three exhibits:

Kī Hō’alu – Honoring the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Tradition (2016)

We Are Friends – A Lifetime Party of ‘70s Hawaiian Music (2017)

Music of Waikiki – Legendary Homes of Hawaiian Music (2019)

The opening of each exhibit coincided with Mele Mei in L.A., an event in the GRAMMY Museum’s Clive Davis Theater that featured performances by renowned Hawaiian artists and musicians. In Hawaii, Mele Mei (Music May) is a month-long celebration of music, hula and culture. Music and hula events are held at various hotels, venues, on the beach, and statewide. Watch these incredible Mele Mei in L.A. events on COLLECTION:live, the GRAMMY Museum’s official streaming service:


Click on the playlist below to listen along as you read and learn:

Kī Hō’alu – Honoring the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Tradition

Hawaiian slack key guitar (kī hō’alu ) is one of the world’s great acoustic guitar traditions. Kī Hō’alu, which literally means “loosen the key,” is the Hawaiian-language name for this unique fingerpicked style. The strings (or “keys”) are “slacked” to produce many different and unusual tunings. The unique sound of slack key comes from the resonance of the tunings and from techniques such as the “hammer-on” and “pull-off” that mimic the yodels and falsettos rooted in ancient chants and common in Hawaiian singing.

The origins of this singular approach to guitar began around 1832 when King Kamehameha III hired Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) to teach Hawaiians how to handle an over population of cattle. The vaqueros brought over guitars and, in the evenings, would play around the campfire. When the vaqueros returned to their homeland, some gave their guitars to the Hawaiian cowboys (paniolo). Hawaiians wove what they had learned of the Mexican and Spanish music into their traditional chants, songs and rhythms, and created a new form of music that was completely their own.

Philip “Gabby” Pahinui is widely acknowledged as the most influential slack key guitarist. Pahinui’s work influenced other leading slack key guitarists of the 1960s, including Raymond Kāne, Leland “Atta” Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, and Leonard Kwan. Together these artists created the modern style that is now known around the world as Hawaiian slack key guitar.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the artifacts that were featured in the exhibit:

Guitar (Martin), Cyril Pahinui, c.1970s
This 12-string Martin guitar was purchased by Cyril Pahinui in a San Francisco pawn shop and was often played by his father, Gabby Pahinui. Cyril chose the guitar by ear, as it has a unique sound that is perfect for C tunings. Cyril can be heard playing this guitar on nearly all of his recordings.

Outfit, Gabby Pahinui, c.1970s
Gabby Pahinui often hosted weekend jam sessions in his backyard in Waimanalo, on the island of O’ahu. Slack key musicians such as Leland “Atta” Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, and Peter Moon gathered at Pahinui’s home to play music with “The Master.” As Gabby’s fame grew, so did the crowds of musicians and fans in his backyard. This outfit was regularly worn by Gabby during those sessions.

Guitar (Guild), Dennis Kamakahi, c.1993
Dennis Kamakahi was a prolific songwriter and master of slack key guitar whose music helped propel a renaissance of traditional Hawaiian culture in the 1970s and 1980s. Kamakahi wrote more than 500 songs, including many that have become standards. Like so many slack key guitarists, Dennis Kamakahi learned the tradition from watching the kupuna (elders) playing the music around him, drawing inspiration from slack key masters Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth. In 1973 he was recruited to replace Pahinui in Sons of Hawai’i, one of the most influential bands in the history of Hawaiian music. While he performed with the Sons of Hawai’I throughout the 1970s and 80s, many of his original songs, such as “Wahine ‘Ilikea,” “Koke’e,” “Pua Hone,” and “Ka ‘Opae,” have become classics of the genre.

Outfit, Dennis Kamakahi, c.2000
While Dennis Kamakahi was well-known for his traditional Hawaiian music styling, the clothing he wore to performances was anything but traditional. He often made a fashion statement by wearing garments like this black hat adorned with pins and a feather, leather jacket with long fringe, colorfully embroidered shirt, ivory pendant, bright leis, and black nail polish.

Guitar (Washburn), Makana, c.1980s
Makana grew up on the shores of Waikiki and began learning the art of slack key guitar at the age of eleven, quickly earning a reputation as the youngest virtuoso of slack key. A protégé of legends Bobby Moderow, Jr., and the late master, Uncle Sonny Chillingworth, Makana has been featured on three GRAMMY-nominated albums, including the soundtrack to the film The Descendants.

We Are Friends – A Lifetime Party of ‘70s Hawaiian Music

The 1970s marked a time of cultural and political awakening for the people of Hawaii. Spurred by cultural and Native movements nationwide, Hawaiians sought a reconnection to the culture, language and way of life which had slowly been diminished by the influence of western missionaries and American colonialism. In many ways, the Hawaiian Renaissance was led by musicians, many of whom started to play older styles of Hawaiian music while merging traditional and modern instrumentation.

Speaking of Sunday Manoa’s groundbreaking 1969 album Guava Jam, Peter Moon said, “The Sunday Manoa breathes new life into the music of the past, enhancing the flavor of old with the influences of today. Guava Jam means that true Hawaiian music is definitely a local product, and is disciplined and rich with feeling as any other folk music.”

While many young musicians strategically sang in the Hawaiian language as a means of re-establishing its cultural importance, not everyone was speaking Hawaiian. Artists such as Cecilio & Kapono, Country Comfort, Olomana, Kalapana and the Beamer Brothers were writing radio-friendly, folk-inspired local music. Many of the songs addressed serious concerns of the day, but couched them in English-language form. From radio to live performances and festivals, Hawaiian music was everywhere. As Cecilio & Kapono put it in their song of the same name, a lifetime party was just beginning.

Let’s get to know some of the artists that were featured in the exhibit:

Cecilio & Kapono

Cecilio Rodriguez & Henry Kapono, together known as Cecilio & Kapono, have been one of Hawaii’s most popular music duos since their formation in the early 1970s. The three albums they recorded for Columbia Records between 1974 and 1977 showcase their uncanny harmonies and feel-good, folk/rock tunes. Well-known for popular hits including “Friends,” “Sunflower,” and “Sunshine Love,” they still get local Hawaii airplay more than 40 years after their emergence. Today, Cecilio & Kapono are successful solo artists occasionally reuniting for special concerts in Hawaii and around the world.

Country Comfort

Country Comfort helped change the direction of contemporary Hawaiian music.  Originally lead by singer/songwriter Billy Kaui, the group paved the way for acts such as Kalapana, Olomana, and the Beamer Brothers. The music and lyrics reflect a vision of life that was unique to the local population of Hawaii in the 1970s. Over the years, the legendary “Waimanalo Blues” has become an anthem for Hawaiian sovereignty.


In 1973 Jerry Santos and Robert Beaumont joined forces to introduce an exciting new sound to the Hawaiian music scene. Named for the beautiful windward O’ahu mountain, Olomana blends contemporary and traditional musical styles, along with distinctive vocal harmonies, to create a unique sound that is deeply rooted in the land, people and culture of Hawai’i.  Their 1978 recording “And So We Are” helped to focus a generation of Hawaiians on the concept of “aloha ‘aina” – love for the land.


Kalapana combined the pure, soulful voices of Malani Bilyeu and Mackey Feary with the versatility of musicians D.J. Pratt and Kirk Thompson. Their self-titled debut perfectly reflected island life in the 1970s, capturing the angst, intensity and playfulness of young men coming of age in the Islands.  They quickly became popular throughout the islands, opening concerts for Earth, Wind & Fire; the Moody Blues; Sly & the Family Stone; and Cecilio & Kapono.

Music of Waikīkī – Legendary Homes of Hawaiian Music

During the monarchy, Waikīkī was a retreat for Hawaiian royalty.  With the opening of world class hotels, the Moana (now Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort) in 1901, and the Royal Hawaiian (now The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort) in 1927, Waikīkī became a center of grandeur, attracted guests from around the world, and became Hawaii’s most popular destination for visitors.

Originally broadcast from the Moana Hotel, the radio program “Hawai‘i Calls,” which ran from 1935 to 1975, ushered in a new era of Hawaiian big band and hapa-haole music (mostly English lyric songs about Hawai‘i) in the resort town. The show is credited with making Hawaiian music and chants, as well as their performers, household names outside of Waikīkī.

Over the past 50 years, Waikīkī  has been Hawai‘i’s home for music.  Traditional Hawaiian music became prominent throughout Waikīkī, and as music evolved on the Mainland, the influences of folk, rock, pop, jazz, alternative, big band, and reggae could be heard.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the artists that were featured in the exhibit, and more information about the famous Waikīkī venues they share history with:

Gown, Melveen Leed, c.1970s-80s
Melveen Leed is Hawai‘i’s showstopper. She’s performed a mix of Hawaiian, pop, jazz, country, and world music in her long engagements at Waikīkī hotel’s top venues – Hilton Hawaiian Village, Ilikai, Sheraton Waikīkī, Moana Surfrider, Queen Kapiolani, Outrigger Reef Waikīkī Beach, and Ala Moana Hotel, as well as at the International Market Place. She is considered Waikīkīs all-time most glamourous musical artist.

Moana Surfrider

Waikīkī’s first hotel was home to the “Hawai‘i Calls” radio program and its Banyan Court featured Polynesian production shows, special events and concerts.  In recent years, the outdoor venue has hosted concerts that have featured headline recording artists Raiatea Helm, Makana, Amy Hanaialii, Jimmy Borges, Melveen Leed, Maunalua, Willie K, Ale‘a, Mana‘o Company, Kapena.

Ala Moana Hotel

From the late 1970s into the 1980s, Ala Moana Hotel was grand central for Hawaiian music.  Just outside of Waikīkī, it was the original home of the early Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards (1978-1981) and the celebration headquarters when the awards broadcast moved to the Blaisdell Concert Hall in 1982 and 1983. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the hotel showcased some of Hawai‘i’s biggest recording artists including Melveen Leed, the Brothers Cazimero, Palani Vaughan, Olomana, the Peter Moon Band, and Nohelani Cypriano.  Since then, the hotel has been the home for holiday celebrations with dinner concerts headlined by Loyal Garner, Jay Larrin, Frank DeLima, Makaha Sons, Ho‘okena, and Ben & Maila.

Outfit, Don Ho
Don Ho was Hawai‘i’s Ambassador of Aloha to the world. A favorite son of Hawai‘i, he brought people together with his charismatic personality, Hawaiian values, and music. Don Ho is Hawai‘i’s icon and a personification of the Aloha Spirit.

Hilton Hawaiian Village

Hawai‘i’s biggest hotel calls itself the “Home of Hawai‘i’s Music,” and has been home to more acts than any other.   Former venues include the Tapa Room, the Long House, the Garden Bar, the Dome, and Tropics Surf Club, which featured well-known artists like Melveen Leed, Liz Damon, Carole Kai, Charo, Don Ho, and many more. On the property are statues of the “Golden Voice of Hawai‘i,” Alfred Apaka, and treasured hula master, ‘Iolani Luahine; both of whom performed at the hotel. Today, the hotel’s venues are home to Waikīkī’s biggest names – Tapa Room with Olomana, and Tropics Bar with Henry Kapono and Nohelani Cypriano.

Waikīkī Beach Walk

Waikīkī Beach Walk is a high-energy complex of dining, shopping, and hotels, which host a series of performances, “Nā Mele No Nā Pua,” with artists like Kawika Kahiapo, Mark Yamanaka, Natalie Ai Kamauu, Blayne Asing, Ho‘okena, Del Beazley, Maunalua, and Mailani. In earlier years, the area included venues -in the Reef Towers, Edgewater, and Holiday Isle hotels – that showcased classic recording artists like Don Ho, Al Harrington, Hui Ohana, Brothers Cazimero, Karen Keawehawaii, Jay Larrin, Frank DeLima, Glenn Medeiros, Melveen Leed, Loyal Garner, and Marlene Sai.

Guitar, Makana
Makana, the Kī Hō’alu Kid, is an internationally acclaimed guitarist, singer, and composer widely known for applying his musical talent to issues involving social change. His guitar playing has been featured on three GRAMMY-nominated albums, including the soundtrack of the Academy Award-winning film, The Descendants. Besides his first gig at Duke’s Waikīkī, Makana has performed in curated productions at the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, and at the International Market Place.

International Market Place

The best-known venue in this expansive open-air shopping center was Duke Kahanamoku’s where Don Ho became Hawai‘i’s biggest star.  One of the newest features from the major renovation of International Market Place is a statue of the world-renowned star. Other recording artists who regularly performed at the pre-renovation complex were the Society of Seven, the Aliis, Iva Kinimaka, the Surfers, Makana, and Melveen Leed.

The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort

The hotel’s Monarch Room was Hawai‘i’s premier music showroom in the late 20th century with long engagements by recording artists like Marlene Sai, Keola and Kapono Beamer, Andy Bumatai, and the Brothers Cazimero, as well as New Zealand stars like John Rowles. The Monarch Room still hosts occasional performances (including a series with Makana, Cecilio & Kapono, and Maunalua) and is the in-demand room for Hawai‘i’s most prestigious charity galas.