The IASPM-US Commercial Music Graphic series is offered in tribute to the late Archie Green. Folklorist, labor historian, activist, and pioneering popular music scholar, Green wrote his “Commercial Music Graphic” column for the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Newsletter, a groundbreaking vehicle for scholarship on US vernacular music of the early twentieth century.
In the late 1880s and 1890s, Joseph Kekuku developed a new style and technology for playing the Spanish guitar by running a steel bar along a raised fretboard, producing a melodic, glissando effect. The fascinating history of the Hawaiian (steel) guitar, as his innovation came to be known, and the Native Hawaiian dissemination of the instrument throughout the globe reveals complex historical relationships between expressive culture, colonialism and Native resistance in the islands and beyond. At the same time, recognizing the ubiquity and influence of the instrument can upend contemporary understandings of America’s most significant musical genealogies. The Hawaiian guitar, a pivotal indigenous technology largely unrecognized or poorly understood by scholars, was crucial to the development of the blues, pop, and country genres.
I am currently writing a book titled Kika Kila: The Hawaiian Guitar and the Indigenization of American Music to be published by the University of North Carolina Press. Through the auspices of an NEH Summer Stipend, I spent part of this summer working in several archives on the island of Oahu, including the Bishop Museum Library and Archives, the Kamehameha Schools Archives, the Hawai’i State Archives, the Hawai’i State Library, the BYU-Hawai’i Archives, and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Library and Special Collections. Interviews with current and former entertainers, along with descendants of earlier guitarists, provided me access to additional private collections of materials. Here are a few of the photographs I collected during my research.
1) The Spanish guitar was likely introduced to the islands by Portuguese sailors or Latin American vaqueros in the mid-19th century. By the 1880s, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) men and women had adopted the instrument to accompany Hula Kui, a form of Hula popularized during the rule of King David Kalākaua. Many photographs exist from the 1880s and 1890s that demonstrate the vast extent of guitar culture within Kanaka Maoli island communities. Note the American flag blouses and skirts worn by these women. The photograph was taken presumably in the aftermath of the illegal U.S.-backed overthrow of the Kanaka Maoli government, perhaps staged by a photographer hoping to profit from the enterprise of colonial rule.
2) Kanaka Maoli musicians began travelling beyond the archipelago with increased frequency in the early 20th century. This photograph was taken at a train depot while a Hawaiian troupe was en route to perform at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. Note the guitars in the right hand side of the image. This troupe featured guitarist July Paka from Manoa Valley, Oahu. Within the next decade Paka would become one of the most significant steel guitarists to spread the new technology and style throughout the mainland.
3) The Vierra Brothers, from Hilo, Hawaii, travelled the U.S. mainland in various Hawaiian guitar ensembles, including this one, photographed in a Great Falls, Montana photography studio in 1912.
4) Guitar culture remained vital in the islands at the same time that the Hawaiian guitar spread to other parts of the globe. Steel guitars also became a sonic signifier of “Hawaiianness” as the islands were marketed as a tourist destination to mainlanders during the territorial era. Here, Emma Kaimana is playing steel guitar in an undated photo featuring the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club. An onlooker wields a camera in the background.
* All Photographs Courtesy of the Hawai’i State Archives
IASPM-US member John Troutman is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is the author of Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934.