The Kahiko Instrumentation

Anthropology: Hawaiian Ethnography and Presentational Music Culture


Women dancing hula in Hawaii on beach


Since the arrival of the Europeans in the 19th century, ancient forms of chanting and instrumental accompaniment have played a large role in creating awareness and appreciation of customary Hawaiian music. In Music as Social Life, Turino defines culture as “the habits of thought and practice that are shared among individuals” (Turino 2008:95). His definition of culture promotes an understanding of Hawaiian musical traditions among natives and non-natives in Hawaii and internationally. Hawaiian music can be characterized as presentational, with “artist-audience separation within face-to-face situations” (2008:52). In the 19th century, the Europeans introduced Western music and instruments to Hawaii and by the 1970s, in an era described as the “Hawaiian Renaissance,” new musicians emerged and began to shun the older traditions and favor more guitar instrumentation (Kaeppler and Love 922). With the increasing role of tourism and commercialization in the past decade, more Hawaiians have wanted to understand their past and become more connected to their culture, and they do this through music-related performances and activities, such as the Merrie Monarch Festival, playing in bands and singing and dancing at school. Now, Hawaiian music consists from ancient and traditional music to reggae, jazz, pop, and rap. Despite the wide variety of Hawaiian music performed today, the use of ancient and traditional forms of music and dance continues to shape Hawaiian musical performances in festivals, bands, schools and global dance groups, increasing the awareness and promoting an appreciation toward Hawaiian culture to natives and non-natives.

The methods that I used to write this ethnography in 2015 included conducting two interviews, watching videos and reading a variety of sources from the library. My two interviews were with Hawaiian students at Lawrence University, Max and Annie. To protect their identity, I made pseudonyms for their names. Max has a large musical performance background with the ‘ukulele, piano, and drums and plays with two separate bands, which was helpful in understanding different kinds of Hawaiian performances. Annie has played a little bit of ‘ukulele but spent most of her time in school performing hula. I also watched a video, Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka ‘Ukulele and used library books and articles from JSTOR that helped to further my understanding of Hawaiian identity and music and their relationship.

Women Dancing at the Merrie Monarch Festival 2019 Hula
Credit:, Merrie Monarch Hula Festival (2019)

The Merrie Monarch Festival

Since the 20th century, large and prestigious hula events in Hawaii, such as the Merrie Monarch Festival, include participation of different groups from all over the world, offering opportunities for those who have no connection to Hawaiian culture to participate or watch a variety of performances (Stillman 1999:57). Both Max and Annie spoke highly of this festival because they felt it promoted Hawaiian culture not only through the music and dancing, but through the quality of the performances and demonstrations. The Merrie Monarch Festival, featured on “national television,” honors King Kalakaua, who is known for restoring ancient Hawaiian traditions, such as hula dancing and chanting (Annie interview, 1/30/2015). Annie told me that, “people come from all over to see this festival” or keep track of it online (Annie interview, 1/30/2015). The audience members always include a diverse range of ages and ethnicities. The performers are from the United States as well as international performers and students from halau hula schools, where ancient hula is taught.

Hula dancing in Hawaii

Ancient Hula vs. Modern Hula 

The festival includes both ancient hula, hula kahiko, and modern hula, hula ‘auna melodies, which differ in their “subject matter, poetic format and resulting choreographic structure” (Stillman 1996:8). Hula khaki is said to be very spiritual and rhythmic with chanting, while auna is fast paced and upbeat, and incorporates instrumental accompaniment and dancing (Annie interview, 1/30/2015). The purpose of hula was to maintain a relationship with the gods through dancing and chanting, which allowed people to celebrate, honor, and unify their race. As a result of modernization, auna has become more flashy and modernized and the lyrics no longer contain as many stories about old Hawaii and put more of a focus on flowers, lovers and waterfalls. Traditionally, Hawaiians feel that they can stay connected to their culture and communities through hula chanting and accompaniment. Turino shows that if everyone in a social group participates and practices an activity as a normal part of valued social occasions, this activity will produce a high level of competence and offer new knowledge and develop an identity (2008:98). Ethnomusicologist Adrienne Kaeppler writes, “Hula has played an important role as the visual manifestation of ethnic identity at festivals and competitions” (2010:194). Throughout the festival, performers are judged by their expressions, song, chanting, footwork, and movement. Instrumental accompaniment consists of ancient instruments such as the ‘uli uli,” which is a feather gourd rattle and the pahu drum along with more traditional ones such as the ‘ukulele and slack and steel guitar. The Merrie Monarch Festival promotes Hawaiian culture by allowing dancers and musicians to strive for high quality hula and instrumental performance as well as teach the audience how to appreciate Hawaiian culture.

In high school, although Annie was not involved in any instrumental classes, she participated in traditional hula dancing, such as mele hula, a rhythmic hula chant with a broad tonal range that can be accompanied by dance and instruments. In the 19th century, Europeans discouraged Hawaiian forms of music such as hula dancing and chanting, because they considered it “vulgar,” and many natives stopped hula practices when they converted to Christianity. Christian missionaries, who arrived from Europe, had a sturdy presence in Hawaii and tried to get all natives to convert to Christianity. But some continued to practice hula chanting in secret and maintained the traditions, and without their archives and memories, some believe that hula may have completely disappeared. Since the 1980s, modern chanters are more flexible and consist of different melodic variations, but still maintain notions of past melodies (Stillman 1996:11). Contemporary or modern hula dance is now associated “with old chants and songs influenced from west and 20th century melodic ideas” (Kaeppler 2010:189). In school, Annie participated as a hula princess for one year. One of her more memorable moments of dancing hula was performing the class song at Punahou High School. As they danced, Annie told me, that it was a very magical and moving moment, which allowed them to connect with their country and ancestors. They performed a sunrise chant to greet the sun, which exemplifies their dancing as not just a performance, but as a strong connection and love for their land. Hula honors the Hawaiian race through chanting and movement, creating a beauty that cannot be described in words. Performing a mix of traditional and modern Hawaiian music and dance at school not only helps students to become engaged with the arts, but to understand what their ancestors went through under colonization and to promote ancient traditions that were prohibited or stagnated by the Europeans.

The Merrie Monarch Festival 2021- Women Dancing

Globalizing Hula

All over the world, in places such as Japan and Indiana, non-native Hawaiians perform and appreciate ancient and traditional Hawaiian culture through dancing and music making in festivals and classes taught by native Hawaiians. In 1997, Merrie Monarch officials organized a hula festival in Japan, with Hawaiian judges and workshops. Japanese teachers wanted to teach older traditional instruments to Japanese students, which included drums, rattles, no guitars or ukulele for this festival. In “Globalizing Hula,” Stillman reveals that hula has helped Hawaiian instructors to “travel and supplement their incomes as well as make sure that hula is practiced and maintained accurately rather than inaccurately”(1999:63). In Indianapolis, a workshop was taught by well-known teachers from Hawaii, who aimed to teach four entire auna and mele hula dances. Participants were given sheets with song lyrics and translations, all in the native Hawaiian language (1999:63). These Hawaiian workshops were videotaped and many participants purchased copies so they could continue to practice at home. On the contrary, teachers of these hula classes in both Japan and Indianapolis have reported non-natives do not understand the traditions and are just doing the movement for the sake of dancing or playing an instrument. But students are still learning the traditions by learning the movements, traditional chants, and instruments at a sufficient level to perform correctly. Annie told me that,  “it’s not about performing or even doing the movement, it’s what you give back to Hawaii, which is a very honest place” (Annie interview, 1/30/2015). By imitating dance movements, Turino would say that non-native students develop new social habits, allowing room for individual uniqueness and identity to be expressed (2008:121). Although Hawaiian dance classes outside of Hawaii may not be taken as seriously or understood by non-natives, music and dance has become international and comprehended as a form of art and performance activity representative of Hawaiian culture.

The Kahiko Instrumentation being played at the Merrie Monarch Festival
Credit: Maui 24/7,

Instrumentation and Musical Expression

Hawaiian musicians express themselves and represent their land while performing and using a mix of traditional and non-traditional instruments and tunes. Max has played with two bands, one being a four-person musical group with a ‘ukuelele, guitar, upright bass and a piano. (Max interview, 2/8/2015). The band performs traditional music that dates as far back to the 1880s all the way up to the present. They play songs that their families grew up hearing based on “Hawaii’s history, love and life from the voices of Hawaiians living on the islands over the past several generations” (Max interview, 1/31/2015).  Max believes that the beauty of Hawaiian music is “in the language and the deeper meaning, and the language is what makes the music unique” (interview). He also played with a five-piece more modern reggae band consisting of a ‘ukulele, electric bass, keyboards, percussion and drum set with three of the five instrumentalists” on vocals (interview. While his band performs strictly traditional music and his other band plays more modern, both promote an internalization of Hawaiian culture through their performances. Max’s bands reflect how native Hawaiians identify themselves through musical style, sounds that “represent how they felt and who they felt they were inside” (Turino 2008:93).  In both of his bands, audience members have ranged in ethnicity and age, but have appeared to share an interest and love for music, whether or not they understood the Hawaiian traditional tunes and instruments. Max expressed that people are able to “internalize the culture” by participating and engaging in performances, because “culture and music, they go hand and hand” (Max interview, 1/31/2015).

Some schools in Hawaii teach and perform hula dancing, chanting, singing and instruments as part of their curriculum, revealing how the education system wants their students to have a relationship and a true connection with their history. Turino shows that “school music programs tend to be geared toward presentational performances” (2008:98). Max attended one of the Kamehameha Schools, one of the few private schools reserved for students of Native Hawaiian ancestry. Hawaiian music is introduced to students starting in elementary school with activities that consist of “learning different songs,” which continues through middle school. By high school, participation in performance-based arts are through hula groups, called “Hula Haulau” choir, and the Hawaiian ensemble, the “Pauahiokalani Hawaiian Ensemble,” which Max was part of (Max interview, 2/8/2015). The hula groups are taught both traditional and modern hula, and the “choir groups have Western music and Hawaiian chorale repertoire, which was strongly influenced by Western music, particularly from chorale-style Church hymns brought over by Christian missionaries (Max interview, 2/8/2015). In the Hawaiian ensemble, students plan performances and are given songbooks containing lyrics to Hawaiian songs that they select to build a repertoire of music to perform along with the student dancers. He told me the music program is “self driven and advanced,” but teachers and students advise those who need experience in order to play and sing accurately ” (Max interview, 1/31/2015).

Max told me that Hawaiian high schools also typically teach their students how to play traditional instruments, such as the ‘ukulele. The ‘ukulele, a small guitar with four strings, represents the Hawaiian’s acceptance of foreign cultures. In 1878, the Portuguese brought the ‘ukulele to Hawaii and the Hawaiian nobility took to the ‘ukulele right away. By the 1900s, the ‘ukulele accompanied hula songs and dances. In high school, Max played a lot of contemporary music such as reggae, and became known as the guy that brought the ‘ukulele to school every single day. He said that the ‘ukulele “became a vessel to continue to express myself and represent my culture, while some people still have a hard time with that back at home” (Max interview, 1/31/2015).  Not only does Max’s school encourage music and dance classes with lessons geared toward specialized abilities, but they fund these activities to reinforce musical achievement and develop the self and identity (Turino 2008:99).

Ukelele instruments used in Hawaii
Credit: Take Lessons Blog

Significance in Ethnomusicology and Anthropology

As long as Hawaiian people continue to preserve music and maintain it generation by generation, it will never fade away. Both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian musicians, dancers and audience members connect and engage with one another through performances and classes, increasing a sense of identity, “intimacy and scale” (Turino 2008:60). The rate at which Hawaiian music continues to accommodate more Western music but at the same time bring back old traditions is a positive aspect of globalization and this is happening in many countries around the world, such as in Bali, Tonga, and Zimbabwe. Max told me that while he plays Hawaiian music, “my music lets my culture live on” (Max interview, 1/31/2015).

Hawaii should not be characterized as a paradise with hula dancers and tropical palm trees, but understood as a warm culture filled with different backgrounds of people who are raised to be respectful to their elders and love their families and friends. Although some believe that Hawaii is losing its identity through tourism, consumption and exports, Max and Annie both believe that it is important to not forget one’s background or identity, because the Hawaiian culture is held strongly by local natives. Music is so crucial to understanding Hawaiian identity and culture, because the legends and history are contained in the chants and songs. By performing a mix of traditional and modern music and dance, Hawaiians reaffirm themselves and their culture even in the presence of expected change.

Hawaii islands and Ocean


Adrienne L. Kaeppler. “The Beholder’s Share: Viewing Music and Dance in a Globalized World (Charles Seeger Lecture Presented at the 51st Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, 2006, Honolulu).” Ethnomusicology 54, no. 2 (2010): 185-201. Accessed May 10, 2021. doi:10.5406/ethnomusicology.54.2.0185.

Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman. “Globalizing Hula.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 31 (1999): 57-66. Accessed May 9, 2021. doi:10.2307/767973.

Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 9: Australia and the Pacific Islands / Ed. by Adrienne L. Kaeppler and J.W. Love. Place of publication not identified: Taylor & Francis Group. Routledge, 1998.

Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as social life: the politics of participation.

Annie (University student) in discussion with author, Jan 2015

Max (University student) in discussion with the author, Jan 2015


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