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volume 3
november 2000

The politics of meaning

Index of the journal Tracking  

  Emergent ideology in popular Hawaiian music
by George H. Lewis Winter, 1988
  University of the Pacific

Since the music of any society or group is symbolic and — as such — should contribute in a large part to the dominant and alternative ideologies of the society or group in question, particular forms of music can be analyzed as ideologies. Applying Raymond Williams' approach of ideologies as residual, emergent and oppositional, George H. Lewis here interprets the emergence of new Hawaiian popular music in the 1970s and 1980s in the context of the tourist market.

1 Music as symbolic action. Music, perhaps more than most other forms of popular culture, is difficult to approach from a sociological perspective of symbolic action. Not only is the symbolic structure of music complex, consisting as it does of lyrics, musical notation, emotive meaning in performance, instrumentation, style, and so on, a proper analysis of that complex structure forces one into tracing a multiplicity of referential connections between it and the social reality in which it is embedded. Yet, as difficult as such study appears to be, it is also crucial. Music, as symbolic communication, is critical in linking the values and ideologies of groups and cultures to social action. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz has remarked of symbol systems such as music, "they are extrinsic sources of information in terms of which human life can be patterned — extrapersonal mechanisms for the perception, understanding, judgement, and manipulation of the world" (Geertz, 1973: 216).
  In other words, the social reality specific to any group or society is collectively constructed by the people of that group or society through mediation by words, music and other symbols of the experiences those people have undergone (Berger and Luckman, 1966; Shepherd, 1979). As Raymond Williams has pointed out, such a study of the symbols of culture and their meanings seeks, "by studying their modes of change to discover certain general causes or `trends' by which social and cultural developments as a whole can be better understood" (Williams, 1965:47).
  In addition to the dominant ideology of any society which is constructed and supported by the cultural symbols produced within it, there can evolve various alternative ideologies, usually based in some subordinate grouping that is critical of the established order (Hall and Jefferson, 1976; Hebdige, 1979; Brake, 1985). Williams has made a useful distinction between the dominant ideology and various possible co-existing alternatives. Such alternative ideologies, created and supported by their own cultural symbols, may be either residual (formed in the past, but still remembered and, to some extent, still a part of the cultural process), or emergent (the expression of new groups outside the dominant group). They may also be either oppositional (challenging the dominant ideology), or alternative (co-existing with it) (Williams, 1977).
  Since the music of any society or group is symbolic, and since it undeniably forms an aspect of reality for societal or group members, it is an integral aspect of that group or society's social construction of reality and — as such — should contribute in a large part to the dominant and alternative ideologies of the society or group in question (Frith, 1981). It is clear, for example, that the music of social and political protest of artists like Bob Dylan and John Lennon was tremendously significant in defining and communicating emergent and oppositional ideologies and in formulating the structures of what were called, for lack of better terms, the youth countercultures of the 1960s and early 1970s in America.
  As Denisoff (1983) and Cuthbert (1985) have pointed out in their studies of the role of music in social protest movements, if one examines just the lyrics of protest songs associated with social movements, one can find many examples of diagnoses of what is wrong with the present order of things, proposed solutions to these wrongs, and rationales for participation in the movement — all key elements in the definition of an oppositional ideology. In addition to the development of ideology through the content of lyrics, a second important function of music is in the development of social solidarity among group members and potential members (Cashmore, 1979). Music appeals to, and reinforces, common values and social identities among potential and active group members. The fact that making music is not often taken seriously as a political activity often gives musicians and singers involved in creating oppositional ideologies more license to reach a broad range of audiences than would be possible for other types of political activists.
  In addition, there are symbolic aspects of music that help to both define ideology and develop solidarity that are not contained strictly in the lyrics of the songs themselves. For example, the musical forms chosen by protest musicians often times involve elements drawn from the "traditional" music of the oppressed group. These residual elements, to use Williams' terminology, usually involve the use of traditional melodies, transformed by the use of new lyrics, but which are recognized by most participants as deriving from "the people's" music (Dunaway, 1987). Also, familiar forms of music structure may be used, such as rhythm patterns or traditional dance forms, as well as the special use of traditional instruments that are a part of the specific cultural heritage of a group, to symbolically define the music as that of the people. Finally, the style and emotional level of presentation of the music, the body language of the performers, and the styles of dress they choose — usually in opposition to the established way of presenting popular music in the larger society — all serve to identify these players and their performances as symbolic of the group.
  In considering the presentation and performance of music, one has to also take note of its ritual nature and the effect of this ritual in creating feelings of identification and solidarity in the audience. Once an individual has been brought into the sphere of a group's activities, the use of music in gatherings can, unquestionably, reinforce the feelings of communal belonging and social solidarity. Such social rituals, when they are effective, help to emotionally charge the interests members of these groups hold in common, elevating them to moral rights and surrounding them with a sort of symbolic "halo of righteousness." This function of emotionally charging the interests of group members is, as Collins has suggested, more effectively done via music, a non-rational medium, than it is via speeches, pamphlets, or other rational, language-based means. Musical events can and do provide the sorts of emotional, euphoric, vitalizing, and integrative experiences the more rationalistic appeals can not (Collins, 1982: 28).
2 Music, ideology and the Hawaiian renaissance. This sort of ideology building and reality constructing and re-constructing, so effectively done by popular music in a society, can be clearly seen in the case of the significant shifts and changes in Hawaiian popular music that have taken place in this century — and most especially the radical changes in the symbolic nature of this music that have occurred in the past decade and a half.
  On March 22, 1977, Dr. George Kanahele, founder of the Hawaiian Music Foundation, addressed the Rotary Club of Honolulu on the subject of the resurgence of interest in Hawaiian music and culture that had been building around the state since the beginning of that decade. "Some have called it a `psychological renewal,' a purging of feelings of alienation and inferiority. For others it is a reassertion of self-dignity and self- importance ...What is happening among Hawaiians today is probably the most significant chapter in their modern history since the overthrow of the monarchy and loss of nationhood in 1893. For, concomitant with this cultural rebirth, is a new political awareness which is gradually being transformed into an articulate, organized but unmonolithic, movement" (Kanahele, 1977: 1). This speech, published in full by the Honolulu Advertiser, has since been quoted extensively by local politicians, social activists, and those involved in defining the music, arts and culture of Hawaii. Kanahele entitled his speech, "Hawaiian Renaissance," thus giving a name to this fast coalescing value-oriented social and cultural movement.
  This cultural flowering is tied most strongly to developments in the field of Hawaiian music in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Up until this time, Hawaiian songs of the twentieth century was, in the main, commercial music heavily influenced and produced by the middle-of-the-road American recording industry. As such, it reflected the dominant ideology of mainland American culture, while trivializing and ridiculing the Hawaiian identity.
  This commercialization of Hawaiian culture began most likely with American interest in the Hawaiian Islands engendered by the Spanish-American War and the imperialistic phase of the country, so evident at the turn of the century. By 1915, when a group of Hawaiian musicians, singers, and dancers — featuring George E. K. Awai's Royal Hawaiian Quartet — were headline acts at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, a musical craze was born that was to sweep the United States and, later, Western Europe as well (Awai, 1977: 5). The early Hawaiian musicians — Awai, Frank Ferara, Pali Lua and the Bird of Paradise Trio, and Sol Hoopii, who played background music for many Paramount movies — inspired mainland music composers, the Tin Pan Alley people, to begin writing this sort of material for mass consumption.
  The results was a series of "phony" Hawaiian songs, many with nonsense lyrics like those of the Al Jolson hit, "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula," or ones demeaning to the Hawaiian, such as Harry Owens' "Princess Poo-Poo-ly Has Plenty Papaya." Hawaiian musicians themselves, who came to the mainland to tour in vaudeville and theater, gradually incorporated these much-requested songs into their repertoires — as well as rearranging Hawaiian classics to the newly popular jazz beat that was sweeping America (Noble, 1943; Hopkins, 1980).
  As the first tourist hotels opened on Waikiki, this commercial "Hawaiian" music was the natural sound for the stage shows and dance bands that sprang up with the tourist industry. Ragtime, jazz, blues, foxtrot — all were used in creating songs with Hawaiian themes, but with English lyrics. These hapa haole songs, played live in Waikiki and across America by touring bands, were also broadcast throughout the world on the famous radio program, "Hawaii Calls," as well as being featured in films such as Bing Crosby's 1937 Waikiki Wedding, from with the hapa haole song "Sweet Lailani" won the Oscar for best song (Todaro, 1974).
  This music, much of it commercially produced by non-Hawaiians, came to be defined as authentic Hawaiian music and was mistakenly assumed to represent and reflect the cultural identity of the people. This was true, sadly, even among Hawaiians themselves, many of whom took on the "false culture" and the impact of its negative images of Hawaiians as a part of their heritage. From 1930 and on into the 1960s this "Hawaiian sound," much of it created in Tin Pan Alley, flourished commercially both on the American mainland (especially in the 1930s and 1940s) and in the lounges and supper clubs of Waikiki.
  By the late 1960s, fueled to some extent by the efforts of mainland American cultural minorities to assert their own identities, dissatisfaction with this slick and symbolically empty commercial music and dance of Hawaii fused with social and political concerns revolving around cultural and personal identity to create the beginnings of a social movement in Hawaii (Lewis, 1986). This movement was spearheaded by a new form of Hawaiian music that was, at the same time, emergent in its ideological implications, residual in its ties to traditional forms, and oppositional in its challenges to the political, social and cultural assumptions of the dominant mainland-created ideology.
3 The new Hawaiian music. The new music of Hawaii has much in common with the music of many emergent movements, performing ideological, motivational, and integrative functions for those who perform and listen to it. It is nationalistic and celebrates the traditions of native Hawaiians in opposition to the cultural domination of the mainland United States and the entertainment needs of the booming tourist industry.
  Groups formed in the 1970s refused to continue the tradition of "cute" names of the past, like the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders or the Waikiki Beachboys — names that conjured up images of happy-go-lucky brown lackeys of the Hawaiian films and nightclubs. Instead, they named themselves after Hawaii, the land; The Sunday Manoa, Hui Ohana, the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau.
  This concern with the land is a theme strongly reflected in the lyrics of the new songs (such as "E Kuu Morning Dew" and "Nanakuli Blues") which celebrate the beauty of various island places and lament their destruction by contemporary off-island concerns, or the fact that the land — once Hawaiian - - is now owned by foreigners who refuse to treat it with the care and reverence it demands. As the late George Helm, musician and political activist, said in a description of these songs, "Hawaiian views on nature are the subject of many songs and contain a true respect for nature. Many of the songs now openly express, if one understands the words, the language — pain, revolution; it's expressing the emotional reaction the Hawaiians are feeling to the subversion of their lifestyle" (Helm, 1976: 3).
  Songs have also been written and sung in support of political demonstrations since early 1970, when protesters sought to prevent the Bishop Estate from evicting a pig farmer from their lands in Oahu's Kalama Valley. These crusades against actions of the large landowners and real estate developers gained momentum through the 1970s and into the 1980s. As Olomana's Jerry Santos put it, "Kawela Bay and Turtle Bay have been rezoned for resort areas, and the people who lived there for 20 years have had to move out because their leases were traded suddenly to an insurance company on the mainland. And nobody even knew about it ... But if you sing a song about it, all kinds of people will know ..." (Olomana, 1978:47).
  Another, related, topic addressed in the lyrics of the new music is hostility towards tourists and criticism of their impact on Hawaii in terms of land use, real estate development, and bastardization and co-optation of traditional Hawaiian culture. Walter Ritte articulated this feeling in a 1982 interview: "I hate tourists. Oh, I don't hate the tourist person — I hate the industry. We have no control over that industry. It's like a giant malignant cancer and it's eating up all our beaches, all the places that are profound for our culture. It's grabbing them. They take the best" (Ritte, 1982: 68).
  Songs like "Hawaii '78" can be quite blunt in their condemnation of tourism, or they can be very subtle, focusing on the daily lives of people in some romantic past time before the influx of tourism, making their points in the traditional Hawaiian style of Kaona, or hidden meaning. "Hawaiian music reflects attitudes toward life and nature. These are basically clean protests and not harsh, but with a deep hidden meaning, which Anglo-Saxon reasoning cannot appreciate," the late George Helm explained (Helm, 1976: 3). As with much effective cultural protest against a powerful dominant ideology, the true meaning is cloaked and hidden — and thus overlooked by the dominant group — while it spreads.
  Many of these songs are written and sung in Hawaiian. This is of special import because — even with the increased study of the language evident in the 1970s and 1980s — many Hawaiians do not understand it. Thus, they rely on translations given orally by performers during their live shows, or, in some cases, appearing as liner notes on their record albums. Because of this, many songs are more likely to be recognized by their melodies than their titles, and the fact they are sung in Hawaiian takes on the larger and more general symbolic significance of a protest against the destruction of the language and its replacement with English. In this way, the very act of singing or listening to songs sung in Hawaiian becomes an act of social protest against the dominant ideology at the same time as it is also an emergent affirmation of cultural identity.
  Many of these songs use residual musical forms that are associated with native tradition — from the chants of early Hawaii to the song stylings of the slack key guitarists. Many also will use some lyrics from the older songs, brought into the cultural repertoire of the new composers by artists such as the late Gabby Pahinui or Genoa Keawe, with only parts of the lyrics changed to "update" the songs for their new purpose. Thus, the new songs are located in a well-established tradition of the people's music, which enhances their appeal to a wide range of listeners and provides a basis for identification — a fusing of emergent and residual ideologies, united in opposition to a dominant form.
  The instrumentation of the new songs is also an important characteristic of their appeal. Many of the most popular performers, such as the Beamer Brothers or Hokule'a, use indigenous folk instruments in their arrangements — instruments that had not been a part of popular music until their introduction in the 1970s. The slack key guitar regained its central place in the music of the 1970s, but along with it came strings like the tiple and the requinta and percussion like the ipu (gourd drum), 'ili 'ili (stone castanets), pahu (a sharkskin drum), and an 'ulili (triple gourd rattle). The music played on these instruments is more polished than traditional rural songs and chants, and many of them are played in ways that would never have occurred in traditional settings. Nevertheless, the use of these instruments has emphasized nationalistic pride in the traditions of the people and is aimed at establishing an identification with those traditions and people. Also, the use of such instruments is a self conscious act in opposition to the forms of instrumentation found in mainland "pop" music or the tourist lounges of Waikiki. Thus, the selection of instruments is also a political statement about the need to respect Hawaiian tradition and to oppose mainland domination and cultural co-optation by the tourist industry.
  Many of these musical groups will perform with hula dancers as interpreters of the music into the symbolic form of the dance or, in other cases, as a traditional musical accompaniment for the dance, thus tying the two cultural forms together as symbolic expressions of new ethnic pride and identity. Finally, mention should be made of the general style of presentation of the singers, groups and dancers; itself a potent form of symbolic communication (Lurie, 1981). In dress, they often wear the simple clothing of the Hawaiian working class or the traditional clothes and leis of the Hawaiian past — as opposed to the flashy suits and uniforms of many Waikiki performers.
4 Tourism and the business of music. Having traced very briefly the parameters of the new Hawaiian music, it should be quickly added that there is still plenty of the old, tourist-oriented material being performed and played in Hawaii — sometimes even by the very musicians whose hearts are with the new movement (Lewis, 1985). Quite simply, there is a demand for the music of the dominant ideological style. Tourists expect it in the Waikiki shows and will pay dearly to hear it. It has become a part of a tourist consciousness — a construction of reality that is believed to be "authentic" by those visiting the state. And, ironically, this demand may have been important for the new music in ways that go beyond perpetuating a dominant ideology which it was created to oppose.
  In addition, the tourist industry has, over they years, been an important factor in inducing the social and economic conditions necessary for the development of the new music. As George Kanahele of the Hawaiian Music Foundation has said, albeit naively, "Tourism has been good to Hawaiian music. It has created a vast new market; it has helped to discover and encourage new talent; it has inspired new songs and new styles of playing; and, above all, it has provided jobs to Hawaiian musicians. In a sense, the tourist industry is the grand patron, although a very impersonal one, of Hawaiian music.
  "As such, by providing livelihood to musicians, it also enable them to become better artists, to develop new techniques, to research the past and revive old or lost songs and styles and so on" (Kanahele, 1975: 3-4). At the same time the industry has, of course, co-opted musicians, perpetuated the false consciousness of a dominant mainland ideology, and set itself up as the major musical form against which the new music reacts. Even Don Ho, long a staple figure in Waikiki lounges and the epitome in many peoples' minds of the sell-out tourist-oriented performer, has said of his music, "I don't like it. I do it because people pay me a lot of money to do it. I'd much rather be in a quiet place with my friends ... Just let me have a place to go where my friends — mainly local people — can come and enjoy freedom of expression ... I'm not free to express my style here ... But I will not argue the point because they pay me very well to do what they want me to do" (Ho, 1982: 53).
5 Conclusion. Viewed from a sociological perspective of social action, popular music can be seen as one important set of symbols that individuals utilize to construct and reinforce their social reality. Out of symbols, ideologies are built — both dominant ideologies of a society and others, possibly in opposition to the dominant ideologies.
  Using Raymond Williams' conception of such ideologies as residual, emergent and oppositional is instructive in analyzing and interpreting the emergence of new Hawaiian popular music in the 1970s and 1980s. This music — and the styles in which it is written, played and performed — are clearly oppositional in nature and have arisen as protest to both the dominant ideology of the mainland and the tourist industry, as found in the hapa haole music played in the supper clubs of Waikiki and as a serious protest against the political and social realities this dominant ideology supports — trivialization of the Hawaiian people, destruction of their land and their past, as well as the negatively perceived cultural and ecological impacts of mass tourism.
  In addition, the ideology of this music is characterized by both an emergent quality in the nature of the issues involved and a residual quality, in that it is consciously tied into the symbols and traditions of the Hawaiian past. Such a form, anchored as it is in both emergent and residual forms, has proven to be a force in combating the strong dominant mainland ideology that continues to be commercially viable in the Islands.
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  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 1, no. 2 (Winter, 1988)
  1997 © IASPM / USA