Top of page

Article Hawaiian Song

Queen Liliu'okalani
Queen Lili'uokalani, Hawai'i's last monarch, was a prolific songwriter. Her most famous song, "Aloha oe," continues to be a favorite today. She also translated into English the Kumulipo chant, which tells the Hawaiian creation story and lineage of kings. Pictured here in about 1915

King Kamehameha I (1758-1819) unified the Hawaiian Islands in 1809. One of the King's goals was to abolish the "kapu system" of forbidden acts, a set of religious laws that restricted many aspects of life and government. Although the King continued to practice and support the traditional religion, this period of change paved the way for Christian conversion with the arrival of American protestant missionaries, mainly from New England, in 1820. A French Catholic mission was established in 1827. Sugar cane, brought to the islands by Captain Cook in 1778, began to become a commercial crop in the early 1800s. With increasing contact with Europeans and Americans, and with European governments and the United States seeing Hawai'i as a strategic port and source of sugar and other goods, the nineteenth century was a period of tremendous change for the Hawaiian people. [1]

An orphaned boy, Henry 'Ōpūkaha'ia, was taken to New England in 1807 and schooled there by missionaries. He developed a system for writing the Hawaiian language, as well as beginning a grammar book. He also translated the Book of Genesis into Hawaiian. He died in 1818 without returning to Hawai'i, but missionaries adopted his writing system to convert Hawaiians and bring literacy to the islands.

King Kamehameha III (1813-1854), the second of Kamehameha I's sons to rule the islands, took up literacy as a cause. He established the first high school in 1831 and encouraged all Hawaiians to learn to read. Newspapers were published in Hawaiian, government documents were put into writing, and, important to this discussion, Hawaiian songs and chants were written down for the first time. The advent of literacy among Hawaiians also affected the way they were governed. Kamehameha III began developing a parliament in the 1840s, with the chiefs forming a House of Nobles and a system of elections created to form representatives.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century most Hawaiians were literate. A great many of the traditional chants that carried information about Hawai'ian history, beliefs, and cultural values had been written down. The children of the Hawaiian royal family and chiefs were educated in a system paralleling European systems but emphasizing Hawaiian culture, with musical training as part of that curriculum. Among the compositions by members of the royal families were several national songs. In 1866, King Kamehameha V (1830-1872) asked the musically gifted daughter of a chief, Lili'uokalani (1838-1917), to write a national anthem. She composed the words and music of "He Mele Lāhui Hawai'i." Lili'uokalani, a prolific songwriter who combined Hawaiian and European musical forms in her melodies, was later to become queen, and so this song continues to be a favorite anthem. King David Kalākaua (1836-1891), Lili'uokalani's older brother who reigned from 1874 to 1891, wrote the lyrics for "Hawai'i Pono'ī" with music by his band master Captain Henri Berger. This song became the final national anthem of Hawai'i, and is the state song today. King Kalākaua also had the Kumulipo, the long chant that tells the Hawaiian story of the creation of the earth and the lineage of Hawaiian kings, published in a pamphlet so that it was more widely available to Hawaiians.

The late 1800s brought more immigration. Asian agriculturalists, principally from Japan, immigrated to Hawai'i to work in the sugar industry. King Kamehameha III had allowed foreigners to purchase land for the first time, and Europeans and Americans took advantage of this, with some forming large sugar plantations.

In the 1880s a movement to annex Hawai'i to the United States was organized among American business men and their sympathizers, forming a secret group called the Hawaiian League. Prominent among them was Lorrin Thurston, a businessman and the grandson of missionaries. Foreign business interests wished to have more control over the strategic port and valuable resources of sugar and sandalwood produced in the islands. These foreign interests did not trust King Kalākaua. In 1887 the Hawaiian League, backed by a paramilitary group called the Honolulu Rifle Company, forced the king to sign a new constitution that stripped him of much of his power. The new constitution based voting rights on literacy, wealth, and race. Many Hawaiians and all Asians were deprived of their former right to vote. Consequently, about a third of the vote was in the hands of Americans and Europeans. Because this constitution was signed under the threat of violence, this was called the "Bayonet Constitution."

After the death of King Kalākaua in 1891, his sister Lili'uokalani became queen. One of her first initiatives was to draft a new constitution that would restore voting rights to her people and return powers to the monarchy. This was seen as a threat by the Hawaiian League. In 1893 they formed a "Committee of Safety" to remove the queen. Lorrin Thurston called upon United States minister to Hawai'i, John Stevens, who had United States Marines at his disposal aboard the USS Boston. Stevens, who favored annexation, agreed not to support the monarchy. With assistance once again from the Honolulu Rifle Company, and by making the Hawaiian government believe that the U. S. Marines would support them, the Committee of Safety succeed in removing Queen Lili'uokalani from power. The Provisional Government of Hawaii was formed, made up of representatives of foreign businesses, mainly Americans. Initially the United States government under President Grover Cleveland repudiated those responsible for the coup.

Queen Lili'uokalani and members of her household were imprisoned by the Provisional Government in 1895. The queen was accused of having been involved in a failed attempt to restore the monarchy, of which she said she had no knowledge. She was forced to formally abdicate, tried, and found guilty. The queen was imprisoned in a room in 'Iolani Palace, where she remained for a year, during which time she was allowed only limited outside contact and no newspapers containing stories of government or politics. She was allowed pencils and paper, and among her writings at this time were several songs. "Ku'u Pua I Paoakalani" is one of the songs she wrote at this time. It is about flowers from her garden, regularly brought to her by a visitor, John Wilson, and is a song of hidden meaning. Wrapped in newspapers, the gift of flowers brought her news she had been forbidden. Also during her imprisonment, Queen Lili'uokalani translated the Kumulipo chant into English in order to make this Hawaiian creation story and history available to the English-speaking world. It was published in 1897. The queen was released in 1896, and spent the rest of her life fighting for the rectification of wrongs done to her country and herself.

After his election in 1897, President William McKinley was persuaded to accept a treaty of annexation. In 1898 Hawai'i became a territory of the United States.

The annexation of Hawai'i to the United States sparked enthusiasm for Hawaiian music in America. Hawaiians had participated in the Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, bringing attention to Hawaiian music. But with annexation came a fad for the Hawaiian music of the late nineteenth century that lasted well into the early twentieth century. Hawaiian compositions in European style had come with the educational goals of the young nation in the nineteenth century. An example is the soprano Nani Alapai performing "Pua Carnation," by Charles E. King, in 1904 with orchestra. King was born in Hawai'i and was one quarter Hawaiian. He was fluent in Hawaiian and English and studied music with Queen Lili'uokalani. He felt that Hawaiian music should be played slowly, and not "pepped up" with modern rhythms.

But, for the most part, it was the popular music that Charles King disliked that caught on in the twentieth century. Hawaiian groups toured the United States and made sound recordings for the first time. In 1911, the play Bird of Paradise premiered in Los Angeles, and opened on Broadway the following year. This drama of Hawaiian life featured original and traditional Hawaiian songs. It became a major hit, and the show's Hawaiian musicians recorded songs from the show under the name of the Hawaiian Quintette. Several of their recordings are available in this presentation.

The instruments used in most of the early recordings of Hawaiian groups reflected popular innovations in Hawaiian music of the late nineteenth century. The ukulele, a late nineteenth century Hawaiian version of the Portuguese four string guitar called the machete, brought to the Hawaiian islands by immigrants, had been popularized in Hawai'i by King Kalākaua's enjoyment of it. The steel slide guitar was a Hawaiian innovation of guitar playing using a metal or glass tube to slide along steel guitar strings with the instrument flat in the player's lap. The technique has been attributed to Joseph Kekuku and others, but was made popular in the mainland United States principally through performances and recordings by Frank Ferera, who was born in Hawai'i of Portguguese descent. Ferera's early recordings were mainly instrumental pieces of himself on the steel slide guitar and his wife, Helen Louise Ferera on ukulele. [2] This sound became what was known as Hawaiian music in the continental United States, though, of course, there were both traditional and orchestral forms of Hawaiian music that predated these instruments.

Musical groups made up of indigenous Hawaiians who performed songs at this time for recordings and concerts in the mainland United States also included these popular instruments. Although the musical style catered to popular tastes, some of the songs the Hawaiian groups chose to sing had deeper significance. For instance, groups frequently chose to record songs composed by members of the former royal family. These include the former Hawaiian national anthem, "Hawai'i Pono'ī," by King Kalākaua. A popular love song by King Kalakaua, "Akahi Ho'i" (For the first time), was recorded by the Toots Paka Hawaiian Troupe in 1914. Several artists recorded compositions of Queen Lili'uokalani (who was in her seventies at the time many of these recordings were made). Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian performers recorded "Aloha oe," one of the most popular of all Hawaiian songs, here sung by E.K. Rose in 1917. [3] This song came to be associated with the queen's imprisonment, although the queen actually published it in 1878. For non-Hawaiians, it is a romantic farewell song. For Hawaiians, it took on meanings having to do with the loss of their country and the queen's sorrow. Another much-loved song composed by the queen, "Ka Wiliwili Wai," performed by the Hawaiian Quintette in 1913, demonstrates her sense of humor, as it was written in response to her first encounter with a lawn sprinkler. She addresses the lawn sprinkler, asking if it will ever slow down and let her have a drink.

Groups also recorded popular Hawaiian songs of the early twentieth century, such as "Meleana e," a song Francis Samuel Ka`a`a wrote for his daughter, Meleana, performed by Irene West Royal Hawaiians in 1914. Traditional songs were arranged for the new musical instruments, such as the song for hula dance, "Mauna Kea," performed by the Hawaiian Quintette in 1913. Mauna Kea is a volcano and the highest point on the island of Hawai'i. The mountain is a sacred place in Hawaiian tradition and this is one of many songs about it.

New composers emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, such as David Nape (1870-1913). He lost his father at an early age and was sent to reform school during his problematic youth. Fortunately the school had a band, and Nape excelled at music. In 1883, Captain Henri Berger selected the fourteen-year-old Nape for the Royal Hawaiian Band (the national band). Nape's "Tomi Tomi," performed in this example by the Hawaiian Quintette in 1913, translated easily into the early twentieth century musical style.

Hawaiian language, because of contact with many cultures in the nineteenth century, developed a pidgin, that is, a language used for people of different cultures to communicate with each other. This pidgin included words in Hawaiian, Portuguese, English, Japanese, and Cantonese, among others. Rarely pidgins develop into creoles, languages that are used in the home and learned by children growing up. This happened with Hawaiian, and because of the growing English-speaking population, included more and more English words. Albert "Sonny" Cunha was a performer and songwriter who composed songs in this language mixture, a style that came to be called hapa haole music. Hapa haole might be translated as "part foreign," or as a Hawaiian word for creole. "Honolulu Tom Boy," composed by Sonny Cunha and performed by the Hawaiian Quintette in 1913, is an example of the hapa haole musical style that he popularized.

Because of the popularity of the Hawaiian steel slide guitar in the United States, and recordings made of several performers, this style of playing the guitar spread and became an important musical influence on many styles of music in the United States. African American blues artists recognized it as similar to the didley bow, a single stringed instrument used in the South, and adopted the slide guitar style into blues music. [4] It also had an important impact on bluegrass music. The dobro, a type of slide guitar, was developed and incorporated into bluegrass bands. Slide steel guitar was also adapted for Gospel music as the "sacred steel lap guitar." [5]

Another style of Hawaiian music, the slack key guitar, was probably developed at about the same time as the slide guitar, but did not begin to influence music of the mainland United States until the late 1940s when it became popular just as rock and roll was developing. This style uses a tuning of the guitar that loosens one or more strings. Both the slack key guitar style and the slide steel guitar were among the many styles of music that influenced rock and roll. Gary Haleamau and his Band demonstrated the slack key musical style at a concert at the Library of Congress in 2008.

Gary Haleamau and his group, who are from Nevada, also represent Hawaiian migration to the United States that may have begun as early as the late eighteenth century, but increased dramatically in the late twentieth century. In the early twentieth century Hawaiian communities developed in Western states, particularly Nevada and California, but in recent decades Hawaiians have moved to many other parts of the country. Migration to Hawai'i from the United States also increased during the twentieth century. With the population increasing and changing as a result of annexation, the government of Hawai'i began seeking fuller incorporation into the United States, and in 1926 the long campaign for statehood began. Hawai'i became the 50th state in 1959.

Another consequence of Hawai'i's loss of its monarchy was the sharp decline in the use of Hawaiian as a spoken language. As had happened to other indigenous peoples of the United States, an English-only policy was developed in the schools. This began as a policy of the Provisional Government of Hawaii in 1896, while annexation to the United States was being sought, and continued after annexation. Children suffered punishment in school for speaking Hawaiian and teachers encouraged parents to speak only English at home. Economic and social pressures made English important for success, further displacing Hawaiian. Prejudice against Hawaiians and the Hawaiian language by the English speaking population may also have played a role. By the time that Hawai'i became a state, most Hawaiians spoke only English or English and the Hawaiian English Creole. In response to the decline of spoken Hawaiian, it was established as a state language along with English in 1978. The state conducted studies to determine the extent of Hawaiian use at the time and sought methods of promoting bilingualism. A survey done in 1983 found that the native speakers of Hawaiian had dwindled to about 1,500 fluent speakers, most of them elderly. [6] Combinations of Hawaiian and English words were still prevalent, but Hawaiian itself had become an endangered language. Educational immersion programs were begun and continue today. Reversing the former educational pattern, teachers now encourage parents to use Hawaiian at home.

Unukupukupu: Hālau Hula from Hawai'i Community College in Hilo, Hawai'i, performing at the Library of Congress in 2012.

Through The Native American Languages Act of 1990, the Federal Government adopted a policy to recognize the right of Hawai'i to preserve, use, and support its indigenous language. In addition, on November 23, 1993 President Bill Clinton signed a joint resolution of Congress apologizing for the U. S. government's role in the overthrow of Hawai'i's government and the events that led to annexation.

Songs play an important role in the revitalization of Hawaiian language and culture today. The work done by Hawaiians in the nineteenth century to write down chants and songs preserved important resources for Hawaiian language and history. Hawaiian composers who were fluent in Hawaiian in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contributed their songs and chants to the cultural resources of today. Because the Hawaiian language continued to have value for song and dance, both for tourism and local entertainment, songs in Hawaiian were, and still are, actively sung and commercially recorded. In addition, songs and chants have educational value and can help motivate students learning Hawaiian. The styles of music developed in the early twentieth century are still entertaining today and recordings of native Hawaiian speakers and creole speakers singing songs are useful educational resources.

Of particular importance to many of those involved in the movement to revitalize Hawaiian language and culture are the ancient chants, preserved through sources that were written down, or by people who learned them through oral tradition. There has been a resurgence of the performance of hula dance and the chants as they were before contact with Western culture began to change them, usually understood to be before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. The founding of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in 1964, and the hula competition at the festival which was introduced in 1971, created an important venue for the performance and rediscovery of traditional hula.

Colleges and university programs in Hawai'i participate in the revitalization of Hawaiian language and culture. An example available in this presentation comes from Hawai'i Community College in Hilo, Hawai'i, where a program in traditional hula, Hālau Hula, emphasizes learning Hawaiian language, as well as dance, chants, and songs. Students and teachers of this program formed the group Unukupukupu, which performed at the Library of Congress in 2012, demonstrating their commitment to the revitalization of their culture through hula.


  1. The United States Government spells "Hawaii" without the apostrophe, or 'okina, that indicates a stopped breath (glottal stop) in Hawaiian pronunciation. The 'okina is a consonant in Hawaiian. The spelling with the apostrophe is preferred by Hawaiians, and is the official spelling used by the State of Hawai'i. The National Park Service now also accepts this spelling. The Library of Congress subject headings still use "Hawaii," so searching for items in this collection requires the spelling without the 'okina. Also, because many items are cataloged with language subject headings, a search on "Hawaiian" will call up items not found using "Hawaii." [back to article]
  2. Frank and Helen Louise Ferera recordings as an instrumental duet and recordings of them performing with various singers are available in this presentation. For a comparison, listen to the recording of David Nape's song "Pua Mōhala, performed by the Hawaiian Quintette in 1913 and the song as performed by the Fereras with non-Hawaiian singers Rene Dietrich and Horace Wright in 1916. [back to article]
  3. For another early recording of "Aloha oe" sung by Hawaiians, listen to this version sung by the Hawaiian Quintette in 1913. [back to article]
  4. For an example of slide blues guitar, view the concert, "James 'Super Chikan' Johnson and Richard Christman — Blues Guitar from Mississippi," in performance at the Library of Congress in 2006. [back to article]
  5. For an example of slide steel guitar in Gospel song, view the concert, "Aubrey Ghent and Friends — Sacred Lap Steel Guitar," at the Library of Congress, 2007. [back to article]
  6. Houseman, Alohalani, Kaulana Dameg, and Maehlani Kobashigawa of the University of Hawai'i at Hilo; and James Dean Brown University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. "Report on the Hawaiian Oral Language Assessment, (H-OLA) Development Project," Second Language Studies, 29(2), Spring 2011, p. 3. [back to article]


  • American Indian and Native Alaskan Song. See the Resource section at the bottom of this article for links to more articles about indigenous peoples in Songs of America.
  • Hawaii Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture. Finding aid for collections held by the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
  • King, Charles Edward (1916). King's Book of Hawaiian Melodies. Published by Charles E. King. This book exists in many reprints and also available as a download from various websites.
  • Liliu'okalani, Queen of Hawaii, 1898. Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen. Lee and Shepard. Available online from various sources and in print from Mutual Publishing (1991).
  • Liliu'okalani, Queen of Hawaii, 1999. The Queen's Songbook. Liliuokalani Trust.
  • See articles about Ethnic Song in America.

About this Item


  • Hawaiian Song


  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

Additional Metadata Formats

Rights & Access

The Library of Congress is providing access to these materials for educational and research purposes and makes no warranty with regard to their use for other purposes. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or other rights holders (such as holders of publicity and/or privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. There may be content that is protected as "works for hire" (copyright may be held by the party that commissioned the original work) and/or under the copyright or neighboring-rights laws of other nations.

Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of an item and securing any necessary permission ultimately rests with persons desiring to use the item. Users should consult the bibliographic information that accompanies each item for specific information. This catalog data provides the details known to the Library of Congress regarding the corresponding items and may assist users in making independent assessments of the legal status of these items as related to their desired uses.

Items included here with the permission of the rights holders are indicated as such in the bibliographic record for each item.

In some cases, the Library was unable to identify a possible rights holder and has elected to place some of those items online as an exercise of fair use for strictly non-commercial educational uses. The Library of Congress would like to learn more about these materials and would like to hear from individuals or institutions that have any additional information or know of their history. Please contact:  Performing Arts Reading Room.

Suggested credit line: Library of Congress.

Cite This Item

Citations are generated automatically from bibliographic data as a convenience, and may not be complete or accurate.

Chicago citation style:

Hawaiian Song. Web..

APA citation style:

Hawaiian Song. [Web.] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

MLA citation style:

Hawaiian Song. Web.. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.