HERE IN HAWAII – Hawaii Musics (Plural) – Part 1

Hawaiian Musics (Plural) – Part 1


There’s a Grammy Award given for “Hawaiian Music,” but that’s just one category. And as most local musicians and enthusiasts can tell you, there are many varieties of “Hawaiian” music in Hawaii.

More often than not, that Grammy goes to a “slack key” artist, whose finger-picking guitar style involves loosening one or more of the six strings. So, there are dozens of slack-key tunings, some of which originated 100 or more years ago, when players who did not know the instrument’s “correct” tuning began to invent their own.

Slack key may be widely recognized – and rewarded – but it is not the Islands’ only musical style.  The earliest Hawaiian music comes from their oral tradition of aboriginal chants, known collectively as mele.

These include invocations, prayers, rituals, and mythological stories, usually sung unaccompanied or with gourd drums or rattles. Mele are widely heard, today, especially in official or public events and dedications, and as accompaniment for traditional hula.

During the 19th century, haoles brought Old-World music to Hawaii.

It was immediately popular with the ali’i (royalty), who set Hawaiian poems to Western-style melodies, with harmonies they’d learned from singing Christian hymns. By the 1880s, King Kalakaua had a royal band, and his bandmaster had set the monarch’s poem “Hawaii Pono’e” to stately music. You hear it now, as the State anthem, typically sung at the start of a public event. At the end of that event, however, many people will spontaneously sing “Hawaii Aloha” – the beloved though unofficial anthem, written around 1860 by a commoner, Makua Laiana. And by the time she was deposed, at the turn of the century, Queen Liliuokalani had written dozens of popular songs, most famously “Aloha Oe.”

But most of what people call “Hawaiian music” today had its origins in the 20th century. I’ll tell you about that in my next column.

Click here to go to “Part 2”


Read All About It

          Newspapers have been published on the Big Island since the mid-19th century.  Most have been in English, though there were Hawaiian language papers here until the 1920’s, and Japanese language papers (the largest was the Hilo Times) until the 1980’s.

          Two daily newspapers circulate here now: the Hawaii Tribune-Herald covers the whole island from Hilo, while West Hawaii Today, focuses on the Kona and Kohala districts.  Both are owned by a Mainland chain called the Stephens Media Group, headquartered in Las Vegas, NV.  Being the only local dailies, they run nationally syndicated news, features and columnists, but also cover Big Island politics and issues, and provide extensive coverage of local sports.  And both run a list every day, of islanders who have been arrested or charged.

          The dailies are delivered to subscribers’ homes throughout the island, and can also be purchased from coin-boxes in commercial areas, alongside boxes for the two Honolulu dailies: the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin, which are home-delivered only within Hilo, Waimea, and Kailua-Kona.

          Two tabloid-size newspapers also serve the Big Island, and while they can be subscribed to by mail, they are free of charge in boxes around the island, and so are mainly picked up that way.  The feisty Hawaii Island Journal, published every two weeks, is owned in Honolulu by the publishers of the city tabloid Honolulu Weekly.  The Big Island Weekly, though owned by Stephens Media, is editorially quite independent.  Both are “alternative”
papers: staunchly pro-environment, giving plenty of “ink” to counter-cultural topics, and intensely supportive of Native Hawaiian issues.
Both also run a column locally written in “pidgin” English.

          To be fully informed, it’s worth reading at least one daily and one alternative paper regularly; and all four are available online, at:


While coverage of local issues may not be as comprehensive as some readers would like, the Big Island is about as good a newspaper market as you’ll find in any rural American county that’s 200 miles from the nearest big city.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – That Jumping Flea!

That Jumping Flea!

         The Hawaiians had never heard anything like it.  In the late 19th century, Joao Fernandes, a Portuguese musician just off the boat, began to play a miniature guitar that he called a brauginha.  So quickly did his plucking fingers jump among the four taut strings, that the islanders were laughingly reminded of a flea hopping about.  So they called his little instrument a “jumping flea” – uku lele – which you had better pronounce “oo-koo-lay-lay” (not “yuke-a-lay-lee”) if you want to be recognized as taking its music seriously.  For folks in Hawaii do consider it a serious instrument.

          The rest of the world first noticed the ukulele in 1915, when Hawaiian entertainers were among the featured acts in the expositions that both San Francisco and San Diego hosted to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.  Soon, an ukulele craze was sweeping the U.S.  During the 1920s and ’30s, thousands of youngsters were strumming, and a few virtuosos arose.  By the 1950s, though, the craze had passed: songs that had been recorded with ukulele accompaniment were dismissed as ditties, and the instrument was widely disdained as a toy.

          But in the ’70s, with the revival of traditional Hawaiian folk music, some of the men and women who had taken up the ukulele began plucking out the intricate melodies and sophisticated chords of popular songs, vintage swing and jazz standards, and even selections from the repertoire of the classical guitar.  One of the most comprehensive websites about the ukulele is

kamakapineappleuke.jpg           With the musical revival came an instrumental revival.   The small figure-eight-shaped “soprano” ukulele is the most popular; some performers use a larger “tenor” size, for a deeper tone.  The most desireable instruments are made from mahogany or koa; those crafted by Kamaka Hawaii
( are particularly revered, though the most famous Kamaka ukulele is shaped like (and hence called) the Pineapple.

          Today, ukulele virtuosos give sold-out concerts, and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of folks are taking lessons or practicing.  So don’t be surprised when you see teenaged boys and girls hanging out at the beach parks, not with boom-boxes, but with ukuleles, playing and singing much as youngsters began doing a century ago.


Aloha Koa

koa.jpg          There aren’t many trees like koa.

          There are other beautiful woods, of course.  But look up close.
Just beneath a polished koa surface, ripples appear, like dunes along shores.  And koa has a wonderful resonance with plucked strings; no wonder ukulele luthiers prefer it.

          There are other materials for making a racing canoe.  But Hawaiian tradition calls for a long koa log, cut in solemn ceremony, and hand-hewn.

          There are other long-lived trees.  But koa seeds can lay dormant for years, not sprouting until the ground is disturbed.  And the wood is plenty hard.  A grand formal stairway was built of koa in the 1880s, at the heart of Iolani Palace, in Honolulu; and it’s the only entirely original wooden structure there that’s still in use.

          Koa are found nowhere but Hawaii, and are most abundant on the Big Island.  They grow best in the cool, misty uplands, though not where their feet stay wet.  Canoe-makers admire them straight and cylindrical; wood-carvers favor the spreading, gnarly ones, for more intricate grain.  Whatever their shape, koa trees grow tall, eventually over-topping whatever surrounds them.

          And other trees do tend to surround them.  Ohia – whose lehua blossom is the Big Island’s official flower – is a familiar companion to koa in the wild.  Where the land has been disturbed, koa can be huddled by an
opportunistic waiawi thicket.   

          Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about koa, however, is why it’s so “popular” that other trees cluster round it.  Koa is not like other trees.  It’s a legume.  Like peas or beans or clover, koa draws its most important fertilizer – nitrogen – not from the ground but from the air.  And having used what it needs, koa “fixes” the excess nitrogen: sending it down and out through its roots, enriching the soil, where other plants and trees can draw it up.

          Did you ever think a tree might have the aloha spirit, too?



          There’s a small pork industry here.  A handful of farmers raise pigs, and a few butchers sell or specialize in the whole animal, for which there is always local demand.  Kalua pig, baked by hot rocks in an underground oven (imu) is the centerpiece of every luau.  (“Ka lua,” by the way, simply means “the hole,” and so is also local slang for toilet.)

          Not much bacon is made here, but most supermarkets carry local brands of  “Portugese” sausage, for which, instead of mincing the meat fine, as in “Italian” sausage, the meat is very coarsely chopped.  And some people make sausages at home, which they sell from their trucks along the highway.

Pigs          But there are more feral pigs here than domestic stock.  If you drive uphill on the gravel roads, past where most people live, into the former sugarcane fields, mauka pasturelands and rainforests, you may well see them on the road.  They are the hairy (mostly black-haired) descendents of small Polynesian pigs that sailed here with the first Hawaiians, and which later mated with the European porkers that the haoles brought.

          Pigs are large, omnivorous mammals, with no natural predators in Hawaii.  Man is their only enemy, and in one-on-one combat they would have the advantage.  They can weigh at least as much – even twice as much – as a man weighs.  And they can charge at you with long, sharp tusks.

          It’s always “open season” on pigs here; and in the dense forests, local guys hunt them with dogs.  (Skip this if you’re squeamish: dogs corner a pig, and hold it by the ears until the hunter arrives with his gun.)  So, if you don’t have a dog with you when see pigs on the road, they usually won’t be spooked.  They know you’re there (hearing and smell are their strong senses, though their eyesight is poor), but they will wait a moment or two before they amble or skip – they don’t sprint – into the brush.

          Perhaps, in that moment of hesitation, they’re reasoning that you are not a threat.  Pigs, after all, are highly evolved creatures; maybe they’ve learned a few facts about us and our behavior, over the years, which they employ to ensure their survival.  It might go something like this: “If a human appears, but you don’t hear a big bang, or if no pig suddenly drops dead for no reason, just walk away.”

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – A Far-Sighted Solution

A Far-Sighted Solution

          Over the past 30 years, observatories have been built on many of the cinder cones at Mauna Kea’s summit.  And although a Hawaiian ceremonial structure stands on the very highest peak, science and religion have not always dwelled there in harmony.  But the aloha spirit has prevailed since
2005 with the opening of ‘Imiloa, the Astronomy Center of Hawaii, in Hilo.

      Conceived and built not as a museum but as an “interpretive center,” its three shiny conical roofs evoke the Big Island’s largest volcanoes; and all the landscaping is in native Hawaiian plants.  More importantly, inside, ‘Imiloa honors the Hawaiians’ culture and religion – especially their concept of creation, which is presented in considerable detail, right alongside the findings of today’s astrophysicists about “black holes” and the “big bang.”

          Another large permanent exhibit showcases the Polynesians’ voyages around the Pacific.  Reaching Hawaii would have been impossible without their (literally) astronomical navigational skills.  Wherever links can be made between modern astronomy and Hawaiian cosmology, they are made.  And everything at ‘Imiloa (which means “far-seeing”) is captioned in both Hawaiian and English.

      The work of the various observatories is also explained in plain language, with interactive, hands-on exhibits – something that probably should have been done, somewhere on the Big Island, decades ago.  Mauna Kea is particularly well suited for telescopes that use infrared and “submillimeter” wavelengths of light, which reveal far more details about the stars and galaxies than can be seen in ordinary “visible” light.

          ‘Imiloa ( also has a planetarium, with various star-shows several times a day, and a café run by a local celebrity chef.  It’s just mauka of the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus, and open Tues.-Sun. from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.


Green Goodness

          There is more than one kind of avocado, as you will realize on a walk through the local farmers’ markets.

          What’s available in mainland cities is only the small variety, once known as an “alligator pear,” that’s grown in Southern California and Florida.  But because those places don’t have a particular fruit-fly that lives in Hawaii (though they have their own fruit-flies!) you can’t buy a Hawaiian avocado on the mainland, or take one back with you.

 Well, that just leaves more for us, here.  And we enjoy at least three major varieties: the little “pear” of course, with its thin green or brown skin; a larger version that can sometimes approach a football in size; and a round, softball-size avocado with a thick rind.  They all grow almost everywhere on the Big Island, though Kona seems to produce the largest ones. And while most varieties are bright yellow-green inside, the meat of those “softballs” is darker, and nuttier in taste.

          When an avocado is slightly soft to the touch, it’s ready to eat. And it’s always eaten raw.   Try one on the half-shell with a spoon, seasoning it with salt and pepper, or with Japanese furukake, or even with ketchup (really!)  Most people slice an avocado for sandwiches, or mash and spice it up for guacamole.  An avocado can be heated, as (for example) an omelet filling; but unlike almost every other fruit, it simply can not be cooked, canned or preserved.

          It can, however, be sweetened.  Euell Gibbons, the late naturalist, was fond of making Avocado Chiffon Pie in a graham-cracker crust.  His is a standard chiffon recipe (egg yolks, milk, sugar and gelatin, heated to boiling, then cooled), to which he adds mashed avocado pulp, cools it again, and folds in stiff-whipped egg whites.  As he says in his book Beachcomber’s Handbook, “Don’t dismiss the avocado as a dessert fruit until you have tried this fluffy, delectable pastry.”



Sticky Fingers

          Poi was the staple food of the Hawaiians.  Even late in the 19th
Century, King Kalakaua included a big wooden “calabash” bowl of poi in a banquet he hosted for author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Making poi is tedious but simple: the chunky, purple roots of the taro plant are either baked or boiled (to get rid of the root’s sharp-edged oxalic acid crystals), and then pounded into a sticky paste.  If it’s so thick that a glop will stay on a single digit, it’s known as “one-finger” poi; but it can be thinned with water into “two-finger” or “three-finger” poi. (Traditionally, everyone dips their fingers in one calabash; hence, a child who’s adopted is said to be the family’s “calabash cousin.”)        
     Poi is always served at a luau, and alongside every Hawaiian” plate-lunch or dinner entrée in a restaurant.  Many people – visitors, especially – don’t know what to do with it, and leave it uneaten.  It’s true that freshly made poi is rather bland.  Local connoisseurs prefer “day-old” poi, which has been allowed to ferment slightly, and has a pleasantly sour tang.

          Like corn-meal grits, poi can be eaten plain, but it’s more easily
enjoyed in combination with something truly flavorful.  There is no known
allergy to poi, so any child can eat it, and will, especially if the parents
eat it, too.  Few people can resist kulolo – a fudge-like dessert of taro,
sugar and coconut.

          But poi itself is more useful when paired with a savory food, like
the marinated raw fish in poke, or like the slivers of raw onion crusted
with sea-salt that local folks enjoy.  That’s a pretty strong combination,
even with “sweet” Maui, Kula, or Vidalia onions; but try dipping it in poi,
and both the onion’s bite and the salt’s crunch are moderated.  Similarly,
something made with chili pepper, sharp mustard or hot curry can be “cooled”
by a drizzle of poi.

          So, think of poi not as a course but as a dip – even for highly
seasoned chips – and you may soon find yourself asking for more.

Market Conditions Report – Hilo

Here is an updated Market Conditions Report for Hilo:

Market Conditions Report

* Hilo *

Area Characteristics:
Hilo is the second largest city in all of Hawaii. Most of the services and businesses on the east side of the Big Island are located in Hilo. It is also home to the county seat and includes the county, state, federal, and judicial buildings. While Hilo tends to be a rainy place, the weather patterns are not always predictable. Several weeks or months may go by without any substantial rainfall. Nearly all of the important educational and financial institutions are located in Hilo. Visitors and residents find Hilo to be a “local” town with warm and friendly people. While tourism is very important to the east Hawaii economy, it does not dominate, as in Kona.

Buyer’s or Seller’s Market:
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being a buyers market and 5 being a seller’s market, Hilo is at a 2. This is a buyers market.

Recent Price Trend:
On a scale of 1 to 5, with a 1 reflecting sales prices down and 5 reflecting prices up, Hilo is “Down”, with a rating of 2.

Market Report Narrative:
Unlike other areas, such as the Puna District (south of Hilo), there has not been a tremendous drop off in the asking or selling prices of homes in Hilo. When comparing the data from 2005-2006 to 2006-2007 the drop has been less than 10% for those homes priced $500,000 or less.

This is an excellent time for first time home buyers to negotiate a deal.

Hilo is roughly divided into 5 areas according to tax key. The area along the ocean (3-2-1) has zero properties for sale at $500,000 and under. The remaining areas (3-2-2, 3-2-3, 3-2-4, 3-2-5) have 121 listings with an average listing price of $364-380,000. Please note that one of these areas, Kaumana City, does not have county water and features the most affordable homes, some of them with spectacular views of Hilo Bay at an elevation of 2000 ft.

If you want to be close to the heart of activities, live in a town that retains its charm, and enjoy the beauty of Hawaii, then Hilo would be your first choice.