What do cowboys and hula have in common? Music, storytelling, and song!
By the early 1800s, the cattle British sea captain George Vancouver had given in 1793 to the Hawaiian King, Pai`ea Kamehameha, had multiplied to the point that they were a danger to communities. The great long-horned cattle would stampede through town, endangering the people and destroying crops and property. John Parker, a New England sailor who jumped ship in 1809 and remained on Hawai`i, became a friend of Kamehameha, and in 1812 talked the king into granting him the right to hunt the wild cattle and sell their hides, tallow,and salted meat.
For the next 20 years, Hawai`i was the cheapest source of beef and beef products for the American Pacific Coast. Hawai`i even supplied many outfits during the California Gold Rush. Ranching would not start in the American northwest until 1846, and Texas and California would not begin to establish their famed ranches until 1848.
To the south, however, the Spanish had established a strong ranching culture in Spains’s Mexican holdings. Cattle ranching in South Texas began in 1749, when José de Escandón, the governor of Nuevo Leon, brought 3,000 settlers and 146 soldiers to settle the area bordering the Rio Bravo (now known as the Rio Grande river). By the time Hawai`i was inundated with cattle, Mexico had mastered the art of ranching.
Hawai`i’s ruler at that time, King Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, requested the King of Spain to send Mexican-Spanish Vaqueros to Hawai`i to train the Hawaiians in ranching, to modernize the industry and to make it more productive.
The dashing vaqueros cut quite a figure in Hawai`i. With their highly trained ponies, intricate high-horned saddles, and lariets, the vaqueros demonstrated handling and horsemanship as an art. They taught the Hawaiians to make saddles, to braid the kaula`ili (lariat), to craft `uepa kani (bullwhips) and to do the metalwork for bits and kepa pele (spurs). In talking with the Hawaiians, the men introduced themselves as “Español.” The closest the Hawaiian tongue could come to that was “Paniolo.” A man who worked cattle in the Spanish style was now a Paniolo.
Not only Hawaiian saddlery, but Hawaiian formal dress, owes much to the influence of 19th century Spanish fashion. The man’s tight-waisted shirt, full sleeves, and flowing sash, and the puffed sleeves and ruffled train of the woman’s holoku still show their Hispanic heritage.
Hawaiian music also felt the influence of these skilled and multi-talented men. After work, the Mexican vaqueros would play their guitars and sing songs of their homeland. In their singing, they combined techniques with which Hawaiians already were familiar, such as the ha`i, or vocal break, which had long been used in Hawaiian chanting, and new, exciting techniques such as falsetto singing and yodeling. Already a musical people, Hawaiians quickly adopted, and adapted, the Mexican vocal techniques.
The Mexican ballads are poetically similar to Hawaiian oli, chants, mele, songs, and mele hula, poems which are danced to, in that they descend from strong oral traditions of storytelling. To quote the late Nona Beamer, noted Hawaiian scholar and cultural authority, “The hula tells a story, without the story, there is no hula.” The poetic arrangements Hawaiian mele hula and Mexican ballads even share certain similarities.
The musical styles of both cultures, possibly because of their long association with oral tradition, also have similar conventions. Old Tejano music employs turnarounds which are identical to the classic Hawaiian turnaround, which in turn rhythmically replaces the introductory, inter-verse, and exit beats of the traditional gourd drum beats of the mele hula.
And, there was the guitar. By the time the vaqueros arrived, Hawaiians already were familiar with fiddles, concertinas, and other European instruments with which sailors amused themselves. The Hawaiian word for jam session, kanikapila, literally means to “sound the fiddle.” But the versatility of the guitar, combined with the compatibility of Mexican and Hawaiian musical traditions, led to the rapid and extensive incorporation of the guitar into Hawaiian music, resulting in a style which came to be known as kī hō`alu, or slack key.
Mexican music has a long and complex descent line. Born in the New World, like those who play it, it was nursed at the bosom of the native Indian culture and oral tradition. Its European heritage reaches back to when the Moors invaded Spain, bringing their dress, architecture, and music. The varied tunings, swaying bass lines, intricate trebles, and strong rhythms all evoke the Moorish heritage of Spanish music.
The Hawaiians who worked with the vaqueros, now Paniolo, learned not only Mexican ranching, but Mexican music. Combining the Mexican guitar stylings and tunings with Hawaiian poetry and rhythm, They created a new musical genre.
Eventually, many of the vaqueros returned to California and Mexico, but their music remained. As time went on, Hawaiian musicians experimented with the various Spanish tunings and created their own. In Hawaiian tradition, music and poetry is personal property. Songs and chants are passed on from generation to generation, and considered family heirlooms. So, many of the tunings and stylings of kī hō`alu were considered personal possessions of individuals and families. To use them without permission was theft.
Fortunately, however, with the resurgence of Hawaiian culture, many of the great Hawaiian musicians are sharing and teaching their tunings and stylings which are now enjoyed far beyond the ranch house parlors of yesteryear.