Our state has a list of official symbols. “Hawaii Pono’i” is our state song. Our state bird is the nene goose. We even have a state marine mammal—the Hawaiian monk seal. And my personal favorite is the strange fact that black coral is our state “gemstone,” a true first.
But we don’t have is a musical instrument. The House tried to change that and introduced a bill the ukulele as our official state instrument. Unfortunately, it’s sparked a strange debate. It turned out that there were a number of critics and opponents.
The backers of the Hawaiian steel guitar wanted recognition claimed that their instrument is more important for Hawaii. The ukulele was just too worldly to be considered Hawaiian. After all, they argued, the ukulele is played in every continent and in a variety of different genres.
The steel guitar group also claimed that it was a truly Hawaiian instrument since its style of play and roots developed here in the islands. They pointed out that the ukulele is simply an immigrant of the Portuguese while the steel guitar was invented by a Hawaiian. As one opponent wrote, making the steel guitar the state instrument “is the PONO thing to do.”
After a strong showing of opponents, the message and purpose behind the bill changed. Suddenly, the ukulele was no longer a simple instrument that was associated with Hawaii. The bill became a celebration of a world-renown instrument and that it has a special place here in the islands.
When the bill moved over to the Senate, things got even more bizarre. A committee reported that despite its immense influence and popularity, the ukulele is not the only musical instrument out there. If there is going to be a State musical instrument, it should be one that is “indigenous to the people of Hawaii and important to the native Hawaiian culture.” And with that, the bill was amended dramatically.
It was no longer a straightforward pronouncement causing all sorts of controversy. Instead, there is going to be a statewide campaign for schoolchildren to decide. There are, however, a few ground rules. First, the contest would be set up in collaboration with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Together, the kids and OHA would submit their selections or recommendations to the Legislature in 2015. The instrument “shall be indigenous to the people of the State,” it has to be “important to the native Hawaiian culture,” and the kids can pick more than one. The Legislature even provided a quick list of suggested instruments. At the top of the list was the ukulele followed by the pahu drum, steel guitar, ipu, and the nose flute.
Seems like a strange controversy. The ukulele, like the nene goose, may have ancestors and relatives elsewhere, but can’t it be considered indigenous too?
The ukulele’s ancestors are indeed Portuguese. When Portuguese colonized the world, they brought their music. Specifically, they brought along a small, stringed instrument. The generic term for the instrument is the cavaquinho, but there are several types. The Portuguese settled all over the world and brought their cavaquinho with them. In the Atlantic Islands, specifically Madeira, it became known as the machete de braga or the braguinha.
The instruments headed west to Brazil and found its place in samba music, which is the unique music of Brazil. They went to Africa too. Cape Verde, the Portuguese colony, embraced the instrument and like the Brazilian samba it is an essential part of the musical genres there.
These were the instruments brought to the islands. It adapted well. You could carry it to a field or strum it on the docks. It was portable, fairly durable, and people liked its squeaky sound. It was this high sound that lead to the name we are most familiar with: the ukulele. Its adaptation also changed the instrument itself. Unlike the Portuguese mini-guitars with steel, wire, or gut strings, the ukulele’s strings are soft and made of nylon—which is much easier to play and makes it far more accessible for people to pick and strum.
The early versions of the bill made no distinction between the ukulele, the machete, or the cavaquinho. It did not describe its metamorphosis. Instead, it described how the ukulele “was originally from Portugal” and “popularized by Hawaiian royalty, plantation workers, and musicians.” And maybe that was why it sparked a strange debate in the first place.
Either way, not everyone is happy with the legislation.
Last week, the Senate received notice from the House that it disagreed with the amendments, and it this rate, it’s unclear if the bill is going to make it to the end of term. But if it does, the odd debate will continue to rage on.