Slack Key and the Second Hawaiian Renaissance
The Second Hawaiian Renaissance refers to an energetic political and cultural movement of rebirth in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Politically, the Second Hawaiian Renaissance was a site for grassroots resistance against United States imperialism. Following statehood in 1959 and assimilatory policies imposed throughout the 1960s, many Indigenous Hawaiians responded through organized political resistance. At the forefront of these battles was the retention and protection of Hawaiian land. Some of the formative land battles of the Second Hawaiian Renaissance were the Kalama Valley farmer’s protests in 1970, which sparked decentralized community movements around Hawaii. At the crux of the movement was the Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana land (PKO) campaign. Kahoolawe is a site of immense spiritual and cultural significance in Hawaiian culture. Despite the land’s history, it was officially delegated to the U.S. Navy by an executive order from President Eisenhower in 1953. As a military site, the land was regularly used to test explosives, endangering its natural resources. In 1976, the PKO was formed, a figurehead of Native Hawaiian resistance, which fought for Hawaiian sovereignty over the land. 1 Over time, the PKO came to be an important political figurehead of the Second Hawaiian Renaissance.
Culturally, this movement renewed excitement surrounding Hawaiian cultural tradition, including music, dance and language. George Kanhele, who coined the movement’s name, described it in the Honolulu Advertiser as a resurgence of Hawaiian culture which was “articulate, organized, but unmonolithic.” 2 New institutions of cultural education sprung up throughout Hawaii, such as the number of hälau hula or schools that teach traditional Hawaiian dance and chant. The organization ‘Aha Pūnana Leo formed in 1983 also had a tremendous impact, establishing Hawaiian language immersion preschools throughout Hawaii. 3 These institutions ensured the continued practice of Hawaiian culture despite increasing settler presence.
Music played a critical role in shaping the politics, interactions, and spirit of the Second Hawaiian Renaissance. At times, protest songs represented a particular campaign by playing at rallies and events, such as “Mele O Kaho`olawe,” which was the unofficial anthem of the PKO land battle. In another sense, music served as a spiritual and emotional framework for indigenous Hawaiians, as it has for centuries. Unsurprisingly, the music of the Hawaiian Renaissance drew largely from older Hawaiian musical tradition. Music was usually sung in the Hawaiian language, sometimes reconfiguring lyrics from older songs. During the movement, slack key (ki ho’alu) also re-emerged as a dominant musical genre. 4 Slack key’s roots in Hawaii date back to the reign of King David Kalākaua, who spearheaded the first Hawaiian renaissance in the late nineteenth century. Groups like the Sons of Hawaii, Sunday Manoa and Mākaha Sons of Niʻihau played a vital role in the revival of slack key. In 1973, the resurgence of slack music was augmented by the publication of the first slack key method book by Keola Beamer. The revival of slack key was anti-colonial at its core. As Kevin Fellezs writes, slack key during the second Hawaiian Renaissance can be considered as “a sonic challenge to settler colonialism, and one possibility for rethinking the way Hawaiians’ “soft, appealing sounds” can signal defiance rather than acquiescence, sounding out and articulating indigenous agency rather than native victimization or nostalgic indulgence.” 5
While the return to slack key was largely associated with tradition, it was reinterpreted within the modern context. For example, newer strings like the tiple and requinto were integrated into slack key music. Slack key artists drew upon traditional percussion like the ipu (Gourd Drum), ʻili ʻili (smooth black stones), and pahu (sharkskin drum) in new ways.6 Players like like David “Feet” Rogers also experimented with new tuning styles for the steel guitar.
- Mansel G. Blackford, “Environmental Justice, Native Rights, Tourism, and Opposition to Military Control: The Case of Kaho’olawe,” The Journal of American History 91, no. 2, (2004): 544–71, https://doi.org/10.2307/3660711
- George H. Lewis, “Da Kine Sounds: The Function of Music as Social Protest in the New Hawaiian Renaissance,” American Music 2, no. 2 (University of Illinois Press, 1984): 38–52, https://doi.org/10.2307/3051657.
- Davianna Pōmaika‘i.McGregor, “Kaho‘olawe: Rebirth of the Sacred,” Na Kua`aina: Living Hawaiian Culture (University of Hawai’i Press, 2007): 249–85, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wr2zc.9.
- George H. Lewis, “Style in Revolt Music, Social Protest, and the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance,” International Social Science Review 62, no. 4 (Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences, 1987): 168–77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41881768.
- Kevin Fellezs, “Nahenahe (Soft, Sweet, Melodious): Sounding Out Native Hawaiian Self-Determination,” Journal of the Society for American Music 13, no. 4 (Cambridge University Press, 2019): 411–35, https://doi.org/10.1017/S175219631900035X.
- Lewis, “Style in Revolt Music, Social Protest, and the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance,” 168–77.