In the 1930s, Hawaiian hotel ballrooms were full of dancers doing the lindy and jitterbug to island swing bands. Hawaiian orchestras took the swing of Glenn Miller, added the Hawaiian ukulele and steel guitar, and created an infectious sound that became popular across America. Like on the mainland, Hawaiian big bands disappeared as tastes changed. Now the music has reemerged thanks to Kahulanui. This nine-piece juggernaut, whose name means “The Big Dance,” is led by Lena Naipo, a third-generation Hawaiian musician.
European brass instruments were first brought to Hawaiian islands in the mid-1800s. When ragtime came to Hawaii in the 1920s, local musicians fused it with native melodies, creating a genre known as hapa haole—“half white.” The cultural exchange went both ways, as the Hawaiian steel guitar became a staple of blues and country bands. During World War II, American servicemen brought their swing records with them. Local orchestras added a Hawaiian touch and gained a national radio audience through the “Hawai‘i Calls” program.
Lena heard about the big bands from his grandfather, Robert, who helped lead the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra in the 1930s, and whose ukulele playing made a strong impression on his young grandson. Lena’s father, Rodgers, toured the world as a musical ambassador for Hawaiian and Aloha Airlines. He also played with National Heritage Fellow “Aunty” Genoa Keawe, a beloved singer and ukulele player who fought to preserve the Hawaiian language.
For most of his career Lena played with small combos. One day in the studio he showed his producer a YouTube clip of Ray Kinney, a Hawaiian singer and swing band leader who played on Broadway and at hundreds of army bases starting in the 1920s. “This is what I really want to be doing,” Lena said, and they embarked on Kahulanui’s debut album, Hula Ku‘i. Two of the album’s songs were written by Lena’s grandfather; one is a mele pana, a song that celebrates a place—in this case the family’s hometown on Oahu.
The album earned a 2013 Grammy® nomination for Best Regional Roots Album. Suddenly a neglected part of the Pacific paradise’s musical legacy was in the spotlight again. “The Hawaiian big bands had really been forgotten,” says saxophonist Jesse Snyder. “Wanting to preserve their music was a big reason we got together.”
As the music reemerges, the Hawaiian language is also experiencing a renaissance—once threatened with extinction, it is once again spoken in homes and at schools. Kahulanui has even given American songbook standards Hawaiian language lyrics on their most recent album, Mele Ho‘oilina (“A Musical Legacy”). Alongside swing-era classics, it includes the oldest known hapa haole song, “The Eating of the Poi.” Kahulanui embraces the intersection of cultures at the heart of this music.