The Hawaiian guitar in tango

On some early tango recordings we can hear the sound of a steel guitar being played with a slide, much like a blues guitar. It was used in more than a dozen recordings by Francisco Canaro in the years 1928-1930, for example his tango Mimosa (27-11-1927), in which the guitar starts it’s work at 1’08”:

Tango aficionados often refer to this as a Hawaiian guitar (and one of Canaro’s recordings featuring the instrument is a slow vals entitled Bells of Hawaii). If one only knows the Hawaiian guitar of today, which is an electric guitar played with a lot of vibrato, this might be a bit mysterious. Slide guitar is played all over America and is an essential part of blues music – why should we call this Hawaiian guitar?

It turns out that the Hawaiian guitar was a massive and important musical phenomenom in the 1910s and beyond, influencing music from the United States to India.

The guitar first arrived in Hawaii in 1832 with the Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) hired by the King of Hawaii to work in the cattle ranches that had been set up by the Americans. When they left, the guitar remained, with its playing adapted to local tastes. As far as we know, the guitars brought at this time were tuned not in the modern tuning of a classical guitar, but in an open tuning. If you don’t play guitar, this means that it’s not necessary to finger any of the frets to produced a chord. This would greatly facilitate the later development of the Hawaiian style.

In the 1880s a young Hawaiian schoolboy named Joseph Kekuku discovered, supposedly accidentally, that if he slid a railroad spike along the strings, he got an interesting new sound. Placing the guitar in his lap and exchanging the spike for a steel bar, he developed a new style which was so successful that he would later tour first the USA and then Europe, where he played for royalty. The use of a steel bar gave rise to the terms “steel guitar” and later (perhaps to differentiate it from American blues styles) “lap steel”. It’s quite possible that the use of slides by American blues players was influenced by Hawaiian guitarsts such as Kekuku.

Hawaii and its music became fashionable in 1912 thanks to the Broadway production of The Bird of Paradise, a melodrama set on the island. The show was a smash, running for twelve years. Following on from the impact this created, the world’s fair held in 1915 in San Francisco brought in lots of Hawaiian musicians in order to promote tourism (Hawaii having been annexed by the USA in 1898). The presence of Hawaiian musicians created a craze for their music that lasted for years, and in 1919 the show (incorportaing Kekuku on Hawaiian guitar) began touring Europe. This was not the first contact of Hawaiian culture with Europe, however: the dance troupe featuring Jennie Wilson (Kini Kapahu) had toured Europe in 1894. These groups were successful with audiences of all social classes, but especially with the upper class and royalty. Groups penetrated as far as Russia and India, where it not only infiltrated Bollywood but also generated the guitar style of Indian Classical Music – if you want to hear that, check out the 1992 collaboration between American guitar guru Ry Cooder and the Indian guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, A Meeting by the River.

In 1931, the Ro-Pat-In Company (later renamed Rickenbacker) in the United States invented an electric version of the Hawaiian guitar, and the sound that the modern listener thinks of as Hawaiian guitar was born. Because the guitar was now electric, it no longer needed a large, resonating body. You can tell what the shape of the new guitar reminded its inventors of from the name they gave it: the frying pan guitar! This was the first successful electrified instrument of any kind, fully two decades before the advent of solid body electric guitars such as Gibson’s iconic Les Paul.

The new electric Hawaiian guitar was a big hit and propelled Hawaiian music back into the mainstream. The breakthrough song was the big hit of 1933, My Little Grass Shack In Kealakekua, Hawaii here being played with an acoustic lap steel guitar by Sol Hoʻopiʻi (who only switched to an electric guitar two years later):

This song was a massive hit; the 1934 recording by Ted Fio Rito and His Orchestra reached Number 1 in the United States. My favourite US version, however, is that of Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. An intriguing detail on the linked video is the subtitle: Mi casita en Hawaii, implying that the song was widely performed in South America.

1935 saw the inception of a radio programme in Waikiki (a beachfront neigbourhood of Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu) called Hawaii Calls. The show became so successful that it ran for 40 years; at its height, it was relayed to more than 750 stations around the world. The house band was initially conducted by the American musician Harry Owens, musical director of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. One of his compositions was Sweet Leilani, which he wrote for the birth of his daughter in October 1934. The song was included in the 1937 Hawaiian themed Bing Crosby film Waikiki Wedding, winning the Oscar for Best Song:

As the Hawaiian bands toured, the music took root. Local groups sprang up such as the English band Felix Mendelssohn and His Hawaiian Serenaders. In the video below, from 1939, one can see an electric Hawaiian steel guitar with 8 strings instead of the usual 6. (Mendelsohn isn’t playing: like Juan D’Arienzo, much as he loved music, he had little musical talent himself). All pretence of the instrument resembling a guitar has now been lost:

So, what sort of instrument were Argentine guitarists playing when they played Hawaiian guitar – and how did they play it? To answer this, let’s turn back to the recordings made on the Victor label in 1927-1928 by the guitar duo Les Loups, whose players were the Brazilian Gastão Bueno Lobo – the man who introduced both the banjo and the Hawaiian guitar to Brazil – and the Argentine Oscar Alemán (a post about him will follow). (The Victor company also used them in eight recordings to back the violin of Elvino Vardaro, calling the resulting aggregation the Trío Victor).

The publicity photo below shows Bueno Lobo playing the guitar in his lap. In the caption below the photograph, Victor promote the duo as “extraordinary players of the Hawaiian guitar”. As you can see, it’s Bueno Lobo (R) who actually plays Hawaiian guitar, whilst Oscar Alemán (L) accompanies him.
Here they are playing their own composition Hawayanita (Little Hawaiian girl), which according to the sheet music was a hit for songstress Mercedes Simone:

Investigating this topic was a surprise for me. Hawaiian music has had a big influence on music worldwide, far out of proportion to the tiny size of this island nation. Its effects stretched from the United States to England, Greece, Egypt, Russia, India and our beloved Argentina.


  • “Rethinking Race in Modern Argentina” ed. Paulina Alberto & Eduardo Elena, ISBN 1316477843, p76.
  • “The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians” ed. Lorene Ruymar
  • Oscar Aleman weblog:

Tango Stories – Editions map

The table below presents a map of the various editions of “Tango Stories”:

Version Date
1.0 English
1st ed
978-0-9573276-0-3 (h)
reprint 3/12
1st ed
978-0-9573276-2-7 (h)
with index
2nd ed
corrected German
2nd ed
Argentine edition
International edition

Version 2 (i.e. the 2nd editions of the English and German text) has an index and, as a new appendix, an essay on listening to tango music. If you only have the first edition, you can read this essay on todotango (English only).

Tango-Geschichten: Was die Musik erzählt

Here is the German cover:
Tango-Geschichten: Was die Musik Erzählt
As you can see we are colour coding the language versions. English is teal, German is green, and we have more planned. I think my designer has done a really good job adapting the German title to the label. Huge thanks as well to Daniela Feilcke-Wolff of Mala Junta who came up with the winning title!
The ISBN number of the German edition is: 978-0-9573276-2-7. The book is being published in England, but will also be registered in Germany so that it appears on the Verzeichnis lieferbarer Bücher (VLB) database and can be ordered from German bookshops. You will of course be able to buy the book online as well. The retail price will be € 25 / CHF 30.

Tango Stories launching in German in October!

I’m excited to announce that “Tango Stories” will be launching in German in October! There has been a lot of interest in the book in Germany, which is a nation with a strong book culture. German was thus the clear choice for the first language into which to translate the book. We started work on a translation in the spring and I have a team working hard to bring everything together.

The launch party is planned for Berlin on Saturday 5th October.

We still haven’t settled on a title. The English title is not perfect in that it doesn’t really tell you what the book is about. We have come up with a number of possibilities, but they are all longer. The title has to fit nicely into the record label and be legible. Feel free to make any suggestions below!

I will be making more announcements in the next days, including about distribution – watch this space!

On having an opinion

Writing the book was an experience of being in flow and I never really thought about what the public reaction might be. As I approached publication time, I asked a few people to review the book. Everyone I approached agreed with enthusiasm. Imagine my dismay when, disagreeing with something on the book’s website – and this was before we had gone to print – one such reviewer chose not to contact me personally but to flame me on facebook instead. The point he made was a good one and I learnt something from it, but it seems he didn’t have any interest in improving the book as a resource for the community.

Tango Stories is a work of opinion. I was clear about that in myself and I took pains to be clear about it in the book. The little appendix on getting started as a tango DJ also caused a storm in the blogosphere. I was worried that I was being too prescriptive by outlining some rules, but the objections came from those who found me too lax.

In a recent blog post, Melina Sedo writes how people have accused her of insulting a world heritage simply for not liking certain orchestras, songs or styles, declaring that she is “surely a crappy DJ who hasn’t got a clue”. I have received similar criticisms, for instance for DJing at milongas with a no cortina policy. Clearly they are not “real” milongas and I’m not a “real” DJ. Oh please!

Don’t get me wrong: an Argentine style milonga with cortinas and cabeceo is a beautiful thing, the maximum expression of everything we love about tango. Personally, I find it very uncomfortable to be in a tango environment where the cabeceo is not functioning. But the idea that this is the only kind of milonga, and that any other kind of milonga is bad and wrong… ? I’m lost for words.

What is an authentic milonga, anyway? For instance, many “traditional” Argentine milongas have breaks of tropical (cumbia) and swing music, something that almost never happens over here, especially at the events that brand themselves as “milonguero”. Let’s not forget that the milonga itself is in a process of evolution. Even the tanda that we now take for granted as a sine qua non of the milonga probably didn’t exist in its present form in the Golden Decade of the 40s.

Tango is alive and resists our attempts to define it, to pin it down, just as a real person does. It is generative and creative, generous even. I don’t know what it is; I love it, and I think it will always be bigger than our idea of it. Maybe God will come down and define tango, but until then, let’s allow one other our opinions, okay?

In Munich

Recently I visited Munich at the invitation of Theresa Faus of Bailongo. Theresa also gives music seminars so she had asked me for some more advanced topics. The lectures were over three days and we had great attendances, sometimes over thirty people.

During my visit Theresa interviewed me for the German tango magazine Tangodanza. The interview concluded with a couple of difficult questions which I was happy to answer. DJs in particular might find these topics of interest.

Theresa: Now some difficult questions. You DJ at festivals and marathons. There’s been some discussion here recently about the importance (or otherwise) of using lossless formats for ripping music to your computer. What’s your opinion?

Michael: Technical aspects are important but only up to a certain point. In DJ-ing, the limiting factor is usually the sound design of the milonga. Very few milongas have a sound system that is good for tango music, particularly in regards to the type, number and positioning of the loudspeakers. The room suffers from reverberations. It will have a frequency characteristic which will need equalising. I have only ever been to one milonga where this was done, but in any case it’s impossible to do perfectly because the characteristics of the room change as people arrive. These aspects make a huge difference to the sound that you hear and are seldom attended to, if ever. In addition, the milonga is a social environment. People are talking and moving, making noise. It’s not the same as listening quietly at home with expensive headphones.

Regarding mp3, in the early days the coders were poor and people often used a bit rate that was too low. Today, the differences between a lossless file and an mp3 file that is ripped with an adequate bit rate are very small. My experience is that you will never hear them in the real-world environment of a milonga. If you are worried about mp3 and your hard disc is big enough to rip everything lossless, then go ahead – why not? Just remember that there are bigger factors that are not under your control.

How adventurous should a DJ be? Should he try to educate the dancers, or should he just play it safe?

There is a consensus about which tangos are good for dancing, but, in my opinion, the idea of an accepted canon of good music is an illusion. To give a simple example, fifteen years ago you didn’t hear Canaro with Maida at the milonga, and “Poema” was unknown, even in Argentina. If we all play only what is already accepted, then we would never hear much of the music that today we think of as “core repertoire”. There is such a thing as a core repertoire, but it is not fixed. It is changing slowly over time.

On the other hand, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this notion of trying to educate the dancers. It could imply that the DJ knows best. Of course, the DJ needs to know tango music well. From his (or her) knowledge and experience he might decide to try some new music. However, it’s the whole community that decides whether or not they like dancing to this music – not the DJ, or some group of experts. So yes there is a process of education but I think we need to be humble about it.

Book photos – the winners!

The tour is over, the photos are in, and we have some worthy winners for our competition!

The winning photo comes from Tom Pringle who took the book with him to India. Here he is floating in in the holy river Narmada with his well-travelled and slightly damp copy. A prize of a CD of his choice – and a replacement copy of the book – goes to him.

Second prize goes to Siân Fussell for this photograph of her grandson Daniel who is apparently a big Fresedo fan. Daniel writes:

Early Fresedo has a romantic sensibility but stripped of the later sugary adornments. That’s why it’s still my favourite.

Daniel wins the Fresedo CD of his choice.

Third prize goes to Royce Chau for this photo of the book in the DJ booth in Hong Kong. I like the idea of the book “in the field”, and the addition of the 78 RPM records is a lovely touch.