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.

References:

  • “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: oscar-aleman.blogspot.co.uk