Black music in Hawaii: reggae grows Hawaiian roots

Black History Month

Flip through the local radio channels and it won’t be long until you hear a reggae song. The characteristic one drop drumming and offbeat-emphasized rhythm dominates popular music in the islands, and few places host more reggae concerts every year than Hawaii. The music is so enmeshed in local culture, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t the soundtrack to island life.

But reggae music is a relative newcomer to Hawaii. Prior to reggae’s arrival in the 70’s, American rock n’ roll was the predominant genre in the islands. Though reggae didn’t emerge as its own distinct thing until the 1960’s in Jamaica, it can trace its musical evolution back to West Africa.

“We brought with us most of the music of Africa, the rhythm,” said P.J. Patterson, former Prime Minister of Jamaica (1992-2005). “To that has been infused some of the jazz influences emanating from our sisters and brothers in New Orleans. Culture has been a very strong element of all our art forms, but particularly in our forms of musical expression.” 

“Red for the blood that flowed like a river
Green for the land Africa
Yellow for the gold that they stole
Black for the people you did wrong” – Steel Pulse

Though reggae is best known for its feel-good rhythms and easy-listening simplicity, it is rooted in revolution. Ska music, the precursor to reggae, rose to prominence in 1962 with Jamaican independence and became the sound of Jamaica’s national pride. When reggae music evolved out of ska in the late 60’s, it didn’t become a global phenomenon until Bob Marley — supported by social outcasts, the Rastafarians — became the face of the music. Marley is unique not just because he became larger than the music itself and his fame has continued to grow globally after his death, but also because he popularized reggae through overtly political lyrics. 

Coincidentally, reggae music arrived in Hawaii in the 70’s, amidst the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, the Protect Kahoʻolawe movement, and the Second Hawaiian Renaissance. Revolution music has a funny habit of showing up at the right time. 

Get up, stand up

Reggae began spreading across the globe in the 70’s, carried mostly by the popularity of Bob Marley. Eventually it made its way to Hawaii — and so did Marley. As part of the 1979 Babylon by Bus tour, Bob Marley and the Wailers played across Asia and Oceania. The final stops on the tour were Maui and Oahu.

“When Bob came to play at the Waikiki Shell and on Maui,” said Doug Bautista, lead singer of Hawaii reggae group Humble Soul, “that’s when everybody was like, oh my god.” 

Flyer for Bob Marley’s 1979 concert at the Waikiki Shell.

“In the 60’s and 70’s in Hawaii, it was just that kind of time. The world was upside down and everybody was revolting. Reggae was starting to get really militant at that time. It just worked. It was timing. Bob was perfect timing.”

Dr. Ethan Caldwell, member of Pau Hana Sessions and professor of African American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, echoed that sentiment: “This was the right time, not only for the music to be introduced but also for it to become another vehicle to engage with the activism that was happening on the ground. Music provides a way for folks to engage, even if they aren’t on-the-ground activists. We all choose different ways and different venues to engage. It’s a matter of finding your lane and knowing that there are different ways to push for that change. Folks started to see how they could use reggae music as a way to also speak out against the issues occurring here.”

The 70’s saw a newfound fervor for Native Hawaiian cultural revitalization, now known as the Second Hawaiian Renaissance (the first one taking place about a century prior under King Kalakaua). New life was breathed into traditional Hawaiian wayfinding, language, and cultural arts and practices. A natural extension of such cultural pride was the push for Hawaiian sovereignty, and the collective effort to protect the land on Kahoʻolawe from further destruction through military weapons testing. The politics of revolution embedded in reggae made the music resonate in a lasting way, beyond the obvious aesthetics of being breezy island jams. 

Damian Marley at Mauna Kea. Photo: Sydney Lyons

“What’s always been appealing about reggae music is this idea that folks are seeing it as entertainment, but if you actually stop and listen to the lyrics, you begin to hear the voices and really start to understand where these artists are coming from and what they’re speaking against,” said Dr. Caldwell. “That’s where you really start to see these messages delivered. It’s a way of saying hey, I can have a fun, entertaining way of listening to and enjoying this music, but at the same time it’s music that’s making a point.”

“Everybody gotta hold on to their culture,” added Bautista. “The truth will reveal itself, and people love the truth even though it hurts. Hawaiians can connect to Bob singing, from ‘One Love’ to ‘Rebel Music.’”

As soon as reggae arrived in Hawaii, it dug its roots and has remained a staple of island life and a clarion call for people to take pride in their cultural heritage. It’s hard to ignore the fact that reggae’s journey to Hawaii coincided with heightened cultural pride and social tension, but reggae didn’t just shape Hawaii. Hawaii would also influence reggae music in return.

The birth of Jawaiian

While there is some debate about the origins of Jawaiian music — a combination of Jamaican and Hawaiian — one of the earliest groups to popularize reggae stylings mixed with Hawaiian music sensibilities was Kapena. The group released their album Satisfaction Guaranteed in 1986, just seven years after Bob Marley played on Maui and Oahu. It was, at the very least, the first commercially successful Jawaiian album.

Since then, Jawaiian has become a fixture of local music, a perpetually audible backdrop to island life. Around the same time as Kapena’s emergence, Butch Helemano, Hōʻaikane, Bruddah Waltah and Nā Wai Hoʻoluʻu o ke Anuenue released Jawaiian albums of their own, utilizing the Jamaican reggae skank while incorporating other aspects of traditional Hawaiian music, from Hawaiian language to melody arrangements to musical instruments. In the ensuing decades, new Jawaiian acts like Manaʻo Company, Kaʻau Crater Boys, Natural Vibrations, ʻEkolu, Three Plus, Hoʻonuʻa and Baba B continued to add new musical layers to the Jawaiian sound, while artists like Sudden Rush and O-Shen put rap at the forefront of their music.

Despite the varying and various musical innovations, all Jawaiian music maintained an essential reggae foundation. It makes it hard to say whether Jawaiian is a distinct musical form that stemmed from reggae, or if it falls under the broad musical umbrella as a different version of reggae.

For attentive listeners, the difference between Jawaiian and reggae is easy to tell, but it is not always easy to describe. Not all reggae from Hawaii can be classified as Jawaiian, either. Groups like Humble Soul and Ooklah the Moc play traditional roots reggae that has little to do with the contemporary Jawaiian sound.

Doug Bautista of Humble Soul.

“There’s so much differences between reggae and Jawaiian,” said Bautista. “They’re little, but so much. Bottom line it’s the attitude. It’s the musicianship and the attitude behind the lyrics. The pain behind the music is different. Jawaiian is a little bit more relaxed, lazy and feel-good. Reggae is militant.

“It’s like fusion Asian food. It’s different and it tastes awesome, but I’m a purist. If I want Japanese food, I want Japanese food. I can do the fusion every once in a while, but it’s not me. I can’t jump on that fusion reggae and claim it. I didn’t choose roots reggae, I just really liked bass-heavy, super down-tempo, make your bones chill kind of music. It made me want to rebel. That’s the difference between reggae and Jawaiian: reggae is rebel music.”

Whether it’s Jawaiian or roots reggae or something in between, or if it’s played at potlucks or protests, the upchuck skank and feel good rhythms of reggae will forever have a home in the islands.

This is the fifth installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about Black history and identity in Hawaii. The other stories are linked below.
A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”
The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas
Black History in Hawaii: from whaling ships to royal courts
Black History in Hawaii: visible and invisible Blackness
Local musician perpetuates the culture that adopted him
Black music in Hawaii: hip-hop’s Hawaii connection
Black identity in Hawaii: the conflicting experiences of being Black and local
Black futures in Hawaii: envisioning a beautiful, equitable horizon for everyone

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