The demise of the Hawaiian Grammy was sewn into its birth.
The problem began In 2005, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded the first ever Grammy for Best Hawaiian Music Album. Before that, Hawaiian music was lumped into the Best World Music Album category, and no Hawaiian artist had even been nominated for it. What at first seemed like an absolute victory — mainstream recognition of excellence in Hawaiian music — quickly dissolved into persistent in-fighting that plagued the award until it was retired in 2011.
Its self-inflicted death was not altogether surprising. For years, advocates fought for the creation of a Hawaiian music Grammy. There were already an exhaustive/exhausting number of awards, and Hawaiian music is rich enough and sonically distinct enough to justify recognition. Calls for a Hawaiian Grammy grew especially loud after Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s posthumous international hit “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” became a Hawaiian music classic. The primary obstacle, however, was definitive: what exactly qualified as Hawaiian music?
This question split the Hawaiian music community. On one hand were the purists who wanted the music to be as close to traditional as reasonably possible — native Hawaiian instruments with lyrics in olelo Hawaii. On the other hand were those who wanted as few restrictions as possible, allowing for English lyrics and the flexibility to incorporate other musical styles and sounds, opening the category to local Jawaiian jams or Hawaii hip-hop. The final compromise was that Hawaiian instruments must be used predominantly, and more than half of the lyrics had to be in Hawaiian.
Those specifications did little to prevent the incoming controversies. The first award was expected to go to local favorite Kealiʻi Reichel for his album Keʻalaokamaile. Instead it went to producer Charles Brotman for his album Slack Key Guitar: Volume 2, an instrumental compilation of ten slack key guitarists. One way to get around a language requirement for lyrics is to simply not have any lyrics.
A discussion erupted in the award’s aftermath. Can there be Hawaiian music without Hawaiian lyrics? If a slack key or steel guitar — or an ukulele for that matter — is played by someone who isn’t from Hawaii, should that be considered Hawaiian music?
These questions only intensified as the years went on. Slack key instrumental albums won the first four awards in the category, which to many felt like cultural regression when there is such rich diversity within the genre. In 2009, the streak of slack key wins was broken, but fans in the islands still weren’t happy. Tia Carrere and Daniel Ho won that year for their album ʻIkena, which featured original songs with lyrics by University of Michigan professor Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All three of them — Stillman, Ho and Carrere — lived on the mainland.
Another slack key compilation won the following year in 2010, and Tia Carrere won again in 2011, the category’s final year.
In an effort to modernize the Grammy Awards, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences trimmed the number of categories from 109 to 78. The consistently controversial Best Hawaiian Music Album award was ripe for retiring, though there’s a good chance it would have been cut even if it had been unanimously celebrated in Hawaii.
Now, Hawaiian musicians compete in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category. Kalani Peʻa has so far been the only Hawaiian musician to win the award, which he took home in 2017 and 2019.
The seven winners of the Best Hawaiian Music album were:
2005: Slack Key Guitar Volume II — multiple artists
2006: Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Vol. 1 — multiple artists
2007: Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Live From Maui — multiple artists
2008: Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar — multiple artists
2009: ʻIkena — Tia Carrere and Daniel Ho
2010: Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2 — multiple artists
2011: Huana Ke Aloha — Tia Carrere