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World Music Features

Traditional Hawaiian Steel Guitar

By Rob Silk
Published March 13, 2006

Somewhere on a moonlit Hawaiian beach, a group is gathered around a fire. Eventually, someone begins playing guitar in the old style, sliding a steel bar along the raised strings of an acoustic guitar.

Somewhere on a moonlit Hawaiian beach, a group is gathered around a fire. They are old friends whose words are as deep as their silence. Eventually, someone begins playing guitar in the old style, sliding a steel bar along the raised strings of an acoustic guitar. The others listen appreciatively and wait. Soon enough, the storyteller of the group begins to tell stories of the golden age of Hawaiian steel guitar.

She speaks of the years 1915-1934, a time of great accomplishments and pride. Innovative performers took the best elements of American jazz and blues and merged them with traditional Hawaiian sounds. They invented tunings and techniques that generations of steel guitar players have emulated. One could even argue that they were the first to take world music to the top of the charts. In doing so, the legends of acoustic Hawaiian guitar fused Hawaii’s past with the popular culture of the modern world, with nothing more than steel and imagination.

The first and best was Sol Hoopii. As a young man, Hoopii had visions of a world beyond Hawaii. So he set out, armed only with his guitar, and stowed away on a ship bound for San Francisco. Once discovered on board, he performed his first legendary act—dazzling passengers so completely with his superb playing that they paid his fare instead of punishing him.

By the late 1920s, Hoopii was Hawaiian music’s first superstar, leading a trio that played an irresistible (and lucrative) blend of jazz, blues and traditional Hawaiian. The National Reso-Phonic Guitar company made guitars in his honor and, soon enough, Nationals became standard equipment for anyone interested in Hawaiian music. Hoopii even conquered Hollywood, scoring music for Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle and appearing with Bing Crosby. Maybe it was the three-day gambling party or his pawning of two custom-built Nationals, but eventually he turned his back and joined an evangelical crusade in 1938.

Although Hoopii never played secular music again, he had already made his mark. His influence can be heard in nearly all styles of steel guitar playing, particularly western swing and country. Two Rounder compilations, Master Of The Hawaiian Guitar, Volumes 1 & 2, demonstrate why Sol Hoopii will always be considered the king of Hawaiian steel.

          But he was not the only royalty. There was also “King” Bennie Nawahi, a performer who seemed to transcend physical boundaries. He unlocked the secrets of two instruments, amazing onlookers by playing ukulele behind his head and steel guitar with his feet. He even crossed cultural boundaries and recorded several blues and jazz sides with black jazz performers, a very meaningful act in the early 1930s. The King Bennie Nawahi: Hawaiian String Virtuoso compilation (Yazoo) is a jubilant record of<