Reggae has a philosophy, you know? It’s not just entertainment. There’s an idea behind it, a way of life behind the music, which is a positive way of life, which is a progressive way of life for better people. The music lives with the people and it’s very strong with the people.
Reggae is a rapidly evolving genre. While many tend to associate reggae with the style of music that was produced in Jamaica during the 1970's, the reggae of today carries a much different sound. So much has changed in our world since then and especially the technology to record, listen, and share music, creating a drastically different music-scape than what existed 40 years prior. In this day and age, the sounds of reggae have progressed tremendously through the fusion of all types of styles and genres. The sounds that fall under the category of contemporary reggae are an incredibly wide array of music. Rebelution (Rock Reggae), Groundation (Jazz Reggae), Fat Freddys Drop (Electronica Reggae), Damian Marley (Hip Hop Reggae), Sizzla (Dancehall Reggae), Common Kings (Pop Reggae), and Passafire (Metal Reggae) are just a few of the many different sides of the genre, one that continues to demonstrate its innovation and depth. Below are some of the fresher sounds of reggae music, as you'll hear, it is an extremely diverse mix that now is categorized as reggae.
From a musical standpoint, it's critical that we understand exactly what classifies Hawaiian reggae and what distinguishes it from other versions of reggae around the world. Also it's important to be aware that in Hawaiʻi, it's a wide range of both native Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian people from various ethnic backgrounds who are playing and making reggae music that is considered Hawaiian reggae. Thus, I would like to clarify that when I cite Hawaiian reggae or the Oceanic context, I am referring to these terms as places and not races (unless otherwise stated). Hawaiian reggae then for the purposes of this site, is any variation of reggae music being produced by people who are located and rooted in Hawaiʻi.
Reggae is nothing new to most of the Pacific, having moved into the islands over 30 years ago (ho’omanawanui, 2006). However, what is more recent is the sheer explosion of Pacific Island reggae artists. In the last decade bands have been popping up all throughout the region/diaspora, forging a new brand of reggae that has only scratched the surface of the genre. Aotearoa (New Zealand) alone is said to have close to 200 reggae bands according to an interview with lead singer Logan Bell of Katchafire back in 2010, and Hawai’i has somewhere close to 100 (Katchafire, 2008). Perhaps the popularity is due to the increase of global flows with the advancement of technology, media, and music interfaces such as iTunes, Youtube, and Garageband that can easily connect like-minded people with similar tastes in music around the world with the click of a mouse. Maybe it is the newest popular cultural trend or maybe it is due to the enticement of a socially and culturally conscious music in these times of environmental degradation, global economic recession, and corporate greed.
What we do know is that there is something different about this music, not only geographically speaking, but stylistically, linguistically, musically, and lyrically. With this comes the vast array of social, physical, political, economic, and other influences that shape these musical forms and practices, creating a unique version of reggae that has a sound and feel that could only be Oceanic. It is the in depth analysis of this music that will also help to provide insight into the issues of culture, identity, and ideology that are negotiated within the sounds themselves.
Before we get started I would like to state that personally, I do not consider Jawaiian and Hawaiian Reggae the same type of music. In my humble opinion, Jawaiian is a style of music that has a relatively generic, basic, and easy flowing reggae beat that is typically a love song or contains lyrical content that is depoliticized or care free. In contrast, I consider Hawaiian reggae to be more intricately constructed music with more advanced musicianship and arrangements that carries a much more potent message. This is a very contestable idea as many people have their own different perspectives on how the styles are categorized. Whats interesting is that because both styles of music are popular here in Hawai'i, it's not uncommon to see artists that produce both types of music. After conducting the historical research for this project, it sounds like in the earlier years Jawaiian was more of the dominant style where as now the music seems to favor more of the Hawaiian reggae sound, though both have their place in the past and present day music-scape. (Please note that this could be a masters thesis topic within itself and is not the focus of this section or site).
Musicians have established Hawaiian reggae by using instruments, languages, stories, and musical styles rooted in Hawaiian culture, which today is comprised of both Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and post contact influences. Many diverse styles fuse together in the formation of Hawaiian reggae when we consider not only these two major sources influencing the music, but also the compilation of elements that have shaped original reggae (Jamaican culture, African-Diaspora, Rastafari, etc.) that also impact Hawaiian reggae. Ultimately these various sources that influence the music make for a highly globalized and diverse form of music. While these traits tend to “blur the lines” and make it difficult to pinpoint just what exactly differentiates Hawaiian reggae, there are some aspects that do create a feeling that is uniquely Hawaiian.
One of the major instruments that help to forge a “Hawaiian” sound is the use of the ukulele. Blending ukulele with guitar, and in some cases even replacing the guitar strum with a ukulele strum, is one recurring trait that distinguishes Hawaiian reggae. Songs such as SDIB’s “Runnin”, J-Boog’s “See Her Again”, or Anuhea’s “Simple Love Song” are all examples that feature a prominent use of the ukulele. However, many songs do not incude the ukulele and yet still retain a Hawaiian feel.
The use of Hawaiian language and other Oceanic dialects in song lyrics is another trait sometimes seen in Hawaiian reggae. However, musicians typically compose songs in English leaving incorporations of Hawaiian or other Pacific languages to only phrases or words used sparingly. Occasionally artists will include full verses (i.e. Kimie - "To The Sea") but very rarely will compose songs entirely in Hawaiian (i.e. Paula Fuga - "Loloiwi"). Interestingly, unlike other places in Oceania, Hawai’i has less frequently practiced converting popular reggae songs into Hawaiian, trends that are especially popular in Palau, Vanuatu, and other island nations in the region. Here in Hawai'i, most musicians create music in English because it is the dominant language spoken (due to the oppression of Hawaiian language imposed by colonial and missionary parties in previous generations) and to appeal to the widest audience since most people have little fluency in Hawaiian language. As with the inclusion of Jamaican patois in original reggae, Hawaiian reggae also occasionally incorporates pidgin language phrases. Perhaps more importantly as a differentiating factor is the accent Hawaiian reggae singers have that differs greatly from many Jamaican vocalists, although it is not nearly as distinguishable in comparison with American or UK reggae artists.
Music critics sometimes identify vocal harmonies and melodies, in addition to rhythmic elements of this music, as giving the sound a distinctive local identity. Others, such as island music specialist Philip Hayward, have noted that Pacific Island reggae artists have developed a style with a squarer rythmic structure. The single most prominent trait of standard reggae is the emphasis on beats two and four, providing the characteristic "laid-back feel". While these beats are still important in Oceanic/Hawaiian reggae, guitar and ukulele and other percussion often fill in the space, creating a more fluid and squarer flow.
Ultimately, many of the melodies and rhythmic features, however, are inspired by the musical influences of the artists themselves. Thus, Hawaiian reggae draws from a different set of musical influences than the reggae of Jamaica and other places in the world. In Hawaiian reggae we hear influences of genres such as rock and roll, American pop, and traditional/contemporary Hawaiian music, whereas Jamaican musical tastes are much more influenced by roots, dancehall, and soca and carribbean style genres (ho’omanawanui, 2006). (To learn more about Hawaiʻi's eclectic musical heritage, I recommend checking out "100 Years of Hawaiian Music" by Honolulu Magazine.)
Taking a holistic view of the music, one aspect where Hawaiian reggae differentiates itself is in the heavy use of instrumentation. Much reggae in Jamaica and other parts of the world is produced over what has been labeled “Riddims,” which consist of musical content that revolves around a bass line and drum kit, resembling hip-hop elements. Many riddims are recycled, or “versioned” as musicians refer to this process, meaning that one to several different artists may sing over the same diddim (Chang, 2007). The result is typically a small handful of popular riddims with a wide array of artists recording vocals over the riddims. You can listen to an example of this by checking out The Honey Pot Riddim produced by Silly Walks Discotheque. In Hawaiian reggae, much more of the music is predicated on creating an organic sound that relies on guitar, bass, drums, keys, and potentially horns and emphasizes the use of instruments. Great examples of this can be heard when comparing Hawaiian reggae songs such as “Fafa Island” by Ooklah The Moc, or “Take A Breath” By Hot Rain with a Jamaican riddim based song like “Give Me A Try” by Sizzla. Recently, a few Hawaiian reggae artists like J Boog have experimented with producing music over riddims, though most continue to create their own original music.
Lyrical content is another one of the larger traits that gives Hawaiian reggae its identity. There are the obvious connections to place when artists refer to specific locales, events, or people directly related to Hawai’i as heard in a song like Kolohe Kai's "Good Morning Hawaiʻi". Some of the older Hawaiian reggae seems to more frequently and directly address Hawai'i as seen in songs like "Hawaiian Lands" by Bruddah Waltah or "Hiʻilawe" by Sudden Rush. Much of this could be due to reggae bands in that period being more Hawaii-centric whereas now many bands look to have their music heard not only in Hawai'i but nationally and internationally. Another interesting example is Israel Kamakawiwoʻole's "Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man" which tells the moʻolelo or mythological story of Māui who fishes the Hawaiian Islands out of the sea. There is also indirect lyrical content, such as the use of certain imagery (especially drawn from nature) and topic selection (family, land, and genealogy) that may reveal a Hawaiian source.
Most important however, is the overall collection of lyrics and the message, which ultimately reflect a portion of the realities and consciousness of Hawai’i and its people. It is this textual content that provides the music avenues to access the Hawaiian experience and Hawaiian life worlds. It is not just that Hawaiian reggae may have a single song about Hawaiian culture, Hawaiian places, or Hawaiian issues, but it is the spectrum of these songs together that paints a picture unlike any other. Its important to note too that traditionally and even still today in Hawaiʻi music is considered highly spiritual. While not every song or album may seem to reflect this idea, there exists a noteworthy amount of music that is overflowing with mana that can be felt within the sounds. Of course, Hawaiian reggae also continues to stay true to the genres roots, which lyrically promotes messages of positivity, consciousness, and humanitarian values.
While certain elements of Hawaiian reggae, such as Hawaiian language, ukulele, and lyrical references to Hawai’i, make it easy to decipher local versions from others around the world, it is often the feel and style of the music that helps distinguish the brand of Hawaiian reggae. Other factors like the array of musical influences, vocal harmonies, and emphasis on the use of instrumentation are part of the distinct sound of the music. However, as much as Hawaiian reggae has branded its own sound, sometimes the music's differentiating traits aren't within the music at all, but situated in the individuals and in relationships representing it. Perhaps most important is the collection of lyrical content which testifies to Hawaiian realities and themes that are unique to these islands and the musical versions of reggae that are produced here. What is undeniable is that reggae has been transformed in the Hawaiian context and evolved into a unique form of music that continues to distinguish itself from other reggae music around the world. The truth is that every band and artist create their own brand of music, resulting in each having their own unique sound. In Hawaiʻi, more often than not, these bands and musicians the sounds will be heavily influenced by reggae both from here and other parts of the world.