In the late 1930s, a craze took off in Australia, sweeping up tens of thousands of fans.
The ABC had opened, Albert Namatjira rose to fame, and Don Bradman and Phar Lap were at the top of their respective games. But this had nothing to do with them.
In the few years following 1935, around 30,000 Australians had picked up a Hawaiian steel guitar, the Naracoorte Herald reported at the end of 1939.
Professional musician Kenny Kitching, now aged 90, was one of them.
He started playing when he was seven years old, and today he’s one of Australia’s best Hawaiian steel guitarists.
In the 1930s, his passion was echoed in big cities and tiny towns across Australia, where thousands of people were joining their local Hawaiian Club.
Hawaiian music captured their hearts, and soon they were chasing a promise of happiness, musicianship and even a little bit of fame.
‘People couldn’t believe this stuff’
At the heart of Hawaiian music is the steel guitar, an indigenous Hawaiian instrument invented in 1885 by Joseph Kekuku.
A handful of years after Kekuku’s invention, a coup led by American residents overthrew the Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani in 1893. This led to the annexation of Hawaii as a state of the USA.
As with First Nations people in Australia, teaching and speaking Hawaiian language was banned — except in music. Under house arrest, Queen Liliuokalani kept writing Hawaiian music.
One of her most famous compositions is Aloha ‘Oe, also known as Farewell to Thee. Today the song is synonymous with the sound of the steel guitar.
Around the annexation of Hawaii, many Hawaiians — including musicians and performers — left their homeland and their music began to spread beyond its shores.
In 1915, a huge conference in California, the Panama Pacific International Exposition, invited people from around the world to share their culture.
The Hawaiian pavilion “went bonkers”, says Piers Crocker, a luthier (someone who makes and repairs guitars and ukuleles).
By the following year, Hawaiian sheet music wax cylinders and 78 RPM records outsold every other genre of music in the US.
Hawaiian music caught on in Australia too. “People couldn’t believe this stuff,” Crocker tells ABC RN’s The History Listen.
“Prior to that [popular music was] marching bands, classical music… Then this stuff turns up and it’s worlds away.”
He says, strum a steel guitar “and suddenly everybody relaxes. The bar fights stop. All the beer glasses fall over”.
‘Say goodbye to dull times’
Soon, Hawaiian musicians were touring across America, Europe and Australia.
The music then spread to widely attended vaudeville and variety acts around the country, says Jackie Coyle, an author who has written about the history of Hawaiian music.
Buddy Wikara, a New Zealand expat, and his wife Ruahine Thompson were part of the touring circuit. This is how Wikara met like-minded musicians like Jack Lynch and his daughter Bernice Lynch, with whom he decided to create a small, informal Hawaiian music club in Sydney, in the late 1920s.
It soon grew. The popularity of Hawaiian music caught a wave with the upswing of radio in the 1930s, helped by the radio program Hawaii Calls, broadcast live from Waikiki Beach from 1935 all the way to 1975.
“It reached 750 stations worldwide at the height of its popularity,” Coyle says. And the program always started with the sound of the waves lapping.
In 1936, the Hawaiian Club in Australia kicked off its own radio show, on Sydney’s 2GB. It was so successful that it was soon broadcast around Australia.
At the time, the Club advertised for members in a huge national newspaper campaign.
One ad proclaimed: “Say goodbye to dull times and be gay with parties, dancing and music. You can now learn in a few weeks to play the most fascinating of all instruments, the Hawaiian steel guitar.”
The “very overt” ads promised that learning to play Hawaiian music would make you “popular.” [and] the life of the party”, Robert Crawford, a professor of advertising and communication history at RMIT University, says.
A 1937 advertisement for the Hawaiian Club in the Newcastle Sun ran this message:
“Think of the difference this will make in your life, enabling you to bring happiness and cheer to others and yourself, achieving the distinction and popularity that has so far fallen to someone else.”
“Play your way to happiness” was the advertising’s tagline. It was perfectly pitched to appeal to a generation fresh out of the Depression.
But the Hawaiian Club was also accessible, making it possible for ordinary Australians to try their hand at being a musician.
For example, you could pay off your guitar or ukulele in installments, Crocker explains.
“The way they did it is really neat. Everybody could afford it [an instrument] because it was such a small amount. [And] through the Club, you’d have a discount,” he says.
“It must have been such a gorgeous club to get involved with, because [you’d feel] you’re going somewhere now… you’re a musician.”
The Hawaiian Club included a lot of young women. Wikara told the Port Pirie Recorder in 1940 that, “Hawaiian guitar appeals to the women folk. My experience is that of every 100 players, 60 are girls, and they usually stick to the band longer than the men”.
Especially for women and underage men around wartime, the Club “was a fantastic diversion from the rigors of everyday life”, Coyle says.
Music that’s ‘warm, sensitive and giving’
The Hawaiian Club became a phenomenon. Groups emerged in cities and regional towns in almost every state and territory.
There were often 40 to 100 students in a class and, at the peak of the Hawaiian craze, there were 32 teachers throughout Australia. At one time, there were over 4,000 students in Sydney alone, Coyle says.
“The popularity of learning to play Hawaiian guitar in Australia is quite significant, quite unusual. And I don’t think it’s ever happened before in Australian musical history,” she says.
Wikara, the driving force of the Hawaiian Club, died in 1951. But Club branches continued on in some places, like Brisbane, right up until the 1960s.
By then, Hawaiian music had largely fallen out of fashion in Australia and in the West, generally, and was considered almost kitsch; the records your parents listened to.
But Kenny Kitching doesn’t see it that way. He describes Hawaiian music as “warm, sensitive, giving”.
It’s the music that allowed tens of thousands of Australians to learn steel guitar and ukulele, be on the radio, meet new people, and play their way to a little bit of extra happiness.
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