The Hawaiian Club once had members all over Australia, lured by the promise of a happier life

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.

Now aged 90, Kitching is considered one of the best steel guitar players in Australia.(Photo: Jane Curtis)

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.

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