Interview: John W. Troutman on Kīkā Kila

Author John W. Troutman talks with Gina Mahalek about his new book, Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music.


Gina Mahalek: What is Kīkā Kila? What does it sound like?

John W. TroutmanJohn W. Troutman: Kīkā Kila is a Hawaiian expression for describing both a type of guitar and a technique for playing it. The instrument, also known as a “steel guitar,” a “lap steel,” a “dobro,” or a “Hawaiian guitar,” among other names and associations, developed in the Islands in the 1880s and 1890s. Players would physically modify a “standard” guitar, add steel strings to it, and fabricate finger picks and a steel bar, about 3” in length (the instrument is named after this bar). After creating new, open tunings for the guitar, players would place the guitar in their laps, pluck the strings with finger picks on one hand, and then, with their other hand, slide the steel bar along the strings, located high above the fretboard. The technique created an entirely new sound for the guitar, one that better mimicked both the gentle rising and falling of a somber human voice as well as the melodic acrobatics that Hawaiian falsetto singers were becoming known for at the time. Hawaiians soon began creating all sorts of other sound effects on the steel guitar, and very quickly, it became the most important accompanying (as well as lead melodic) instrument in Hawaiian music.

GM: How did you get interested in this topic?

JWT: I became interested in this topic for reasons that relate to my specialization as a historian of indigenous, popular music, but I gravitated to this project, first and foremost, as a pedal steel guitarist. I took up the pedal steel nearly twenty years ago and toured off and on for several years in Americana bands. It took a while for me to realize, as I struggled to learn the instrument, that the pedal steel descended directly from a Native Hawaiian instrument, the kīkā kila. Comparatively little information was available at the time on the history of the steel guitar, and the more I discovered, the more engrossed I became in this story. I was also interested in the fact that so few people in our audiences knew much of anything about this steel guitar contraption—I’ve heard it called a “table top guitar,” a keyboard, even a xylophone. But as a huge fan of popular music, I also know that you can’t jog through the radio dial (or browse Spotify, I should say), without hearing the steel guitar. So the relationship between these elements—the indigenous history of the instrument, its near ubiquity in popular music, and its near absence in public consciousness, even among music fans, really intrigued me.

GM: Is the steel guitar the same as the “slack key” guitar that is so well known today in Hawaiian music?

JWT: The kīkā kila is related to the kī hōʻalu, or slack key guitar, but they are played in fundamentally different ways. Kī hōʻalu similarly uses open tunings, but the neck is fretted just as you would fret any “standard” guitar. The style was developed around the same time as the kīkā kila, however, and their histories remain intertwined today. Whereas the Hawaiian steel guitar was exported out of the Islands almost as soon as it was invented, the slack key guitar style, up until the 1970s, remained largely confined to the Islands.

Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music, by John W. TroutmanGM: Where do we hear the steel guitar today?

JWT: Today we hear the steel guitar . . . everywhere! The book chronicles how Hawaiians took the steel guitar all over the world in the early twentieth century. In the United States alone, the instrument quickly assumed a prominent role in just about every genre of popular music—from Tin Pan Alley sentimental songs to jazz. In the U.S. South, it figured prominently in the creation of “hillbilly” (later known as country) music, and in fact Native Hawaiians played the steel guitar on some of that genre’s most formative recordings. I argue that southerners of all colors embraced the Hawaiian steel guitar, and that it directly inspired the development of the African American delta blues “slide guitar” style that soon followed. In the 1930s, it seemed as if everyone in the country was familiar with the Hawaiian guitar, and hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, men and women, enrolled in Hawaiian guitar schools, often run by Native Hawaiian guitarists.

Today country artists continue to rely on the Hawaiian steel guitar (or its direct descendant, the pedal steel) to pull on audiences’ heartstrings—it remains the iconic sonic signifier of country music. Likewise, it continues to feature as the “dobro” in bluegrass, while rock stars and jam bands have featured the steel (including the slide guitar) on thousands of albums. You hear it in the landmark recordings of artists and groups such as Son House, Muddy Waters, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Duane Allman, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Ben Harper, Robert Randolph—the list seems endless. But then, the Hawaiian steel guitar also came to play a very prominent role in Bollywood and contemporary pop music genres in India, and you find it in popular Nigerian music, in New Zealand and Australia, in Japan, and all over Europe. And of course, you can still hear it in the Hawaiian Islands.

GM: When did standard guitars first arrive in Hawaiʻi, and why did they become so popular?

JWT: I spent a great deal of time in various archives in Hawaiʻi in order to uncover this history, and yet the guitar’s very first appearance remains elusive. We do know that by the 1840s the guitar was appearing, with great frequency, in the hands of diverse groups of arrivals, from Hawaiians returning home from work in the Americas or in whaling ships, to white missionaries, to blackface minstrels from California. Guitars made a lot of sense to Hawaiians—they were lightweight, portable, relatively inexpensive, and seemed perfectly adaptable to Hawaiian music. Soon Hawaiians began building them out of Koa and other local woods. By the 1870s, what I call an entire “guitar culture” had formed in the Islands, and by the 1880s, King Kalākaua busily promoted an entirely new genre of Hawaiian music, called Hula Kuʻi, which was defined by the very inclusion of guitars. Hula Kuʻi took the Islands by storm. Hawaiians then developed the kīkā kila, as well as the ʻukulele, adapted from a recently introduced Portuguese instrument, and Hawaiian music has never sounded the same since.

GM: Who invented the kīkā kila, and how did they come up with it?

JWT: This is a great question. In Hawaiʻi’s archives, and in interviews with descendants of the earliest guitarists, I discovered a wide range of possible inspirations for the steel guitar, from kids accidentally bouncing metal combs on their guitar strings, to an escaped Hindu indentured servant from South Africa playing the guitar with a metal knife on the streets of Honolulu. Contemplating these origins was one of the most exciting and difficult phases of my research. By most accounts, however, it is clear that one individual, Joseph Kekuku, is responsible for developing the technique into a form that sounded good and was readily adaptable by others, and it was he who first physically altered the standard guitar to accommodate the technique. He began working on it in the 1880s, while he was a teenager living in Lāʻie, a community near Oʻahu’s North Shore. Kekuku fabricated the finger picks and the steel bar while he was a student at the Kamehameha School for Boys, in Honolulu. He soon shared the technique and the technology with his classmates, and they quickly dispersed it throughout several of the Islands. In the 1890s Hawaiians took the steel guitar abroad, and in 1904 Kekuku joined them, when he sailed for San Francisco to make a living as a musician. He quickly set up shop there to teach this new guitar technique, and within a year or so he was working all over the region, and then the country, as a highly sought after guitarist.

GM: According to your research, Hawaiian music became incredibly popular in the U.S. and abroad shortly after Kekuku left the Islands. How did it spread?

JWT: Kekuku left the Islands just as the music industry modernized through the advent of vaudeville touring circuits and recording technology. Interestingly, Hawaiian music became incredibly popular in the U.S. in the years that followed, and soon enough, hundreds of Hawaiians were working vaudeville circuits not just in the U.S., but also throughout the rest of the world. Kekuku’s troupe, known as Toots Paka’s Hawaiians, soon signed with one of the most powerful agents in New York. The band relocated to the East Coast and remained on tour for the next several years, recording for Edison on commercial wax cylinders along the way. Before Kekuku and his fellow Hawaiian guitarists had arrived, no one on the vaudeville stage was using the guitar as a lead, melodic instrument, and no one had seen a guitarist sliding an object along the strings in this manner. By 1916, Hawaiian guitar music was outselling all other genres of recorded music in the U.S.

GM: Most accounts of the delta blues slide guitar trace its origins to Africa. But you argue that Hawaiians introduced the style to black southerners. Where did you find your evidence?

JWT: When I dove into the research for this book, about eight years ago, I was not sure what I would find, and I certainly did not assume that such a strong relationship existed between Hawaiian musicians and the origins of the blues slide guitar. In fact, blues scholars for decades have claimed that the style originated in West Africa on simple, one-stringed instruments that survived both the Middle Passage and centuries of slavery.

For that reason, I was blown away but what I found in the archives. In fact, Hawaiian musicians have toured the Deep South since the 1880s! Hawaiian steel guitarists soon followed, and in local newspapers and archival collections I found Hawaiian steel guitar troupes playing every small town and crossroads in Mississippi and elsewhere in the 1900s and the 1910s. It seems that the very first African American “blues slide” guitarists actually played in the “Hawaiian style,” as it was known in the Deep South, and even Son House, the father of the blues slide guitar style, referred to it by this name. Everywhere I looked I found Hawaiian musicians touring the South, and the book argues that in consequence, we need to completely reimagine what we think we know about the history of southern music, and American music, for that matter. Ours is not a history of black and white music. This history is Technicolor, with indigenous people at the center of the stage. My hope is that in consequence of this research, we will take a step back and reconsider the well-worn narratives and stories of our collective musical past.

GM: The Hawaiian guitar not only changed the course of American music—you found Hawaiian guitarists all over the world. What are some of the most interesting stories of such Hawaiian travels that you encountered?

JWT: Indeed, I encountered all sorts of stories in the archives and through interviews, but a couple stuck with me. One was quite tragic: a married couple from Hawaiʻi, David and Queenie Kaili, performed their steel guitar show all over the Pacific Rim in the 1920s-30s before eventually settling down in the Philippines. Through some sleuthing I discovered Queenie’s scrapbooks in the Bishop Museum’s Library and Archives in Honolulu, which lovingly documented their immense joys in traveling the world together. But as I soon came to learn, their joy came to an abrupt end when Japan invaded the Islands. Both David and Queenie were tortured during the war, and David eventually succumbed from his wounds. Queenie’s sorrowful retelling of their experiences was chronicled on the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser at war’s end.

For a much happier tale, I interviewed Dorian Moe in her home in Lāʻie. From the 1940s through the 1970s, Dorian had performed on a never-ending tour throughout Asia and Europe in her parents’ Hawaiian troupe. Her father, Tau Moe, was a steel guitarist who had first left the Islands to tour with Dorian’s mother Rose in the 1920s. Their stories of life on the road are awe inspiring, but a standout includes how they took advantage of Hitler’s affection for their band in Germany to smuggle Jewish friends out of the country to safety.  The road stories that I incorporated into the book reveal all sorts of such hazards and excitements as well as a remarkably large diaspora of Hawaiian musicians working all over the world.

GM: In films and literature, Hawaiʻi is often portrayed as an exotic land of enchantment, where Hawaiian musicians and hula dancers welcome visitors from afar. But throughout the book you argue that Hawaiian music is in fact very political and deeply implicated in resistance to U.S. incursions and the eventual overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Tell us more about this.

JWT: I found that we cannot understand Hawaiian music, or this guitar technology, without understanding Hawaiian history. We can take for one example, Joseph Kekuku. As I met with members of Kekuku’s family and worked in Hawaiian language newspapers and in genealogical archives, I found that his family was profoundly engaged in efforts to protect Hawaiian ʻāina, or land, from foreign encroachment during the 19th century, and that Kekuku and his family was equally engaged in efforts to restore Liliʻuokalani to the throne after the Kingdom was overthrown by American entrepreneurs (backed illegally by the U.S. Marines) in 1893. Kekuku was likewise invested in perpetuating the Hawaiian language and Hawaiian music, both of which fell under attack in the Islands by the American occupiers. Kekuku’s kīkā kila spoke directly to these concerns, as he refined it to perfectly complement the modern Hawaiian music styles that celebrated the Hawaiian Kingdom both before the overthrow and during the years when he and the vast majority of Hawaiian people called for its restoration. The relationship between Hawaiian music and politics is impossible to tease apart—it is one—and the steel guitar is implicated in that relationship.

GM: As you mentioned earlier, most histories of American popular music—of the blues, jazz, and country genres, for example, rarely mention Hawaiian steel guitarists, or the influence of their instrument in shaping the sounds of those genres. Why is that the case?

JWT: This is one of the book’s big questions. The answers begin to unfold during the second half of the book, but this “disappearing” of Hawaiians from American music history is due to a number of factors. For one thing, scholars of those genres have long felt comfortable painting their histories in black and white terms, because the dichotomy of “black” versus “white” music, particularly in the South, reflects the Jim Crow landscape that African Americans endured. In fact, the blues is often described as a genre born in direct response to the pains of Jim Crow. There is no doubt that Jim Crow profoundly affected music making in the South. But we are still discovering its effects, and I suggest in Kīkā Kila that it has continued to obscure a much richer, multi-hued history of the South.

For example, Hawaiian musicians traveling in the South also suffered the indignities of Jim Crow segregation, as my interviews attest. But I also learned that it brought all sorts of entertainers of color together in southern segregated boarding houses. Life on the vaudeville and chitlin’ circuits brought together Mexican bands, Chinese acrobats, Hawaiian troupes, American Indian singers, and African American artists in previously untold ways in the South. They ate together, performed on stage together, and jammed into the wee hours. Country music scholars have been better at acknowledging the role of the steel guitar, but this book, I think, connects all the dots, by demonstrating the extent of the role that Hawaiians played in shaping the sounds of that genre and the others that wafted through southern dance halls, living rooms, and theatres.

In a broader sense however, indigenous peoples are typically left out of such histories, not only of American music, but of modernity. This is a much larger problem, as Native peoples are rarely acknowledged by historians as central participants in the making of the modern world—they are typically relegated to serve as anti-modern foils, taken about as seriously as the previous generations of historians who considered them as little more than impediments to “progress” and “civilization.” This book seeks to demonstrate why we must take their innovations and ideas, as well as their political agency, very seriously when chronicling the past as well as the present.

GM: You demonstrate that the kīkā kila fell out of favor in the Islands by the 1960s, and almost disappeared. Why was this the case, and what is the future of the Hawaiian steel guitar?

JWT: Yes, this disappearance coincides in interesting ways with the masking of Hawaiian participation in the making of those American music genres. While most Americans came to understand their music in terms similar to the genres policed along racial lines by the music industry (“Blues,” “Rhythm n Blues,” “Soul,” “Funk,” and “Rap,” on one side of the fence, with “Country” and “Rock’n’Roll” on the other), Native Hawaiians paid particularly close attention to the influence of Hawaiian musicians on foreigners. By the 1960s, with obnoxious tourists crowding into Waikīkī, and foreign genres coopting the steel guitar, young Hawaiians wanted less and less to do with the instrument. As they mobilized in the late 1960s to push back against the onslaught of tourist development and the establishment of a vast U.S. military complex in the Islands, they also sought to march behind an at once “new” and “traditional” Hawaiian nationalist sound. The book demonstrates the quite complicated role of the steel guitar in this movement, but suffice to say that by the early 1970s, the steel guitar nearly disappeared from the Islands. I am happy to report that, due to the dedicated efforts of several individuals, it is in the process of recovering a vital presence in the Islands. Soon, we all hope, it will thrive once more.

GM: Do you have a suggested playlist for someone reading the book?

JWT: Yes! There is so much to include, in all sorts of international genres, but I have created an introductory Spotify playlist of sorts to accompany the book. I have attached the link below. I have to warn you, though, that once you identify the sound of the kīkā kila and then begin browsing for music that features it, you will never find a good stopping point!

Spotify playlist: Kila Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music

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John W. Troutman is associate professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His book Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music is now available.