Hawaiian music proved to be the first ‘world music’ craze after it was introduced to the US public at the San Franscisco-Panama-Pacific expo in 1915. At the Expo, the grass-skirted dancers and Ki ho’alu (slack-key) guitarists set off a craze in the US for all things Hawaiian. While much of this was down to novelty kitsch, the lyrical Hawaiian guitar sound proved hugely influential.
Mexican and Portuguese immigrants had brought guitars and ukeleles to Hawaii, and the indigenous Polynesian populace had returned them, creating the slack-key guitar style. This involved playing the guitar in in open tuning on your lap while sliding a steel instrument across the strings, and was developed in Hawaii in the late 19th century. Slack-key’s resonant sound, especially its ability to suggest a droning, weeping effect, would prove a strong influence on blues (as slide guitar) and, especially, country music (as lap-steel guitar).
Sol Hoopii was the greatest slack-key guitarist of the ’20s and ’30s. He brought in jazz influences and was technically brilliant in his use of chords, harmony and phrasing. The tuning he developed led to the emergence of the pedal-steel guitar that would become omnipresent in country music. The bubbling ‘Hula Girl’ finds Hoopii’s genius at its finest; joyful, jazzy rhythms topped off by the fabulous excursions of his melodic, expansive solos.
- Sol Hoopii was born Solomon Hoʻopiʻi Kaʻaiʻai in 1902 in Honolulu, Hawaii into a large family; his birth making him the 21st child in the family. As was the norm in Hawaiian families, Sol’s family taught him to sing and play instruments by the time he could walk. He was playing the ukulele by age three. By his teenage years the Hawaiian steel guitar had become his instrument of choice.
- At age 17, Sol and two teenage friends stowed away on the ocean liner Matsonia. They were discovered by passengers who were so charmed by their musical performances that the other passengers took up a collection to pay their fares. They landed in San Francisco, played a few club engagements, and eventually made their way to Los Angeles. Sol’s friends returned to Hawaii, and Sol formed a trio with new associates.
- In 1938, Hoʻopiʻi gave up his secular career to join the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, writing and performing songs for her tours.
- He is credited as one of the creators of the electric guitar.
- Author Simon Leng likens George Harrison‘s slide guitar work with the Traveling Wilburys to “a 1990s Sol Hoʻopiʻi” in his 2006 book on the works of the British legend.