Our state has a list of official symbols. "Hawaii Pono'i" is our state song. Our state bird is the nene goose. We even have a state marine mammal - the Hawaiian monk seal. And my personal favorite is the strange fact that black coral is our state "gemstone," a true first.
But what we don't have is a state musical instrument. The House of Representatives tried to change that and introduced a bill designating the ukulele as our official state instrument. Unfortunately, it has sparked a strange debate. It turns out there are a number of critics and opponents.
The backers of the Hawaiian steel guitar want recognition, claiming that their instrument is more important for Hawaii. The ukulele is just too worldly to be considered Hawaiian. After all, they argue, the ukulele is played in every continent and in a variety of different genres.
The steel guitar group also claims that it is a truly Hawaiian instrument since its style of play and its roots developed here in the islands. They point out that the ukulele is actually an immigrant of the Portuguese while the steel guitar was invented by a Hawaiian. As one opponent wrote, making the steel guitar the state instrument "is the PONO thing to do."
After a strong showing by ukulele opponents, the message and purpose behind the bill changed. Suddenly, the ukulele was no longer a simple instrument associated solely with Hawaii. The bill became a celebration of a world-renowned instrument, but one that has a special place here in the islands.
When the bill moved over to the Senate, things got even more bizarre. A committee reported that despite its immense influence and popularity, the ukulele is not the only musical instrument out there. If there is going to be an official state musical instrument, it should be one that is "indigenous to the people of Hawaii and important to the Native Hawaiian culture." And with that, the bill was amended dramatically.
It is no longer the straightforward pronouncement that caused all sorts of controversy. Instead, the bill calls for a statewide campaign for schoolchildren to decide. There are, however, a few ground rules. First, the contest would be set up in collaboration with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Together, the students and OHA would submit their selections or recommendations to the Legislature in 2015. The instrument "shall be indigenous to the people of the State," it has to be "important to the Native Hawaiian culture," and the students can pick more than one. The Legislature even provided a quick list of suggested instruments. At the top of the list is the ukulele, followed by the pahu drum, steel guitar, ipu and the nose flute.
Seems like a strange controversy. The ukulele, like the nene goose, may have ancestors and relatives elsewhere, but can't it be considered indigenous too?
The ukulele's ancestors are indeed Portuguese. When the Portuguese colonized the world, they brought their music. Specifically, they brought along a small stringed instrument. The generic term for the instrument is the cavaquinho, but there are several types. The Portuguese settled all over the world and brought their cavaquinho with them. In the Atlantic islands, specifically Madeira, it became known as the machete de braga or the braguinha.
The instruments headed west to Brazil and found their place in samba music, which is the unique music of Brazil. They went to Africa too. Cape Verde, the Portuguese colony, embraced the instrument and, like the Brazilian samba, it is an essential part of the musical genres there.
This was the instrument brought to the Hawaiian Islands. It adapted well. You could carry it to a field or strum it on the docks. It was portable, fairly durable, and people liked its squeaky sound. It was this high sound that led to the name we are most familiar with: the ukulele. Its adaptation also changed the instrument itself. Unlike the Portuguese miniguitars with steel, wire or gut strings, the ukulele's strings are soft and made of nylon, which is much easier to play and makes it far more accessible for people to pick and strum.
The early versions of the bill made no distinction between the ukulele, the machete or the cavaquinho. The bill did not describe its metamorphosis. Instead, it described how the ukulele "was originally from Portugal" and "popularized by Hawaiian royalty, plantation workers and musicians." And maybe that was why it sparked a strange debate in the first place.
Either way, not everyone is happy with the legislation.
Last week, the Senate received notice from the House that it disagreed with the amendments, and at this rate it's unclear if the bill is going to make it to the end of the session. And even if it does, the odd debate will no doubt continue to rage on.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."