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Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

by James Revell Carr
Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

by James Revell Carr



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Hawaiian Music in Motion explores the performance, reception, transmission, and adaptation of Hawaiian music on board ships and in the islands, revealing the ways both maritime commerce and imperial confrontation facilitated the circulation of popular music in the nineteenth century. James Revell Carr draws on journals and ships' logs to trace the circulation of Hawaiian song and dance worldwide as Hawaiians served aboard American and European ships. He also examines important issues like American minstrelsy in Hawaii and the ways Hawaiians achieved their own ends by capitalizing on Americans' conflicting expectations and fraught discourse around hula and other musical practices.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252096525
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/15/2014
Series: Music in American Life
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

James Revell Carr is an associate professor of ethnomusicology at University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Read an Excerpt

Hawaiian Music in Motion

Mariners, Missionaries, and Minstrels

By James Revell Carr


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09652-5


"Lascivious Gestures" and "Festive Sports" Early Interactions, 1778–1802

On one side of the Ring sat the Drummer, his Drum was made of three Gourd Shells inserted into each other, he beat the bottom of it against the ground & sung a song in slow time. The dancer threw her arms about & put her body into various postures, sometimes looking steadfastly toward the sky. Her step was slow & not unlike a Country man's Hornpipe Step, in the manner she moved about sometimes making a Circle round the ring & every now & then repeating a song in concert with the Drummer. She continued dancing about a quarter of an hour & we thought much superior to any dances we had seen among Indians before.

—David Samwell, 1779

In this seemingly minor moment of observation, a British explorer captures one of the first Western images of the Hawaiian "hula girl" before she became the icon that she is today. David Samwell, surgeon aboard the flagship HMS Resolution during Captain Cook's third expedition, wrote the preceding account on the island of Hawai'i in January 1779. His writings reflect a fascination and sympathy, even admiration, for Hawaiians, while also providing anecdotes that become historical monads in which the entire relationship between sailors and islanders is crystallized. The meaning that this dancer intends for her own performance is negligible from the perspective of the British sailor, but the meaning inscribed on the dancer by the seamen's gaze is a fantasy that still holds enchantment for people around the world.

Samwell's proto-ethnographic accounts frequently focus on the dancing of women, making sense of their movements by alternately pointing to their extreme Otherness and isolating elements he found familiar or accessible. In doing so, Samwell was one of the first of thousands of European and American sailors who brought their preconceptions, their desires and fantasies, as well as brutal realities, into direct contact with native Hawaiians. These audacious, impressionable, and unruly young seamen contributed to a century of upheaval that led to the eventual overthrow and commercial exploitation of the Hawaiian Islands. But even as they contributed to the irreversible transformation of the Hawaiian nation and its people, these sailors also provided tools and ideas that Hawaiians appropriated in order to protect and preserve their selves and their cultural identities in the face of intense hegemonic pressures.

The historian Gavan Daws remarked that eighteenth-century Europeans came to consider the "joyful experience" of their Hawaiian encounters as "among the rewards of the age of exploration" (1980, 4). It is this treasure of colonialism, the joyful experience of Hawai'i, that is now commercialized and packaged for easy consumption, and is still held securely in the coffers of "the West." Beginning with Captain James Cook's first landfall at Waimea on the island of Kauai in January 1778, Europeans and Americans opened up new trade routes and began engaging in a kind of ethnographic initiative driven by economic interests. Their writings contain observations of islanders' appearance and customs, which were intended to provide subsequent voyagers with cultural insights and cues to aid the spread of Western commerce, and on which the West's earliest images of Hawai'i were based. These ethnographic observations also provide insights into the joyfully liberal attitudes of many in the seafaring intelligentsia of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Sailors were not the only Europeans to be fascinated by "exotic" cultures. By the 1760s, when a great wave of European explorers reached the Pacific, the popular philosophers of the day were heatedly debating European concepts of difference and Otherness. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theoretical formulation of the "Natural Human," the uncorrupted state of humanity that transcended the morality of Western society, was especially influential, coloring the perspectives of explorers, sailors, businessmen, and missionaries (1754). His proto-liberal idea that "the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody" opened Westerners' eyes to the inequities of property law as it existed in the 1700s, and created in some Westerners a kind of envy of those who lived in this natural state and thus a desire to find places where they could return to such a state. By the late eighteenth century, books like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and melodramas like Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko were widely known and wildly popular, celebrating the virtues of the "Noble Savage." An explosion of publishing explorers' journals solidified this archetype in the collective consciousness of the Euro-American public (Paxman, 4).

The Euro-American fascination with Hawaiians and other "savage" or "primitive" people merged with the eighteenth-century neoclassicist movement, leading to depictions of islanders as almost identical to ancient Greeks in appearance, even wearing toga-like garments. This vogue for exotic Otherness in late eighteenth-century Western society evoked a presence that emerged from "the thickets of long ago"—simulacra of the ancient world alive and tangible in the present (Benjamin 1968, 261). The first published accounts of the Cook expedition came from writers with a penchant for neoclassicism—Sydney Parkinson (1784) and John Hawkesworth (1773) (Bernard Smith 1985, 41). Other published explorers like Joseph Banks and Louis Antoine de Bougainville created a literature of eighteenth-century exploration that promoted the Pacific like a new fashion, putting the dress, the music, the behaviors, and the environment of Pacific Islanders into the context of classical Europe. As much as Hawaiians in the nineteenth century strove to represent their culture to others, it was this early Western mediation of the Pacific, this mythological imagery of an idealized island life, this celebration of what the art theorist Bernard Smith (1985) termed "soft primitivism," that became the foundation for the commercialization of desire that continues to drive the Hawaiian tourism industry.

Soft primitivism was closely associated with neoclassicism, and it reveals the many preconceptions that Europeans brought to the Pacific, not the least of which was that the unspoiled Hawaiians represented humankind in its natural state. But this idea of Hawai'i as an Edenic paradise was anathema to many in the evangelical Christian community, who "found any kind of belief in the natural virtue of pagan savages repugnant and did much to spread the belief that the native peoples of the Pacific in their natural state were depraved and ignoble" (Bernard Smith 1985, 5). This struggle is still a central issue in twenty-first-century Hawai'i. On the one hand, Hawai'i is still seen as a place for Westerners to get in touch with their own natural state; on the other hand, the natural state of the exotic islanders must be proven safe for consumption by the Western public through the easily digestible tourist narratives of religious conversion and modernization (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 146).

Turning living people into simulacra of Western myths was just a small part of the colonialist project of all "explorers," but it was perhaps their most enduring legacy. Bernard Smith argues, however, that "though the discovery of the Society Islands gave initial support to the belief that a kind of tropical Arcadia inhabited by men like Greek gods existed in the South Seas, increasing knowledge not only destroyed the illusion but also became a most enduring challenge to the supremacy of Neoclassical values in art and thought" (1985, 1). The Romantic ideas that bred comparisons between contemporary Polynesia and classical Greece led Europeans to a greater interest in the empirical, comparative study of societies, which then resulted in the surge of interest in ethnographic writing that grew throughout the nineteenth century (Bernard Smith 1985, 43). This effect is exemplified by the ethnographic imperative of seamen who sought to learn more about Pacific Islanders' societies, which soon led to more complex (and certainly less Romantic) portrayals of Pacific Islanders in literature.

The dispelling of these Romantic stereotypes of uncorrupted Hawaiians living in a state of blissful ignorance of Judeo-Christian concepts of modesty or morality began the minute Hawaiians set foot on European and American ships. Sailors quickly realized that though most Hawaiians did not have experience with Western technologies, they were nobody's fools: they proved themselves shrewd traders and businessmen, skillful sailors and fishermen, talented storytellers and mimics, and canny negotiators who quickly grasped Western technologies and adapted them to their own needs. As more and more Hawaiians traveled as passengers and as crew aboard Euro-American ships, they taught Western seamen about their own culture and absorbed Western concepts and customs that they found useful. These adventurous, pioneering Hawaiians counter-explored the West, and their efforts to convey a sense of Hawaiian identity to the people they met in Europe and North America make them significant cultural ambassadors. This chapter tells three stories of Hawaiians who sailed aboard Western ships and, in doing so, used their music and dance strategically in cultural negotiations.

The Cook Expeditions

Few sailors' voyages had a larger impact on the English-speaking world than the three expeditions of Captain James Cook and his crew. Over the course of their three epic voyages—1768–1771, 1772–1775, and 1776–1779—Cook and his crew explored the Pacific from Cape Horn to the Arctic Circle until Valentine's Day, 1779, when the illustrious captain was killed in a now legendary skirmish with Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai'i. The popular story that was promoted by members of Cook's crew, and perpetuated in the twentieth century by the historical anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, was that the Hawaiians had believed Cook to be an incarnation of their god Lono, and that his presence on the beach that day resulted in the Hawaiians' imperative to kill this "god" so that he could be resurrected and live out his mythic destiny (Sahlins 1981). In his iconoclastic work, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992), Gananath Obeyesekere argued that the dissemination of the story that Hawaiians thought that Cook was a god was a process by which Europeans themselves deified Cook.

The question of how Hawaiians perceived Cook and his men was the subject of much controversy and debate in the 1990s between Sahlins and Obeyesekere. Both authors, writing from the perspective of historical anthropology, engaged in a discursive struggle that neatly encapsulates the problems of interpreting history in the postcolonial era. Sahlins argued that Hawaiians thought and acted in ways that were culturally specific and not amenable to Western ways of thinking (Sahlins 1995). Obeyesekere countered that Hawaiian thought was not drastically different from that of Westerners, and said furthermore that to imply that Hawaiian thought was different was to demean Hawaiians as "irrational" or "savage." That neither scholar is native Hawaiian, yet both claim to speak for a native Hawaiian perspective, is inherently problematic. Nevertheless, this discourse highlights the need for non-Hawaiian scholars to find ways to interpret Hawaiian history that give voice to Hawaiians without reducing them to archetypes or stereotypes. Yes, Hawaiian subjectivity was based on the Hawaiians' specific understanding of the world, which was limited, but then, so too was the British understanding of the world. But some, like Cook, believed themselves to be omniscient, and assumed mastery in places where they really had none. These arguments over Hawaiian subjectivity and historiography may never be settled, but it may be sufficient to learn from the assumptions of both scholars and create new ways to write about Hawaiian history that do justice to its inherent conflicts.

The mythologizing of Cook's travels—his encounters with Pacific Islanders and his violent, seemingly inevitable, death on the beach at Kealakekua Bay—not only deified the explorer but also reified the European conception of the Pacific as a place where Western fantasies of sex and power could be actualized, where men could rise to the status of gods, but where the stakes of life and death were frighteningly real. As travelers with a sense of their own omnipotence, Cook and his men were proxies for all Europeans, celebrating the achievements of their "civilization" by emphasizing the brutal savagery and credulity of the Other. Of course, postcolonial thought has forced us to ask, "Who were the real barbarians in these encounters?" Indeed, this question was being asked even as the events surrounding Cook's death were unfolding. John Ledyard, an American seaman on Cook's final expedition, wrote in his journals of an increasingly violent and irrational captain who believed, up until the moment of his death, that the Hawaiians viewed him as invulnerable, even immortal, and that this ensured his safety. Cook made unreasonable demands, such as attempting to trade a pair of hatchets for the wooden wall that surrounded a heiau, a sacred stone temple, and he persisted in taking the wood even after the Hawaiians' refusal. His crew became increasingly intolerant of the Hawaiians' tendency to mock and make fun of the British sailors' perplexing ways, resulting in acts of explosive violence on the part of the British sailors, who beat and killed countless Hawaiians. Whether or not the actions that took place at Kealakekua Bay were somehow expressive of mythological imperatives, or were performances of power, Ledyard claims that he anticipated the encounter could end no other way but tragically (92–93).

The British sailors, thousands of miles away from their homes, gave themselves permission to indulge in behaviors—from uninhibited sexuality to unrestrained violence—that were forbidden in the Euro-American cultural sphere. Cook's own attitude toward Pacific Islanders can be described as vacillating between disinterest at best and outright hostility at worst. He was largely unappreciative of the music and dance of the people he met, making snide or judgmental comments in his journals. For example, he once described a musical encounter in Tahiti, writing, "the Musick and singing was so much of a piece that I was very glad when it was over" (Beaglehole 1968, 96). Other sailors and participants in Cook's voyages had a range of responses that differed dramatically from Cook's.

The expeditions included a number of "surgeons," the term for the ships' science officers, whose ethnographic observations always exceeded those of Cook in their attention to detail and in the level of empathy they showed for the islanders. Some scholars, including Obeyesekere, have argued that it was the presence of these educated men that usually prevented the ships' crews from acting on their most violent urges toward the native people (1992, 14). As scientists rather than naval officers, the surgeons were able to act and react outside of the hierarchical structure of the ship. Their honest, if patronizing, interest in Pacific Islander culture, and their roles as representatives of upper-class "civilization" aboard ships that were microcosms of Western society, acted as a buffer between the military-expansionist leanings of Cook and the Pacific Islanders who sought to attain cultural and economic capital.

The first and most illustrious of these ship's surgeons was Joseph Banks. Banks seems to have been a conflicted man, by turns sensitive and curious, then haughty and aloof, and even capable of acts of violence (Lamb et al. 2000, 74). Nevertheless, he often had compassion for those who were unfortunate enough to be the subjects of British exploration, and he showed an appreciation for the native cultures of the Pacific, even if that appreciation was grounded in Western aesthetic biases. Banks, a member of the Royal Society, brought scientific rigor to the field of exploration, using draftsmen and artists to record images, documenting a wide range of natural and cultural subjects (Bernard Smith 1985, 6). A strong vein of Romanticism ran through his empirical observations, but it was this successful combination of "objective" science with an artist's eye for humanity that made his writings so popular and influential in the West. His research approach became the standard for European exploration of the Pacific, including a mandate for "the objective and comparative study of native peoples" (Bernard Smith 1985, 7). Banks and other Euro-American naturalists who sailed to the Pacific in the late eighteenth century were pioneers of the anthropological initiative that would grow throughout the Pacific in tandem with the rise of colonialism in the nineteenth century. The popularity of exploration literature in the Euro-American marketplace also charted a course for the hundreds of other sailors' journals published in the nineteenth century, many of which were also filled with significant ethnographic detail.


Excerpted from Hawaiian Music in Motion by James Revell Carr. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Cover Title Contents Acknowledgments Introduction: Setting Sail 1. "Lascivious Gestures" and "Festive Sports": Early Interactions, 1778–1802 2. "A Wild Sort of Note": Hawaiian Music at Sea 3. Hukihuki: Mariners, Missionaries, and the Struggle for Hawaiian Bodies and Sould 4. "Hale Diabolo": The Royal Hawaiian Theatre and the Rise of Popular Music in Honolulu 5. "Honolulu Hula Hula Heigh": The Legacy of Maritime Music in Hawai'i Notes Bibliography Index

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