Steel guitar makes Hawaii think twice on ukulele

HONOLULU — Sorry, ukulele. Hawaii won’t spurn the steel guitar to sound its love for you.

Bills in the state Legislature that would’ve declared the friendly little guitar the official instrument of Hawaii both died near the end of the legislative session.

The measures easily passed the Senate and House earlier this year, but with differences that meant more debate. That’s when steel guitar players stepped in, setting up a showdown between the state icons.

Alan Akaka, a music teacher with politics in his blood as the son of former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, orchestrated an email campaign arguing the instrument born in Hawaii better represents the state.

Unlike the ukulele, which descended from a little four-string guitar Portuguese immigrants brought to the islands in the late 1800s, the steel guitar’s development is credited to an Oahu man named Joseph Kekuku. Its sound has spread throughout country, bluegrass and western music. Yet it still conjures in its dreamy, liquidy sound — made popular by such songs as Santo &Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” — the feel of a Pacific sunset blushing behind swaying palms.

“I have nothing against the ukulele,” said Akaka, who mimicked the steel guitar as a child by running the bell of his clarinet along the strings of his father’s acoustic guitar. “But what is ‘pono,’ what is right, is to have the instrument that was actually invented in Hawaii.”

Akaka’s efforts generated lots of testimony from around the state, as well as from other U.S. states and internationally.

In short order, the conversation shifted from the ukulele’s unique position in Hawaiian music to a more complex exchange about identity and cultural value.

The bills that seemed so simple got tangled in conference committees that included lawmakers from each chamber. The Senate amended the House bill to kick the decision back to the state’s kids, enlisting primary and secondary schoolchildren to suggest instruments to state lawmakers.

Rep. Mark Takai, D-Aiea, the chairman of the House side of the conference committee that considered the bill, said kids didn’t deserve such sway.

“Why not send to them whether they want to change instructional hours?” he said. “Whether they support marriage equality? All these kinds of issues. I’m just trying to extend the logic of allowing kids to vote. It’s problematic.”

Takai said some senators pushed for other instruments, but there wasn’t time to debate the merits of pahu drums or the ipu gourd.

Now, the debate of an official instrument must wait for a future session.

“What we thought was a very easy issue … became a little bit complicated as it went through the process,” Takai said.

Akaka says he’ll lobby next year for the steel guitar.

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