O’ahu: An Exploration of Musical Culture and Traditions


A visit to O’ahu is a chance to experience an amazing musical culture and learn techniques unique to Hawaiian styles of music. Live performances abound on the island, from strummers hanging out on Waikiki beach, to performances in a wide variety of venues featuring Hawaii’s best talents. Music makers are friendly and always willing to talk and answer questions about their music.


After a couple days on O’ahu you start to realize that music is everywhere. This is partly thanks to Hawaii’s emphasis on passing down song and music traditions that began, largely thanks to steel and slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui. He’s seen as a central figure in the Renaissance of Hawaiian music during the 1970s.

Pahinui held legendary weekend jam sessions, kani ka pila, at his home where he taught others, including his children. Gabby died in 1980, but you can often see his sons and other younger musicians carrying on the tradition, performing both locally and worldwide.
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May is an excellent time for music lovers to visit O’ahu as it is the month of the Mele Mei festival, a celebration of Hawaiian music throughout the state. During the festival there are workshops, concerts, hula, and other special events. Most of the events are open to the general public, and many of them are free.

The festival culminates in the annual Hawaiian Academy of Recording Artists Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards (HARA Awards) at the end of the month. HARA is an awards show honoring the best Hawaiian musicians. Though HARA winners can play any genre of music, there is a strong emphasis on Hawaiian music and culture throughout the show. You can attend the HARA awards ceremony with all its glitter, fanfare, and amazing musical performances for $150-$200, which includes a delicious meal.

Aside from experiencing Hawaiian music, a visit to O’ahu is a great opportunity to learn more about the ukulele. There are many builders on the island and a factory tour is usually well worth the visit. Tours are offered by KoAloha, Kamaka, and Kanile’a, among others. Call ahead to check availability as the factories are often small and space is limited.

Aside from the Mele Mei Festival, there are many other music festivals held on O’ahu throughout the year that celebrate Hawaiian culture:

Ukulele Festival

In July each year O’ahu holds Ukulele Festival Hawaii. First organized by Roy Sakuma in 1971 to demonstrate, by way of a free concert, that the ukulele could be played as “a solo instrument of sophistication and virtuosity and not just a background rhythm instrument.” It is now the largest ukulele festival in the world, with crowds of thousands, guest artists from around the world, and an ukulele orchestra of more than 800 students, including many children.

Slack Key Guitar Festival

Another Hawaiian style is celebrated in August with the Slack Key Guitar Festival. Founded in 1982, this festival celebrates the unique Hawaiian acoustic guitar form ki ho’alu (translated “loosen the key”). The first festival paid tribute to Hawaiian slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui.

Hula Festivals

For the island’s many Hulaus (hula schools) and dancers, hula is a way of life, directing beliefs, traditions, and values. Wherever there is live Hawaiian music you will likely see hula performed. There are several Hula Festivals  held annually. Moanikeala Hula Festival Hawaii is held at the Polynesian Cultural Center each January. The King Kamehameha Hula Competition, in June, has been held for 41 years. The July Prince Lot Hula Festival is held at Moanalua Gardens. And the Na Hula Festival, which began in 1941, is held in early August.

There’s something about live music performed in the beautiful setting of O’ahu that is magical. That’s probably why many of the venues offering regular live music are at least partially open-air.

Here are a few to try:

Kani Ka Pila Grille: Located at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach Hotel, it offers nightly live music from 6:00PM to 9:00PM.

Duke’s Waikiki: Has live entertainment most evenings from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM and 9:30 PM to midnight.

Waikiki Beach Walk Plaza Stage: Holds frequent free live music, especially during the Mele Mei Festival.

The Willows Restaurant: Home of Pakele Live!, an award-winning weekly television and Internet streaming concert series, which shares the best of Hawaii’s music to a local, national and global audience.

Corner Kitchen: Open 5:00PM to 2:00AM it is known for its live entertainment, featuring all HARA Award winners.

Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

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