A well-strummed ukulele is the heartbeat of traditional Hawaiian music. For every melodious steel-guitar part, beautiful three-part vocal harmony, and foot-tapping upright bass line, there is a pulsating foundation of a solid ukulele strum at its core. When a strum is executed to perfection, it can make the difference between a dragging, uninteresting song and a song that makes a hula dancer want to immediately get up and dance.
Strums and rhythms can be a very powerful musical tool and, when used correctly, can completely change the entire mood of a song without even changing the chords. Hopefully these three common traditional Hawaiian strums will help to broaden your repertoire and open up new worlds of rhythmic possibilities.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Like the people that make up the diverse population of Hawaii, Hawaiian music is a melting pot of different world influences—from the songs of the Mexican vaqueros and na paniolo (cowboys) who first brought the acoustic guitar to the islands in the 1830s, to the choral himeni (hymns) of the Christian missionaries, to the many European and South Pacific rhythmic influences and our own ancient mele and oli (melodies and chants). Because of this diversity, the music of Hawaii has evolved into a rich folk music that may sound simple at first listen, but in reality can be extremely complex. We will attempt to understand it by unraveling some of the mysteries surrounding a few different common strumming rhythms.
BEFORE WE BEGIN
It’s important to note that our Hawaiian culture’s history is an oral one. For generations, knowledge, na mo’olelo (stories), and the inner workings of our music have been passed down from teacher to student by having the pupil sit and watch intently and—more importantly—listen keenly without interruption. This is how I learned to play as a keiki (child), and giving visual examples and providing songs to reference and compare is the way I primarily teach. But here I will try to convey these traditional methods in a more Westernized setting.
For these exercises, we will use the most common meter found in Hawaiian music, the 4/4 time signature. Downstrokes are designated with a “D” and upstrokes with a “U.” Bold letters indicate more emphasis on the stroke, and lowercase letters represent less emphasis, thus creating greater dynamics when played correctly.
To establish a solid rhythm, first put your ukulele down, listen to some of the examples listed for each strum, and then count out the time in your head for a few measures before you start, to get a good sense of the time. Then, try clapping out the measures before you play.
Let’s dive in!
Since strum names can vary quite drastically depending on the artist, island, halau (school), moku (district), or family, I’ll refrain from naming this popular strum and just call it “classic.” This widely used strum can be applied in various situations, including more modern, non-Hawaiian songs. This versatile strum, which is also sometimes known as “swing” or “double swing,” is useful in Hawaiian music as well as rock, pop, and folk. I use it on roughly 75 percent of the songs I play.
Notice that the strum begins before the first beat of the measure, which creates a syncopated feel, especially when you’re singing along to it. Remember, this music is from the oral tradition, so the best way to truly learn any strum is by hearing examples.
The “ʻOlapa strum” is another strum that also goes by various names, including the “await for me” strum, since the strum sounds like the rhythm of those words. The word ʻolapa means “dancer” in Hawaiian and this very rhythmic and widely used strum is often heard accompanying hula dancing.
Like the classic strum, the dancer strum begins before the first downbeat—but this time on an upstroke.
For a more contemporary feel, I like the “modern strum.” It can be very complex and is highly syncopated, so be sure to start slow and increase your speed as you feel more comfortable with the rhythm. Also notice that the downbeat right before the third beat is emphasized, which adds to the syncopation.
Hear the strums in action! (Requires a Spotify account)
SONGS THAT USE THE CLASSIC STRUM
“Ka Pua Uʻi,” Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, Facing Future (Mountain Apple)
“Kuʻu Aloha Nui,” Dennis Pavao, Ka Leo Kiʻekiʻe (Poki)
“Hanalei Moon,” Dennis Pavao, Sweet Leilani (Pilialoha)
“‘Aina ʻO Miloliʻi,” Kuana Torres Kahele, Kaunaloa (Independent)
SONGS THAT USE VARIATIONS OF THE ’OLAPA STRUM
“Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai,” Kawika Alfiche, Kaleʻa (CD Baby)
“Hualalai,” Kekuhi Kanahele, Honey-Boy (Mountain Apple)
“Ke Ua Nei,” Na Palapalai, Makani ʻOluolu (Koops 2)
SONGS THAT USE THE MODERN STRUM
“Hoʻi Hou Mai,” Kawika Alfiche, Kaleʻa (CD Baby)
“E Mau Ke Aloha,” Waipuna, E Mau Ke Aloha (Tropical Music)
“Makee ʻAilana,” Steven Espaniola, Hoʻomaka (Commonground)
Originally from Aliamanu, Hawaii, and now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Steven Espaniola is an award-winning performer who teaches ukulele and writes a blog called Anatomy of a Mele. stevenespaniola.com