Steel Trappings

Steel Guitar Chronicles

The Panama Pacific Fair of 1915

September 1, 2023 • Geronimo "Geri" ValdrizSteel Guitar History

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "The Steel Guitar Chronicles" is a monthly feature of the show that tells the stories, history, and origin of Kīkā Kila.

This month we look at the story of the Panama Pacific Fair of 1915!

The Panama Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco, California, provided a showcase for Hawai‘i and fueled the Hawaiian music craze sweeping across the country in 1915. The exposition lasted seven months and an estimated 17 million people had the opportunity to see and hear the Hawaiian steel guitar firsthand.

In celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, the United States and countries around the world spent millions of dollars to promote their economy through trade. The Hawai‘i Territorial legislature dedicated $100,000.00 to construct and promote a building on the fairgrounds called the "Hawaiian Pavilion."

The Hawaiian Pavilion

Visitors were initially drawn to the Pavilion's massive sea water aquariums and displays of Island life in Hawai‘i, local products, and commerce. However, it was the Hawaiian music performed on a bandstand in the middle of the building, which enraptured them.

Hawaiian shows were staged several times a day, and it drew the highest attendance at the exposition. Thousands of visitors from around the country and the world entered the Hawaiian Pavilion to listen to the music. Audiences were astounded by the beauty of the music, the dance, and most of all, the Hawaiian steel guitar.

The house band was that of steel guitarist Keoki Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet. The shows included Hawaiian mele, steel guitar, hula, ‘ukulele, ancient legends, and oli chants. In addition, many other Hawaiian musicians were featured as guest artists.

Hawaiian Pavilion Entertainers

They included early pioneering steel guitarist such as Frank Fererra, Pale K. Lua, David Ka‘ili, and Joseph Fern. Other featured groups included Henry Kailimai's Quintette Club, the DeLano Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Ukulele Sextette of Los Angeles, Albert Vierra's Hawaiians, and Joseph Kekuku's Hawaiian Quintet.

Visitors to the fairgrounds seemed to find Hawaiian music wherever they turned. At the Horticultural Palace, Hawaiian musicians performed at the pineapple and sugar cane exhibits. Still more performed at the California Building and in nightclubs and venues just outside of the fairgrounds. Three dozen Hawaiian musicians performed at the opening ceremony for the Hawaiian Pavilion alone and many stayed in San Francisco to play music wherever they could.

In addition, musician Jonah Kumalae sold his guitars and ‘ukuleles at the Hawaiian Pavilion, and held musical demonstrations for customers.

Hawaiian musical groups featuring steel guitar had played in fairs and expositions across America since 1901 but none had the impact or attracted as many people as did the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.

After the exhibition closed a wave of Hawaiian recordings was released by Edison, Brunswick and Victor records. Hawaiian steel guitars, ‘ukuleles, and sheet music took America by storm.

In 1916 Americans bought more recordings of Hawaiian music than any other genre. And virtually every guitar sold during this period had accessories to modify it for Hawaiian lap style playing!

And that ends the "Steel Guitar Chronicles" for this month, with more stories, history, and the origin of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar to come! Ka ua e ho‘okani ka kīkā kila!

"Hawaiian Steel" with Geri Valdriz is broadcast live every Tuesday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm (HST) on Mana‘o Radio, Wailuku, Maui, Hawai‘i, KMNO, 91.7FM on the radio dial.

You can catch it on the air, or streaming live at Listeners can also access our online archives to enjoy previously recorded programs at your convenience. Just search "Listen on Demand" for past shows.


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