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Mexican Vaquero
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Music was an important ingredient of ranch lifestyle, adding a joyous note to celebrations and gatherings and relieving the loneliness of paniolo working remote areas of the ranch. Before the era of television and other distractions, paniolo also serenaded their neighbors, bringing music and companionship to far-flung communities.

Paniolo music was and is vocal, songs accompanied by guitar and/or `ukulele, stringed instruments whose portability is well-suited to cowboy life. Guitars arrived with the Mexican vaquero, while `ukulele developed later from the Portuguese branguiha brought by immigrants in 1879. Guitar playing grew a uniquely Hawaiian style called kiho`alu or slack-key. Open tuning of the strings produced a specific chord when the instrument was strummed. Some standard slack-key tunings are called taro patch, wahine and maunaloa. Other original tunings - more openly shared nowadays - were carefully guarded family secrets among older generations. Originally, slack-key guitar always accompanied song lyrics. Today it is often performed as a solo instrumental.

The paniolo's other instrument was his voice. Leo ki`eki`e or falsetto singing may have come from the Mexican falsetto tradition of the Vera Cruz area. It also had antecedents in ancient Hawaiian chant. Yodeling - later a popular element in country-western music - made an early appearance in paniolo songs. Church hymns strongly influenced paniolo harmonies.

Paniolo songs document and celebrate ranch life. Always composed in the Hawaiian language, they portray personalities, events, work activities and special places. "Wiomina" tells of the 1908 rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming. "Me Ka Nani a `o Kaupo" describes Kaupo Ranch on Maui. A round-up of wild cattle is the subject of "Pu`uhuluhulu" and "Ku`u Hoa Hololio" talks about the partnership between a paniolo and his horse. Many songs use kaona, the veiled or metaphoric meaning of words so common to ancient chant and poetry. As an example, "Ne`ene`e Mai a Pili" is on one level about horseback riding, but the motions and emotions can also be understood as a description of lovemaking.

Paniolo music is a folksong tradition with compositions passed on orally. Many songs have come to us passed down through families. While most songs were composed and played by paniolo themselves, composers like Charles E. King, Marcus Shutte and Sol K. Bright also wrote songs about paniolo although they were not cowboys themselves. While ranching has dwindled as an activity in the Islands, paniolo traditions live on. Singers like Sonny Chillingworth, Kindy Sprout and others perform and record the rich paniolo legacy.

 Sites for further information

History of Slack Key Guitar: Keola Beamer

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