Joseph Kekuku (1874 – 1932)
I recently visited Kekuku’s grave. It is hard to find even when you know where to look for it.
It would nice if people who appreciate his contribution to modern music would come together and design a more appropriate grave marker. I was expecting to see a small sculpture of a steel guitar or something. Share your comments below if you have any thoughts about this.
Kekuku was born in Lāʻie, a small village on the windward side of Oʻahu, Hawaii. As a boy, he would experiment with guitar technique, sliding ordinary household objects across the strings to see what sounds could be produced. When Joseph was 15, he and his cousin, Sam Nainoa left for a boarding school in Honolulu, about 40 miles south of Laie. In 1889 while attending the Kamahameha School for Boys, Kekuku accidentally discovered the pleasing sound of the steel guitar. By the time he was an adult, he had developed a unique style of playing. He traveled extensively, teaching and performing throughout the USA and Europe.
According to C.S. DelAno, publisher of the “Hawaiian Music In Los Angeles” whose “Hawaiian Love Song” was the first original composition to be written for the Hawaiian Steel Guitar,
“Joseph told me that he was walking along a road in Honolulu 42 years ago, holding an old Spanish guitar when he say a rusty bolt on the ground. As he picked it up, the bolt accidentally vibrated one of the strings and produced a new tone that was rather pleasing. After practicing for a time with the metal bolt, Joe experimented with the back of a pocket knife, then with the back of a steel comb and still later on with a highly polished steel (bar) very similar to the sort that is used today.”
In 1904 at the age of 30, Joseph left Hawaii and in his 58-years of life, would never return to his native islands. Instead, he brought his native islands, through music, to the rest of the world. He started in the United States by performing in vaudeville theaters from coast to coast. His group was “Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet” which was sponsored by a management group called “The Affiliated.”
In 1919 at the age of 45, Kekuku left the U.S. for an eight year tour of Europe traveling with “The Bird of Paradise” show. During this time, Kekuku played before Kings and Queens in many different countries. “The Bird of Paradise” show had been on Broadway with brilliant Hawaiian scenery, dazzling costumes, plus authentic Hawaiian music. The show traveled in Europe for eight years and was a total sellout. European hearts were captured by the sweet teasing sounds of the steel guitar. NO OTHER INSTRUMENT HISTORY BECAME THE DARLING OF SO MANY COUNTRIES SO QUICKLY. (Lorene Ruymar) “The Bird of Paradise” show was so popular that it became a film in 1932 and again in 1951. [snip]
In the 1930s the steel guitar went electric. Electrification attracted other musical forms such as western, big band, jazz and country. The electrified steel guitar made its greatest breakthrough into country music. Little Roy Wiggins was the first widely known electric steel guitar player to back a major Nashville artist, in his case Eddie Arnold. Another influence was the rise in the use of the pedal steel guitar, where the player could produce a correct change in harmony by pushing a pedal or kneeing a lever.
Kekuku returned to the United States and, at the age of 53, settled in Chicago and ran a popular and successful music school. Around 1930, he left Chicago and visited Dover, New Jersey. Some think he came to Dover as part of a traveling musical troupe that appeared at the Baker Theater. Hawaiian groups on these vaudeville tours usually consisted of 5 or 6 musicians with the steel guitarist seated in the center. Why Kekuku settled in Dover is not known. A possible reason is wanting to be near the rolling hills of Dover, the bustling downtown district in the valley, the shows at the Baker Theater, and the trains that ran to New York City. Another possible reason is his wife Adeline was tired of traveling and wanted to settle down there. In any event, in 1932 Joseph Kekuku was living in Dover, New Jersey with his wife at 88 Prospect Street and giving Hawaiian guitar lessons. Around town, he was ofter referred to as “the Hawaiian.”
“Funeral services will be held tomorrow at 1:00 o’clock for Joseph Kekuku, fifty-eight years old from the home of Mrs. Mary Stone on Prospect Street. Rev. Hedding B. Leach will officiate and interment will be in the Orchard Street Cemetery. Mr. Kekuku is survived by his wife. He died after a lingering illness at Morristown on Saturday. Mr. Kekuku, an Hawaiian, resided with Mrs. Stone last summer and gave lessons on the steel guitar which he claimed to have originated.”
Kekuku is buried in the Orchard Street Cemetery. A small marker at the Orchard Street Cemetery reads: JOSEPH KEKUKU JAN. 16, 1932 marking his final resting place.
Inducted into Steel Guitar Hall of Fame
In 1993, Joseph Kekuku was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame with full honors as the inventor of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. The Dover Area Historical Society salutes this genius musician, this artist, this teacher, this ambassador of Hawaii and the Aloha spirit around the world. His passion brought him far from his birthplace of Laie, Hawaii to his final resting place in Dover, New Jersey.