What is Your Idea of Hawaiian Music?

People often ask if I can you play Hawaiian music for a concert or private event.

The short but inadequate answer to this question is that yes, I do play Hawaiian music.  I play ukulele and sing songs you would hear in Hawaii, and even a few that include some version of the Hawaiian language.  I also play marimba and steel drum, which are associated with tropical and Hawaiian music.  The problem is that the definition of Hawaiian music that the person asking has will determine whether they ultimately think that I am playing Hawaiian music.
That said, I have never had an unhappy customer for a Hawaiian event where I have performed.  In fact, quite a few of them have had me back for many years for their annual luau!
As someone with an academic background in music and musicology and who has been performing professionally for decades, deciding what someone means when they say they want Hawaiian music is not as simple as it seems like it should be.  The issue is that, just like in every other area of life (cuisine, agriculture, technology, and especially language), music in any culture is constantly evolving with the influx of influences from other cultures, technological innovations, etc.
If you define Hawaiian music as what existed pre-European contact you are referring to a music that includes mainly shark-skin drums, flutes, a gourd percussion instrument called an "ipu", shackers, and, especially, chanting.  
Here is an example of what this music may have sounded like:
This would likely have been accompanied by hula dancing, but only by big muscular men.  I have only worked with one group in the Pacific Northwest that offers entertainment similar to this.  I do not believe that they are still performing, however.
If your idea of Hawaiian music is ukuleles with beautiful vocal harmonies, that type of music is really a product of the colonial era and of the accelerated cultural exchanges that any seafaring society experiences.  The use European harmonies in singing was mainly introduced by missionaires.  The ukulele was introduced by Portuguese settlers to Hawaii in the late 19th century.
Or maybe your idea of Hawaiian music is the Hawaiian-born Don Ho, most famous for his song and album Tiny Bubbles.  Ho was of very mixed ethnic origins, as are most contemporary Hawaiians.  His ancestors were native Hawaiian, Chinese, Portugues, Dutch and German.  Or maybe your concept of Hawaiian music includes Elvis Presley songs.  Maybe it includes Jack Johnson, a popular, Hawaiian born-and-bred musician of the past several decades... or Bob Marley since his music and reggae in general are very popular in Hawaii... or maybe Jason Mraz, who's music also seems to lend itself to a Hawaiian vibe.  And then of course there is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, who's incredible voice is so associated with Hawaiian music, except that some of his most popular songs are covers of North American popular music: Over the Rainbow, What a Wonderful World, Country Road, etc.
Here are my ideas of Hawaiin music and how best to provide ambiance for a Hawaiian event.
Instruments:  steel drums didn't originate in Hawaii or even Polynesia generally. However, they are a very common type of entertainment at Hawaiian-themed parties.  They are also common now in Hawaii.  Steel drums and marimbas have a lot in commin with the log drum, which is a very traditional Polynesian instrument from the pre-European era.  I consider that, at this point, steel drums, marimbas, and vibraphones are part of the Hawaiian tradition.  One important proponant of marimba and vibraphone in Hawaiian music is Arthur Lyman.  Lyman was an Hawaiian jazz vibraphone and marimba player who's group popularized a style of faux-Polynesian music during the 1950s and 1960s which later became known as exotica.  Check out the video below for an example:
Song Selection:
In terms of repertoire, my approach to Hawaiian-themed events is to generally select songs that audiences associate with a tropical vacation and, most importantly, are probably familiar with.  People almost always prefer to hear songs they know!  I perform a good helping of songs by Hawaiian artists like Iz and Jack Johnson, as well as others, such as songs from the Hawaii-focused Disney film Moana.  I also typically perform Jimmy Buffett, Bob Marley, and other non-Hawaiian artists who are nevertheless associated with tropical sounds and VERY well known and loved by audiences.
If you want an accurate musical representation of pre-European-contact Hawaiian music I am not the best choice.  However, if you want some very accessible and fun entertainment for a Hawaiian event my solo or group performances are a great option with decades of experience and happy Hawaiian-event-planning clients!
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