From its royal beginnings in 1836, the Royal Hawaiian Band has entertained audiences in Hawai‘i and around the world for 180 years. Once known as the “King’s Band,” it was created by King Kamehameha III and became a staple of daily life by performing for state occasions, funerals, and marching in parades. The band accompanied Hawaiian monarchs on frequent trips to the outer islands, bringing music to remote destinations of the kingdom, such as the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka‘i.
Leading the band at that time was Heinrich (Henry) Berger, who remains its most influential bandmaster. His musical setting of the “Hymn of Kamehameha I” would eventually become the Hawaiian national, and now state, anthem “Hawai‘i Pono‘ī.” Thus for his contributions to the band and Hawaiian music in general, Berger became known as the “Father of Hawaiian Music.”
As the band grew in prominence, it made its first voyage outside of the kingdom to participate in a band competition held in San Francisco. There the band took first prize amidst stiff competition from bands all across the country. This would mark the first of many major trips undertaken by the band which would draw attention to the beautiful music of the Hawaiian Islands. Since then, the band has traveled to Japan, Canada, Europe, and various locales across the US, including a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In September 2005, the band took a goodwill tour to Japan where it performed with ten Japanese hula hālau, enthralling audiences out of their seats!
Today, the Royal Hawaiian Band is an agency of the City and County of Honolulu and is the only full-time municipal band in the United States. The band performs and marches in over 300 concerts and parades each year including: city, state, and military functions; schools, community centers, shopping malls, retirement communities, graduations, and private events. Weekly public performances are held on Fridays at ‘Iolani Palace and Sundays at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand.
Hawaiian music is at the heart and soul of the Royal Hawaiian Band and at every concert audiences are treated to songs of the islands from the past to the present. The band breathes life into the music composed during the time of Hawai‘i’s monarchy, especially songs written by Na Lani ‘Eha, or the Royal Four, referring to Queen Lili‘uokalani, King Kalākaua, Princess Likelike, and Prince Leleiohoku. Henry Berger, bandmaster at that time, stylized Hawaiian melodies in a variety of European musical forms such as marches, polkas, and waltzes; as well as arranged pieces composed by the royalty, who were all prolific musicians and songwriters. The most famous song of which is “Aloha ‘Oe,” composed by Queen Lili‘uokalani. It can be heard at the closing of every Royal Hawaiian Band concert. Berger would also arrange transcriptions of European orchestral literature for the band; enabling the monarchy of Hawai‘i to dance to the same music of their European counterparts, who heavily influenced the monarchy.
During the early 20th century when Hapa Haole music (Hawaiian music with English words) was popular, the Royal Hawaiian Band adopted many pieces into its literature. Classics such as “Waikiki,” “Sophisticated Hula,” and “Hukilau” can still be heard today at a band concert.
In addition to Hawaiian music, the band performs many pieces from the United States and all over the world, from past to present. Today’s concerts include marches, orchestral transcriptions, standard band repertoire, pop music arrangements, Broadway musicals, movie soundtracks, and television show theme songs. The band also performs a variety of ethnic literature when participating in many of the cultural festivals in Honolulu. Such festivals include the annual Korean festival, Okinawan festival, Vietnamese festival, and Filipino Fiesta.