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55 C hap t e r 4 Have You Seen the Bouncing Flea? Some would call the Ukulele an insignificant instrument, and yet we have all there is necessary to make and cover an accompaniment for the most difficult opera written. —Ernest Kaai, 1906 As the nineteenth century drew to a close, few people had a better sense of the commercial potential of Hawaiian music—or were in a better position to exploit it—than Lorrin Thurston. Born in Hawaii to missionary parents, classmate of Theodore Roosevelt at Columbia Law School, politician, entrepreneur, and former minister of the interior, Thurston worked to promote the Islands’ fledgling tourist industry while simultaneously (and surreptitiously) seeking the overthrow of the monarchy.1 Appointed by Queen Liliuokalani in 1891 as a commissioner to help organize a Hawaiian exhibit for the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Thurston pursued both business and revolution as he sought a concession for his Kilauea Volcano cyclorama, as well as a better sense of the Harrison administration’s attitude toward annexation.2 When the exposition and its gleaming white buildings opened on May 1, 1893, Liliuokalani had been deposed, a haole-dominated provisional government had been installed in Honolulu, and the privately funded Kilauea panorama stood ready for business on the fair’s mile-long Midway Plaisance—the only exhibit from Hawaii at the fair.3 To compete with such popular successes as the Ferris Wheel and the “Street in Cairo,” featuring the infamous belly dancer Little Egypt, Thurston relied on the Volcano Singers. Posted in the elaborate bandstand that stood in front of the octagonal cyclorama building topped with Hawaiian flags and fronted with a towering plaster statue of the goddess Pele, the quartet—Keoui Maipinepine, Keoui Elemeni, A. O. East Kamualualii, and Nulhama “William” Aeko—played guitar, ‘ukulele, and taro patch, “singing in their native language the sunset songs of Hawaii.”4 As James Revell Carr points out, this wasn’t the first commercial or public performance of Chapter 4 56 Hawaiian music on the mainland: Four Native Hawaiian sailors gave a concert “in the native Sandwich Island language” in Portland, Maine, in 1838.5 The Volcano Singers did, however, offer something new: the earliest-known professional performance in the new hula kui style accompanied by ‘ukulele and taro patch.6 The Volcano Singers, who also played at international concerts presented in the exposition’s Festival Hall, received some favorable notices, including one from a Chicago Daily Tribune critic who found the quartet “unique and interesting”: The Hawaiians accompanied their numbers upon two guitars, a taro patch, and a ukelele. The latter instruments, on the guitar order, are respectively five and four stringed. The voices of the quartet are sweet, and in the case of the first tenor, Maipinepine, especially melodious. The charm lies in the naturalness. The “Wind Song,” given as an encore, as well as their music throughout, is strongly tinged with the gentle pathos and rhythm of the negro melodies.7 While the Volcano Singers were an artistic success, the panorama lost money, which Thurston blamed on the Panic of 1893.8 The biggest musical hit of the fair was “After the Ball,” Charles K. Harris’ “unavoidable, omnipresent accompaniment of the World’s Fair summer” that became a staple of the Sousa Band’s repertoire.9 Despite the historic significance of the Volcano Singers’ appearances, it was on the West Coast that the ‘ukulele and the new Hawaiian music developed their first real following on the mainland. Because of its proximity to the Islands and because Music performed by the Volcano Singers was central to the ballyhoo at Lorrin Thurston’s Kilauea panorama on the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Courtesy of Jeff Carr. Have You Seen the Bouncing Flea? 57 of San Francisco’s historic role as the chief port of the Pacific seaboard, California had long been Hawaii’s principal point of contact with the mainland. It was the residents of “Kaleponi” who provided the first enthusiastic audiences for the ‘ukulele and its music. California, after all, was the scene of the first documented hula performance on the mainland (in Monterey in 1792) and of the first mainland appearance of a professional hula troupe (in San Francisco, Sacramento, and the gold rush country in 1862).10 Although a novelty in Chicago, the Volcano Singers were only one of a number of such groups in the Islands, where the singing and playing of string orchestras was regularly featured...


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