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Bassist Aaron Mahi performs around Honolulu, telling stories from Hawaii's past and present with his music. (Mark Boster / LAT)

"This is really a 'woe-is-me' song," bassist Aaron Mahi told a crowd at the Waikiki Beach Marriott on a balmy Sunday night. The sun had just set, and a breeze was fluttering the umbrellas on the outdoor terrace. Mahi was introducing "Mauna Loa," which one might assume to be about the state's biggest volcano.

But the song really isn't about the volcano, Mahi explained. It's about a ship, named after the mountain, that regularly docks at a cove on the Big Island.

But the song really isn't about the ship either. It's about a man and a woman and a dawning realization: The man doesn't have the ipo manuahi — "one and only" love — he once thought he had.

"It seems that she's not very faithful," explained Mahi, an erudite Hawaiian with a salt-and-pepper beard, generous girth and mischief in his eyes. "He compares her, with her wide hips, to the wide ship Mauna Loa, which doesn't always return to the same port. And he compares himself to a handkerchief laced with cockroach holes, good enough only to polish her pointy-toed shoes."

With that, Mahi leaned back into his chair, set on a makeshift stage decorated with bamboo, thatched grass and striped surfboards. His fellow musicians on slack key and steel guitar dazzled us with achingly sweet chords, and vocalist Martin Pahinui captured all the song's tender heartache.

I have loved "Mauna Loa" since leaving the islands for college on the mainland 30 years ago. I've hummed its lilting melody, memorized its mellifluous syllables and scrutinized many liner-note translations. But it was Mahi, there at the Marriott, who let me in on the mystery of its metaphors.

Much of Hawaiian music is like "Mauna Loa," an endless well of meaning I can keep dipping into. The lyrics reflect a centuries-old poetic tradition of layered metaphor; their often- bawdy humor would make Chaucer guffaw.

The instrumentation too is endlessly rich: The guitar can be picked in the unique slack key style or pounded in the percussive rhythms of ancient drums. The diminutive ukulele can be plugged into an amp and strummed ferociously. And the steel guitar can moan like a train, clop like a horse or wail like a racing fire engine.

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Noteworthy history

On a visit here in January, I spent 10 days seeking out such music. I began my crash course in Hawaiian music at an unlikely venue — the Bishop Museum, established in 1889 to house the heirlooms of the last Kamehameha princess.

In the stone Hawaiian Hall, I found glass cases full of the instruments Hawaiians used before 1778, when Capt. James Cook showed up in this far-flung archipelago. Drums were complemented by stone castanets, wooden sticks and coconuts filled with seeds. Wind instruments included nose flutes, ti-leaf whistles and a fetching little wood bow that a Hawaiian would press against the lips and talk through.

A music and dance demonstration made clear how ancient chants put meaning over melody: The recitations listed genealogies, praised gods and served as the history books of the Hawaiian people.

Up a dramatic koa wood staircase, displays recounted how Mexican cowboys brought guitars to the islands in the 1830s. Portuguese sugar plantation workers brought the braguinha, which became the ukulele. Calvinist missionaries introduced four-part harmony; from hymn singing, Hawaiians evolved the himeni style.

Heinrich Berger, who arrived from Germany in 1872 to lead the Royal Hawaiian Band, blended the distinct beauties of European and Hawaiian music. Among Berger's many compositions was "Hawaii Ponoi," the Hawaiian anthem, whose lyrics were written in 1874 by King David Kalakaua.

Its stirring stanzas remain a standard of the Royal Hawaiian Band, which performs most Fridays at Iolani Palace, the grand Italianate residence now sitting regally amid Honolulu's government buildings.

The band played under the giant canopy of a monkey pod tree, surrounded by picnicking families, Japanese tourists and matrons in muumuus and kukui nut leis. Its repertoire included compositions by Vincent Persichetti, John Williams, Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Liliuokalani.



The accidental invention of the steel guitar capped Hawaii's 19th century musical innovations. Legend has it that Joseph Kekuku was in his dorm at the Kamehameha School for Boys when he dropped his comb on a guitar sitting in his lap. Liking the sound, he asked his shop teacher to fashion him a cylindrical piece of steel. (Today's steel guitars are plucked with the right hand while sliding a steel cylinder along the strings.)