The Royal Hawaiian Band

#120 in the Moʻolelo series

I’ve long known that my great-grandfather (on my motherʻs motherʻs side), Joseph Kaʻaʻa, played the bass for the Royal Hawaiian Band in 1910. But Iʻm not sure whether he played under the famous bandmaster Henri Berger. The Royal Hawaiian Band was founded by Kamehameha III in 1836 and was originally called The King’s Band. But its heyday was during Kalākaua’s reign under Berger. This hire was meant to bring a European sense to the Band and to Hawaiʻi generally, which, in my view, was trying under Kalākaua to assert itself as akin to small European country like Monaco, Luxembourg or Malta, rather than as a “Banana Republic” (a newly independent country, thought to be independent in name only, with severe dependence on one export, usually bananas). Of course, Hawaiʻi right then could have easily been called a “Sugar Kingdom,” but it was trying to diversify (see “The Reciprocity Treaty” for other export crops Hawaiʻi was developing).

The Royal Hawaiian Band in 1889, Henri Berger, Bandmaster

In the 1880s it was possible for a visitor, if they were a VIP, to ride the streetcar through Honolulu, attend an opera at the opera house, go to the horse races at Kapiʻolani Park, listen to the Royal Hawaiian Band play Prussian-inspired music, and dine with Kalākaua (a Freemason) in ʻIolani Palace on fine china and discuss science and the events of the day in any of six languages. So the Band was part of a larger campaign to show Hawaiʻi’s place in the world.

According to the Royal Hawaiian Band’s website:

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.

The Band went through a number of bandmasters as well as name changes – His Majesty’s Band, Royal Hawaiian Military Band, and later “Provisional Government Band.” Berger was actually hired by Kamehameha V and came to Hawaiʻi after having trained as a military musician. He was from Potsdam, East Germany, which was then in Prussian (pre-German unification – Hawaiʻi is older than Germany as a sovereign country! and Italy! But I digress..). Berger began an association with the Kamehameha Schools, where he worked, building up their boys band, until 1903. (Incidentally, the current Bandmaster is Clark Bright, who I knew from when he was the band director of Kamehameha). In 1914, Queen Liliʻuokalani bestowed upon Berger the title “Father of Hawaiian Music.”

At the time of annexation, the Band took a stand against the oaths that the usurping government was imposing on citizens – one of the only type of leverage the illegal government had was employment. This is when Kaulana nā Pua was written, as it was the Band members themselves who said they would “eat stones” – ʻai pōhaku – rather than “value the government’s sums of money” (“ʻAʻole mākou aʻe minamina I ka puʻu kālā o ke aupuni,” see “Buke Mele Lāhui: the Book of National Songs). According to Silva (2004), the Band members reorganized into “Ka Bana Hawaiʻi” and toured on the continent. So there are those who would say that the current Royal Hawaiian Band, which is under the City and County of Honolulu is not the original band, or at least does not have a lineage directly back to Kamehameha III’s original band as it says in their promotional material.


For an extensive description of the Royal Hawaiian Band, see David Bandy, “Bandmaster Henri Berger and the Royal Hawaiian Band,” Hawaiian Journal of History.

Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed, Duke University Press, 2004.

Royal Hawaiian Band website:

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