Henry Berger


Pottsdam-born Henrich Wilhelm Berger was named Father of Hawaiian Music by Queen Lilioukalani. Berger first came to Hawaii at the command of Kamehameha V in June 1872 and ordered to turn a dozen local musicians into a royal band. He not only did so, he expanded the band and toured the mainland. After a brief trip back to Germany in 1876, he returned and became a Hawaiian subject. He is credited with keeping Hawaiian music alive in difficult times, organizing bands at prisons, schools, teaching at Kamehameha and serving as organist at Kawaiahao church for 15 years.

Noting that Hawaii needed a national anthem, he supervised a contest, but no suitable entries were received, so he wrote music to lyrics by King Kalakaua and 'Hawaii Ponoi' was born. He also wrote the first finished manuscript of 'Aloha Oe' for the Queen. He came up with the idea of having his band greet passenger ships, inaugurating a tradition that lived for a century. He organized numerous bands, orchestras and string quartets (introducing them and the double bass to Hawaii) and what would become the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. He also performed over 500 times at the Royal Hawaiian. He is credited with composing and arranging over 275 Hawaiian songs and more than 1000 other songs, as well as writing down numerous mele and chants for the first time.

George Kanahele says, "Henry Berger's impact on Hawaiian music was greater and more lasting than that of any other single individual." Berger called the music of Hawaii when he arrived "hauntingly beautiful," but was shocked that, other than a few hymns, none of it was written down. He not only wrote down every single Hawaiian melody he heard, he arranged them for the Royal Hawaiian Band and published many of them. He also translated the Italian lexicon of music into Hawaiian, a language he learned soon after his arrival. His Germanic origins made it difficult for him to pronouce the soft 'w' in both English and Hawaiian and is partly responsible for the harder 'v' sound still heard in Hawaiian words. He retired in 1915 and died in 1929. The Royal Hawaiian Band played for Berger's birthday every year and after his death, mounted memorial concerts in his honor which continue today.

Biographical material from George Kanahele, Hawaiian Music and Musicians (University of Hawaii, 1979) and Tony Todaro, The Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment (Tony Todaro Pub., 1974).