Henry Kailimai and the Ford Hawaiians Introduced the Motor City to the ‘Sweet’ Sound of Ukulele


The first wave of Hawaiian string music broke upon the golden shores of San Francisco Bay at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in 1915. That musical wave would quickly make its way halfway across the country to the unlikely shores of Detroit, Michigan, thanks in no small part to composer and ukulele player Henry Kailimai and his Hawaiian Quintet. A protege of the legendary Earnest Ka’ai, Kailimai was selected to lead the Hawaiian musical delegation to the PPIE after “a fierce competition between the glee clubs of Jonah Kumalae and Ernest Ka’ai,” as Hawaiian music historians Jim Tranquada and John King describe in their book, The Ukulele—A History. The result was that Kumalae’s group, the Hawaiian Quintet, was chosen, with Henry Kailimai as the leader.

Kailimai is perhaps best remembered today as the composer of many popular hapa haole songs of the day, including his most famous composition, “On the Beach at Waikiki,” the first mainland mega-hit in Hawaiian popular music. As King states in his book Famous Solos & Duets for the ’Ukulele, “Kailimai’s activities on the mainland placed him at the forefront of Hawaiian music evangelists in the first half of the 20th Century.” (Music from Kailimai can be also found in that book, including “Hene” and two collaborations between Kailimai and Ka’ai: “Lauia,” and “Polka-Mazurka.”)

One day at the Exposition, the sweet sounds produced by the Hawaiian Quintet caught the ear of another Henry—Henry Ford. Yes, that Henry Ford.

 After the noted industrialist visited Hawaiian Pavilion at the PPIE in the fall of 1915, he was smitten. As Tranquada wrote in the Winter 2014 issue of Ukulele, “…the multimillionaire was so impressed he made an offer on the spot for the services of Kailimai and his band. ‘Listening to your boys sing and play the sweet Hawaiian music has made me desirous of enabling our people in Detroit to enjoy the same pleasure,’ he wrote in a formal offer.” As King noted, Ford intended to bring the Quintet to Detroit to perform “for the Ford Motor Company promotions and social events throughout the Midwest.” 


The result was a Midwestern tidal wave of enthusiasm for this new tropical sound. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote on October 24, 1916: “Detroit, Michigan—For the first time in the history of this city, the general public was given an opportunity last night to dance to the weird, fascinating, and charming music of far-off Hawaii, rendered by the Hawaiian Quintet at Arcadia Auditorium.” The engagement at the Arcadia was an overwhelming success. As the Star-Bulletin reported, “Box office figures show that the attendance totaled 5,316 persons and many hundreds were turned away. At various times during the evening, it was estimated that were 1,300 couples on the floor at one time.”

After relocating to Detroit, the Quintet was renamed the Ford Hawaiians. By the early 1920s, Ford was still forcefully promoting the music of the group formerly known as the Hawaiian Quintet. They regularly played on Ford’s Dearborn radio station and at Ford company events. Ford also arranged for the group to make a number of recordings for his good friend and inventor Thomas Edison’s label.

But by the mid-1920s, the mercurial Ford’s musical interests had changed. In 1924 he established the Ford Motor Company Music Department, part of Ford’s more significant interest in influencing and shaping popular culture. He saw jazz as a musical threat to American culture, and this new division of the Ford Motor Company had more ulterior motives than simply promoting dance music to company employees.

In a 2016 article for the Cambridge University Press, “Assembly Lines and Contra Dance Lines: The Ford Motor Company Music Department and Leisure Reform,” Katherine Brucher writes:

“Supporters of Ford’s revival viewed the restrained musical accompaniment and dance movements as an antidote to jazz music and dances, but more importantly, music and dance served as an object lesson in the physical discipline necessary for assembly line labor. Ford’s dance education campaign reveals the degree to which industry was once entwined with leisure reform in southeast Michigan. In 1925, Ford’s ‘Return of the Dance’ program boldly announced the automaker Henry Ford’s goals for a revival of what he called ‘old-fashioned dancing’ and ‘early American music.’”

Ironically, while the man who one might argue ushered in the 20th century ultimately returned to the music of his 19th-century roots, Ford’s promotion of Henry Kailimai and the Ford Hawaiians fueled the mainland’s adoption of the ukulele and Hawaiian/hapa haole music. It’s a testament to the beauty and power of Hawaiian music that, for a time, it captivated the imagination of the steeliest industrialist of his age.

Peter T. Young contributed to the research for this article.