Being a musician is a lessonBy John Berger
in giving for young artist
Special to the Star-Bulletin
EVOLUTION is part of life, and evolution sometimes requires a name change ... or two. So the artist formerly known as Ki Ho'alu Kid, formerly known as Matt Swalinkavich, now performs as Makana.
"It's my given Hawaiian name," he explained over breakfast at Duke's Canoe Club in Waikiki.
"I've reached the point where 'Ki Ho'alu Kid' doesn't really represent the whole range of what I do. When I started at Duke's I was sitting there playing slack key. Now I'm singing, and I'm moving into writing my own music."
"Besides the fact that (Makana) is my Hawaiian name, it's also that it means 'gift,' which is what this music is.
"It was given to me and I'm giving it to people. Learning how to give without having to receive is an endless lesson in unconditional giving. Learning to give my music unconditionally is one of the great challenges that I accept in my life to learn. I try my best to pull them into what I'm doing, but I'm here to serve everybody. I try to always give 110 percent whether they're listening or not."
Makana has been one of the local entertainers showcased in the beach front restaurant for the past six years. He remembers when he first played at Duke's in 1993 as a high schooler. He climbed on a stool and found that his feet didn't quite reach the stone floor. He has grown considerably in the last six years. So has his repertoire. Ki ho'alu (slack key) is an important element, but he has evolved into a compelling vocalist and perceptive lyricist.
What: Bankoh Ki Ho'alu Slack Key Festival, featuring Raymond Kane, Led Kaapana, George Kuo, Makaha Sons, Hapa, Makana, Cyril Pahinui, Michael Kaawa, the Native Hawaiian Band, Dennis & David Kamakahi, and Ozzie Kotani
Where: Royal Hawaiian Hotel
When: 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday
Makana will presumably focus on slack key during his set at the Bankoh Ki Ho'alu Slack Key Guitar Festival at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Sunday, although given the diverse musical tastes of some of the other participants -- Led Kaapana, Hapa, and the Makana Sons, for example -- that isn't guaranteed. Makana will play from his new repertoire tomorrow evening at Kincaid's in Ward Warehouse, and late Sunday night in his usual spot from 10 p.m. to midnight at Duke's.
Those who know him only as a soft-spoken slack-key guitarist may be surprised to learn he lists Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin among his main musical influences.
"I'm pulling out as much music as I can out of just myself and the guitar. A lot of the music I'm writing now requires other players to create the dynamics -- different colors and feelings, just like human emotions.
"I'm into writing from personal experience."
Makana enlisted more than a dozen other artists for spot work on his self-titled debut album. All going well, it will be officially released at the end of the month.
As with the other elements of his career, Makana didn't record until he felt he was ready and the time was right. He displayed maturity and insight beyond his years when he turned down several local record deals offered to him when he was still in high school. He views an aborted recording project, and the post-production delays that postponed the release of this one, with equal equanimity.
"I keep reminding myself that no matter what cards I get dealt, to just go with it.
"I didn't take those offers before because rushing into a recording isn't the whole deal if you're serious about a career. If I was going to record (slack key) I wanted to develop my style. When I began to expand my sound I wanted to work on my voice. Why record if you have nothing to say?
"I feel now I'm definitely ready. I have so much music coming through me, I am so blessed, all I am is a channel for music. That's the only reason I exist."
Makana has been involved with music one way or another for most of his life. He was seven when he joined the Honolulu Boy Choir. He began studying 'ukulele with Roy Sakuma two years later. Two years after that he picked up the guitar and soon proved his promise. He studied slack key with Sonny Chillingworth and received a grant from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts that enabled him to continue his apprenticeship. In 1996, the year he graduated from Pearl City High School, he received a scholarship from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts.
Currently, he sees no reason to put his career plans on hold simply to get a college diploma, but he is a voracious reader and perceptive observer, of his own strengths and weaknesses as well those of the people around him. He suggests "The Prophet" and "The Tao of Lao Tzu" as two books worth careful study, and although he can be aggressively assertive in assessing the world around him, he holds himself to the same rigorous standards.
"I admit that I don't always have a positive attitude, but I thank the universe that I have music because that keeps me balanced. I may put out the impression that I'm moving away from slack key, and, in one direction, yes, obviously, but at the same time I carry that with me.
"It's a very personal music. I can't expect people to always be there, but even if I lose my voice I can still play. The guitar can talk for me."
Makana has had students of his own but doesn't currently teach. He doesn't expect to resume teaching until he's at least 30, but enjoys sitting in on occasional class workshops with Ozzie Kotani at the University of Hawaii.
While he said he loves sharing on that level, he doesn't believe tradition should hinder creativity.
"My belief is living in the moment. I have my roots and that's where I come back to, but at the same time, my branches can reach to outer space. It can all be done. Life doesn't tarry in yesterday. The only one who's stopping me is me."
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