Slack-key sound flows across island festivals
As sure as the call of the conch shell, slack-key guitar music has become a sound that is synonymous with Hawaii.
It gets its name from the loosening or "slackening" of the instrument's strings from the standard tuning to one preferred by the musician. He plays the bass notes with his thumb on the lower three or four pitched strings while his other fingers pluck the melody on the upper two or three pitched strings.
Kahoku Productions will be presenting three free slack-key guitar concerts on Oahu, the Big Island and Kauai in the coming months. Among the performers who will appear at all three festivals are Ledward Kaapana and Makana. Food, crafts, CDs and commemorative T-shirts will be available for purchase. You also can enter a drawing for a Taylor guitar at the concerts (winner to be announced on Dec. 1). Call 226-2697 or visit the Web site www.hawaiianslackkeyguitarfestivals.com.
What: Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival "Oahu Style"
Place: Kapiolani Park Bandstand, Waikiki
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. next Sunday
Notes: Featured will be Glen Smith with Horace Dudoit of Ho'okena (shown), Bobby Moderow with Maunalua and Kawika Kahiapo with Kaukahi. Special guest will be Melveen Leed. Taimane Gardner, who performs at the Don Ho Show, will make her festival debut. Another spotlighted young artist is 15-year-old Danny Carvalho, who recently released his first solo CD, "Slack Key Journey -- On My Way."
What: Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival
Place: Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, Keauhou
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Sept. 3
Notes: Featured will be Sonny Lim, Keoki Kahumoku, Kohala and Brittni Paiva (shown). Special guests include Melveen Leed, Dennis Kamakahi and Pat Kirtley, the U.S. fingerpicking champion. From now through September, the Sheraton Keauhou (888-488-3535) is offering a $169 nightly kamaaina rate that includes a buffet breakfast for two.
What: Kauai Slack Key Guitar Festival
Place: Kauai Beach Hotel & Resort, Lihue (soon to be renamed the Hilton Kauai Beach Resort)
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Nov. 19
Notes: Featured will be Paul Togioka (shown) and Cindy Combs. Special guest will be Dennis Kamakahi. The resort (888-805-3843) will be offering a "Swing Into Slack Key Package" that includes accommodations and a compact rental car, good from Nov. 16 through Dec. 3. Nightly rates start at $159.
The result is music as gentle and fluid as a stream in a mountain rain forest.
Known as ki hoalu (literally, "loosen the key or pitch") by the Hawaiians, slack key traces its roots back to 1832, when, at the request of King Kamehameha III, Spanish vaqueros arrived on the Big Island to manage burgeoning herds of wild cattle. At the end of each long day in the saddle, the men relaxed around campfires with their favorite instrument, the guitar, which the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) quickly adopted. Local cowpokes discovered that by loosening the strings, they could produce new sounds and hit the right range to complement their voices.
By the late 1800s, slack key had spread from the Big Island to the other major Hawaiian islands. Today, there are dozens of different tunings, and musicians are continually experimenting with new ones to produce their own signature sound.
Ki hoalu is enjoying widespread renown, as evidenced by its strong showing at the Grammy Awards. Last year, Charles Brotman's "Slack Key Compilation" was named Best Hawaiian Music Album. Of the five nominees that vied for the Hawaiian Grammy this year, four were slack key, and Daniel Ho Creations' "Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar -- Vol. 1" won the coveted award.
The current ki hoalu craze has made the statewide slack-key festivals organized by Milton Lau, president of Kahoku Productions, all the more popular. The inaugural event on Oahu in 1982 paid tribute to Gabby Pahinui, regarded as the father of modern slack-key music.
"Gabby died in 1980, and there were many of us who loved him and wanted to do something to honor him," recalls Lau. "I was in charge of the music programs for the City and County of Honolulu at the time. The city, the Waimanalo community and Cyril Pahinui, who represented the Pahinui family, got together and made plans to dedicate the Waimanalo Beach Pavilion in Gabby's name. That turned into a full-fledged slack-key concert featuring Peter Moon, Melveen Leed, Atta Isaacs and many others -- the who's who of the local music industry back then."
HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY GUITAR FESTIVAL
Milton Lau, above, helped originate the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival as a tribute to legendary musician Gabby Pahinui.
THE INTENT was to do just one concert, but "over 2,000 people showed up at the park and had a great time," Lau says. "Everybody said, 'Milton, this is wonderful! You gotta keep doing this.'"
With support over the years from sponsors including the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Bank of Hawaii, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Lau not only continued the Oahu festival, he expanded it to Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. The Maui festival observed its 15th anniversary in June.
The Oahu festival will mark its 24th anniversary next Sunday, and the Big Island and Kauai festivals will celebrate their 14th anniversaries in September and November, respectively. Lau hopes to bring the festival to Molokai in October, but details were not firm at press time.
He says, "The purpose of the festivals is to preserve and perpetuate an indigenous art form that was born on the Big Island 176 years ago, and to honor masters like Gabby, Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth and Leonard Kwan who have been so important to the genre."
Interestingly, the concerts draw as many visitors as kamaaina.
"Slack key has become mainstream," Lau says. "It's known and loved all around the world."
In June he chatted with a family from Idaho who are avid slack-key enthusiasts.
"The mom said they had never heard such beautiful music before, and that convinced them of two things: Either they had to move to Hawaii to get their dose of slack key, or they would have to attend the festival every year and load up on the experience. So every year, she and her three daughters come to Maui specifically to attend the festival."
Lau got hooked on slack key because of Gabby Pahinui. He remembers listening to the legendary artist's records in his dorm room at the University of Kansas, learning the lyrics and trying to pick out the chords on his ukulele. He eventually taught himself how to play slack key by observing and imitating other musicians.
In 1977, Lau met Pahinui and started playing with him at backyard jam sessions, fundraisers for politicians and other informal gatherings.
"Gabby was the nicest man you could ever meet," he says. "He was open with his knowledge and filled with aloha. He had such a presence. He was an icon to me, a folk hero of sorts."
Lau still plays slack key daily, often at 2 or 3 in the morning.
"It calms me," he says. "It soothes my soul and lifts my spirit."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.