Learning from theBy Suzanne Tswei
Special to the Star-Bulletin
ALTHOUGH bedridden with cancer, Sonny Chillingworth perked up when he learned musician Walter Carvalho was going to Niihau to visit slack-key guitar virtuoso Malaki Kanahele.
Chillingworth yelled out from his bed; "Go up there and find out what tuning he's using," recalls Carvalho. "Later, I went to see Sonny after I came back, and again he really wasn't feeling very well. But when he heard it was me, he sat up and right away he wanted to know 'did you get that tuning?"'
Carvalho tells the story to illustrate the importance of tuning and the need to learn it directly from the masters, who at one time did not readily share such information outside of their families. But Carvalho has been lucky; he has learned from expert musicians, such as Chillingworth, who were generous with a younger generation of slack-key devotees.
"Sonny told me, 'I'll show you under one condition, that when I am gone, you'll show it to others, exactly the way I showed it to you,' " Carvalho says.
Chillingworth died in 1994, and Carvalho is keeping his word. At 51, he is an accomplished slack-key guitarist and qualifies as a living master in the Folk Arts Program administered by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. The program, in its 15th year, funds one-on-one learning between a master and an apprentice in various island folk arts.
Carvalho has been teaching apprentice Pam Garza since May, and the two will be part of a free public concert Sunday on the grounds of Iolani Palace. Another duo, master Ozzie Kotani and apprentice Lance Takamiya, also will perform. The concert is the latest in the "Living Masters Concert Series," sponsored by the foundation and The Friends of Iolani Palace to showcase the performing arts in the Folk Arts Program.
"Pam is ready. I have no doubt she will play beautifully on Sunday. The concert is taking it to another level, from playing to performing. This way, maybe someone else will want to learn slack key after they see us. This is how the art gets perpetuated," Carvalho says.
What: "Living Masters Concert Series" featuring slack key masters Walter Carvalho and Ozzie Kotani, and their respective apprentices Pamela Garza and Lance Takamiya
Where: Iolani Palace Coronation Pavilion area, or in the Old Archives building in case of rain.
When: 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Free; tours of the palace are also free to local residents
Call: 522-0827 for concert information, 522-0832 for palace tour reservations.
Having been both an apprentice and a master, Carvalho understands the ki ho'alu tradition. Carvalho studied with Chillingworth, who learned from one of the most influential slack-key artists, Gabby Pahinui.
"Sonny never charged me anything. Private lessons are expensive, but he did it for free for me. That's him. He wanted to pass on what he knew," he says.
In 1992, Carvalho also became an apprentice in the state program, studying under another slack-key wizard, Raymond Kane.
"I learned from so many of the masters. I consider myself so fortunate to have been able to share their thoughts, their music, their playing -- what they call their mana'o."
Carvalho recalls a time when the only way younger musicians could learn from the masters was to "sit and watch." The masters were reluctant to teach, and some went as far as to undo the tuning on their guitars when they finish playing so no one could investigate their tuning systems. In slack key, some of the strings are loosened from standard tunings to give the instrument a uniquely Hawaiian sound, and individuals have their own traditions and improvisations.
One credo Carvalho learned from his teachers is the necessity to pass on the traditional techniques unaltered. "You should always teach it exactly as you have learned from your teacher, who learned it from his teacher who taught it exactly as he learned it. This way the tradition will be perpetuated and we will always have a record of how the old masters did it."
Under the Folk Arts Program guidelines, Carvalho and Garza are scheduled to meet for two 90-minute lessons a week. But the lessons often last for hours, sometimes ending only when they become too exhausted to continue. On their time off from their work (Carvalho is a facilities manager at Pearl Harbor, and Garza is a food service worker at Kamehameha Schools), they squeeze in long hours of concert rehearsals.
"There are a lot of hours spent practicing -- and not sleeping," says Garza, who is 41 and the mother of a grown daughter and two teen-age sons.
It was not only Garza's talent, but her commitment to learning the art form and willingness to sacrifice that impressed Carvalho initially. "Her ability to connect with people," traits that he believes will make her a superb musician and teacher, convinced him she was the perfect apprentice.
Garza first learned slack-key guitar when she was 13 but gave it up as a serious pursuit after she married and moved to the mainland. She returned to the islands with her family about five years ago and became determined to study slack key again. She met Carvalho at a jam session.
The Folk Arts Program is not for novices, says program coordinator Michael Schuster.
Normally the apprentices are accomplished artists themselves and have formed a teacher-student relationship with the masters before they are accepted into the program. Funding is for between six and eight months, and can reach up to $4,000 to cover lessons and expenses.
Performing arts as well as crafts of all the ethnic cultures in the islands are eligible. People interested in applying for funding should call Schuster at 586-0306.
Other performances in the "Living Masters Concert Series" are:
Sept. 5 -- Okinawan Uta-Sanshin, with master Harry Nakasone and apprentice Keith Nakaganeku. Mitsuko Toguchi's Okinawan dance ensemble also will perform.
Oct.10 -- Japanese Gagaku (court music) will feature master Masatoshi Shamoto and apprentice Darin Miyashiro, and others in ensemble.
Nov. 7 -- Hawaiian ancient hula featuring master Nona Desha Beamer and apprentice Maile Loo.
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