puts heart
in slack key

Makana was barely out of middle school when local record producers came knocking. They wanted the promising teenager, then known as the Ki Ho'alu Kid, to record an album while he could capitalize on his youth as "Hawaii's youngest slack-key legend" and similar gimmicks.

Makana in concert

With special guests Bill Tapia and Tau Moe

Where: Hawaii Theatre

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $25; a $50 VIP ticket includes admission to a post-show reception at the ARTS at Marks Garage and a signed copy of "Ki Ho'alu"

Call: 528-0506

Makana wasn't interested. He also didn't feel the time was right years later when he decided to record. Rather than focusing on slack key, his 1999 self-titled debut album displayed his depth as a polished yet unpretentious singer-songwriter with an engaging pop-folk fusion sound. Makana's second project, "Koi Au," used slack key somewhat more prominently as the foundation for a brilliant blending of Hawaiian, pop and ethnic music from several world cultures. It was one of the most impressive and memorable local albums of any genre to be released in 2002.

Now, with his third album, "Ki Ho'alu," released on Nov. 4, Makana has unleashed a collection of beautiful pure slack-key music that will be celebrated with a concert tomorrow at the Hawaii Theatre. His special guests will be Bill Tapia and Tau Moe. A CD-release party is planned for sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"This is something that everyone wanted me to do a long time ago, and I think, hopefully, this will show why I waited. Maybe they'll understand and maybe they won't, but (slack key) is a fine art that required cultivation," Makana said.

"It felt right to do it now. I felt like I could offer something. One of the approaches I see in creating and recording and performing music is when an artist or musician cultivates a sound and reinforces the sound throughout either the album or their career and becomes focused on being identified with the sound. ... My personal approach is a little different. It's cultivating something more representative of the vastness of limitless potential, being that art for me should reflect what is in reality (and) what is being experienced.

"Basically, with this album I'm moving backward and forward in time simultaneously. With the Hawaiian music I'm reaching further and further back to remember and bring it along with it for future generations ... and yet moving forward in time simultaneously with the original stuff. It's a tricky thing to do -- like multitasking -- but what really helps me is getting past the concept of self and just allowing the music to come through."

Bill Tapia, 95, who learned how to play ukulele by listening to his Hawaiian neighbors on Sereno Street, says that modern strings are much easier to work with than the gut strings he learned on before World War I. Tapia will be performing with Makana and Tau Moe tomorrow at Hawaii Theatre.

"KI HO'ALU" is an impressive celebration of the diversity and depth of pure Hawaiian slack key. It's a perfect portrait of Makana as a artist as well. Most of the songs are slack-key standards, and he plays some of them in the style of the older masters who made them famous. Others he deconstructs and reworks. Several new originals show where he's been and where he's taking the musical form. New versions of older original works were included because he found them relevant.

"One of the things I wanted to do with my music is expand the perception of what is the limitation with a single instrument and a single player. A song like "Napo'o Ka La" -- if you listen to it -- it's all happening with one instrument. I really enjoy stuff like that.

"Most slack-key albums feature a player in their own style, and with this album the intent was to put on display the beauty of the art form in general, not so much inserting a persona into it, although I feel that my feeling (and) my personal energy is wrapped up in these songs."

He compares the experience to having a young artist record songs by everyone from Muddy Waters to Robert Johnson to B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix to showcase the diversity of the blues.

The album also shows that Makana understands the importance of perpetuating slack-key lore for future generations, just as others did in passing it on to him. A wealth of personal and cultural information is included in the liner notes -- the history of the older songs, the stories behind his originals, and his experiences with his early mentors Bobby Moderow Jr. and Sonny Chillingworth.

"To do those liner notes, I did a lot of research. I have friends who have extensive 78 (rpm record) collections, and lots of the old liner notes for slack-key albums from the '60s refer to slack key as a dying art form, and it's interesting to note that 40 years later there's less of the players around, so this album is not just a gift (to people who like slack key), but my due to them. People have invested their faith in me -- like Uncle Sonny did -- to carry on the baton of the art form, and here I am."

"I wanted people to be able to develop a relationship with not only what I'm doing now, but the path of my journey. I call (the album) "journey of Hawaiian slack key" because I want to take people on a journey -- not a lineal journey from Point A to Point B, but on a tour of the amazing diversity of this art form."

He said Chillingworth's "Makee 'Ailana" sparked his love for Hawaiian music, describing the "classic beautiful sound with Sonny's kind of misplaced operatic voice."

Other songs like "Ku'ulei 'Awapuhi" address the modern style he's developing, and he says "As The World Tunes" "is something I'm very happy with. It's all one take live on one 12-string guitar. That (song) is meant to bring together Hawaiian music with Western music."

As for playing in another artist's style, Makana describes it as "the art of interpretation."

"What I have in mind when I'm interpreting someone else's style is more of a spiritual thing than a technical approach. I feel what it's like to be them, forget about who I am ... like what a great actor would do, I assume, and let them flow through me."

As for the future, Makana says, "I haven't even touched upon a lot of the stuff yet, so be ready."

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