Steel guitar player Alan Akaka, center, and his trio perform at House Without a Key. Akaka will kick off the 9th Annual Steel Guitar Festival.

Sound of the Islands

There's nothing more evocative of the romance of Hawaii than the limpid, gliding tones of the steel guitar. The perfect aural backdrop to a waning tropical day in Waikiki -- the sunset giving Diamond Head a warm, golden glow -- with helpful tradewinds swirling the music in and around listeners in that gentle, caressing way.

9th Annual Steel Guitar

Where: House Without a Key, Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road

When: 6 p.m. tomorrow and through Sept. 17 (with live Hawaiian music played from 5 to 8:30 p.m.)

Admission: Free, reservations not required

Call: 923-2311

Schedule (all guest artists will be backed by the house band of that particular evening, following the hula performance):

» Tomorrow: Alan Akaka
» Sunday: Paul Kim
» Monday and Tuesday: Jeff Au Hoy and Hale Seabury-Akaka
» Wednesday: Greg Sardinha
» Thursday: Bill Wynne (from New Jersey)
» Sept. 17: Isaac Akuna

It's an alluring scenario that happens six nights a week, year in, year out, rain or shine, starting at 5 in the afternoon under a 120-year-old kiawe tree at the House Without a Key restaurant, located on the well-kept grounds of the Halekulani resort.

During this time every year, as part of the Aloha Festivals event calendar, the nightly entertainment is augmented with guest steel guitar players, invited by the hotel's longtime resident steel guitarist, Alan Akaka. He's also the instrument's most fervid supporter, himself a veteran member of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Association.

"This is such a nice setting, very hard to beat," said Akaka on one such lovely late afternoon Monday. And it's a setting he wanted to keep for the festival, an idea the Halekulani management originally approached him with in 1995.

It's a mission of outreach that Akaka understands himself all too well -- his steel guitar playing stretches out to include his day job at the choral music program at Kamehameha Schools, as well as concerts and seminars he gives both here and abroad.

"The key to this festival is to get both players from Hawaii and surrounding areas, who play Hawaiian style," he said.

AKAKA HIMSELF will kick off the festival tomorrow, and will be its congenial host for its remainder. This year's guest list includes Paul Kim, a regular at the Halekulani on Wednesday evenings and whose credits include playing with Aunty Genoa Keawe and Na Palapalai; the excellent Greg Sardinha of Po'okela and an always-in-demand accompanist; New Jerseyite and Hawaiian music enthusiast Bill Wynne, who will also be a contestant at Frank B. Shaner's falsetto contest; and the promising young talent of Jeff Au Hoy and Hale Seabury-Akaka (and, yes, he is Alan's nephew on a cousin's side).

"Jeff has been playing quite a bit with the Brothers Cazimero, and even played with them recently at 'Iolani Palace in honor of the queen's birthday. He's only 24 years old, and he's super talented. Hale is in his early 20s as well, and I started him off when he was an eighth-grader at Kamehameha."

Akaka himself has been playing the steel guitar for 32 years and counting, learning it on his own when he was a teenager, starting with using the barrel of a clarinet as a slide on his dad's guitar.

Akaka would become proficient enough to receive a scholarship from the now-defunct Hawaii Music Foundation.

"I remember first hearing the steel guitar at luaus, during the time when you would be served at the table. Later on, I tried copying (David) 'Feet' Rogers' playing on that first Sons of Hawaii album. His playing was so simple, so sweet."

BOTH HE and Kim learned their musical skills under the tutelage of the great Jerry Byrd. Akaka said that his own style expanded with the help of Byrd. "What I learned from him was that, although technique was important, the number one thing was musicality. I remember him telling me that it's not the notes you play, but what you play between two notes."

Akaka and his fellow guitarists are perpetuating the sweet Hawaiian sounds of the steel guitar that were began from such masters as Byrd, Rogers, Uncle Benny Rogers, Billy Hew Len, Jake Keli'ikoa and others.

Akaka hopes that with the continuance of the festival that a renaissance of the instrument is just around the corner.

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