Charles Brotman says slack-key music might be better appreciated on the mainland than in Hawaii these days.

Slack-key album is
Grammy’s dark horse

Charles Brotman’s CD includes
notable isle artists


It might seem easy to dismiss Charles Michael Brotman's chances of winning a Grammy for his "Slack Key Guitar" compilation album, when compared with the veteran nominees in the new Best Hawaiian Music Album category.

But all the other nominees -- the Brothers Cazimero, Keali'i Reichel, Ho'okena, Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Willie K -- know better.

Grammy Week

In the days leading up to Sunday's Grammy Awards, we will present daily profiles of the artists nominated in the new Hawaiian music category.

Tomorrow: Ho'okena; nominated for "Cool Elevation"

Wednesday: Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Willie K; "Amy and Willie Live"

Thursday: The Brothers Cazimero; "Some Call It Aloha ... Don't Tell"

Friday: Keali'i Reichel; "Ke'alaokamaile"

Saturday: The Grammy process, demystified

Next Sunday: Hawaii's artists partake of the L.A. experience leading up to the Grammy Award ceremony.

The Album

"Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2"
Various artists (Palm)

Big Island record producer Charles Michael Brotman's second compilation of slack key instrumentals is evidently intended for people more interested in ambient music than cultural enlightenment. The 14 selections showcase the talents of 10 local guitarists who all play beautiful ki ho'alu. While the liner notes mention that each of them has "their own tuning and slack key style," nothing more is said about what it is specifically that distinguishes one from the other, let alone the tunings.

If all you're looking for is comfortable background music, this is for you. But for some background material not included on the album, it's been years since Randy Lorenzo last recorded -- he's still better known as the lead vocalist on the Peter Moon Band's breakthrough hit, "Island Love," than as a slack-key player.

This review was first printed in Island Mele, Nov. 7, 2003.

"There are a lot of good players on that CD, not the least of which is John Cruz," Willie K says. "And most of them have also been around a long time. People know them."

There's another, perhaps even more important factor, says Robert Cazimero.

"Slack key is very, very popular on the mainland," he said. "The fans are loyal to the music and could see this as an opportunity to reward their music of choice."

So while the Cazimeros and Reichel appear to be the favorites in the contest, Brotman's CD, made with 10 other notable Hawaii guitarists, is the dark horse.

But Brotman, a soft-spoken musician, won't be seduced into analyzing his chances. "No bachi," he says, laughing. "It sounds trite, but all of us at Palm Records and every musician on this album feel proud to be in the same category with the others."

Brotman, an accomplished acoustic guitarist, recorded "Slack Key Guitar Volume 2" over a 10-month period at his Waimea, Big Island, studio.

"None of the guys on this album, except for perhaps John Cruz, are superstar-type musicians, but all have had interesting careers and won lots of Hoku awards," Brotman says. "And they've all been instrumental in shaping contemporary Hawaiian music."

Musicians featured on the disc are:

Randy Lorenzo: An 11-time Na Hoku Hanohano winner, former member of the Peter Moon Band, Country Comfort and founding member of Olomana, who recorded with the Beamer brothers ("Honolulu City Lights") and Gabby Pahinui.

Bryan Kessler: Another multiple Hoku recipient and former leader of the Hawaiian Style Band with Wade Cambern and Robi Kahakalau.

Jeff Peterson: The slack-key guitar solo recording artist is fluent in a variety of guitar styles, including jazz and classical. He's performed with Eric Clapton, James Galway, Michael Feinstein, the Honolulu Symphony, Hawaii Opera Theatre, shakuhachi master Riley Lee and soprano Dana Hanchard. He also teaches guitar at the University of Hawaii.

Keoki Kahumoku: The son of slack-key master George Kahumoku.

Sonny Lim: The multiple Hoku winner is a member of the Big Island's renowned musical Lim family.

John Keawe: Multiple Hoku winner received Hawaii's prestigious Ki Ho'alu (slack key) Award in 2002.

Charlie Recaido: A member of the Big Island's acoustic guitar trio Kohala.

John Cruz: The guitar virtuoso is a multiple Hoku winner.

Ken Emerson: Known for his steel guitar performances, he has toured and recorded with Taj Mahal, Pablo Cruz and Todd Rundgren.

Brotman himself is known for integrating classical technique and smooth-jazz compositions with Hawaiian influences.

He began musical training at age 8 as a violin student, then switched to the guitar performing as a teenager with various pop bands in Washington.

He came to Oahu from Mercer Island, Wash., to house-sit for a friend and ended up staying to teach guitar for nine years at the University of Hawaii.

Brotman's first two CDs -- "Mango Cooler" (1990) on the Global Pacific label, followed by "Pacific Rendezvous" (1993) on Brainchild -- both charted in the Top 10 on U.S. "contemporary jazz" radio.

He moved to the Big Island in 1993 with his wife and his sister Jody, with whom he co-founded Palm Records four years later with the aim of having more control over his music.

His plans included building the Lava Tracks Recording Studio in Waimea in 1998. The studio was designed by Chris Pelonis of Pelonis Sound & Acoustics, a four-time nominee for MIX magazine's TEC Award for studio design.

"Lava Tracks was designed to provide an ideal acoustic environment for recording classical and acoustic guitars," says Brotman, who calls the octagon-shaped studio "a carpenter's nightmare."

"The idea is for listeners to close their eyes and imagine that the guitar player is right in the room with them. That's the sound I'm after."

That's what he had hoped to achieve with "Slack Key Guitar," which he describes as "the cornerstone of our label."

"I wanted to get a wide range on the CD, from very traditional to contemporary, to cover what's being done in Hawaii with slack key," he said.

The album reflects the artists' varying personalities.

"Some are quiet and conservative, and others push the envelope all the time," said Brotman, whose compositions have been heard on radio, film and television, including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Dateline" and "Entertainment Tonight."

"I was surprised we were nominated, because there were so many albums in the category, but the popularity of acoustic and slack-key guitar on the mainland is incredible," he said. "Slack key is a buzz word, and everybody knows about it."

He credits pianist George Winston, who, through his Dancing Cat record label, has produced more than 30 solo guitar recordings of other slack-key musicians, including the late Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Ozzie Kotani, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo, James "Bla" Pahinui, Dennis Kamakahai, George Kahumoku Jr. and Cindy Combs.

"If the (final) voting had been done in Hawaii, we probably would not have made the ballot," Brotman said. "But on the mainland it's a different ball game, so I think the playing field now is pretty even, though we're not the big Hawaii superstars."

Things are starting to change for Brotman since the nomination. For the last few weeks, he's been doing daily interviews, mostly with mainland media outlets. There have also been several discussions about a mainland showcase tour.

"I'm getting very popular, but my wife is still making me take out the garbage," he said, laughing.

He's especially pleased about the exposure Hawaiian music is receiving beyond our shores because of the addition of the Hawaiian music category.

"It should expand the market because there's an appetite out there for music from different cultures," said Brotman, who insists he isn't thinking about winning. Brotman, his wife and sister, and guitarists Lim, Emerson and Peterson will attend the award ceremony Sunday in Los Angeles.

"We're just going to go and soak it all in," Brotman said. "Any of the nominees would be a great winner. ... All have dedicated their lives to music, and all are proponents of Hawaiian music. That's really what this is about."

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