Ozzie Kotani was among the performers at the Slack Key Guitar Festival last week at Kapiolani Park.

A master is still
learning new tricks

Humble Ozzie Kotani
passes on tradition

For slack-key guitarist Ozzie Kotani to make one public appearance a year is nothing unusual. Two times over as many consecutive weekends, it's an event. But THREE times in two weekends -- that is unreal.

Ozzie Kotani

In concert: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (sold out) and 4 p.m. Sunday

Place: Atherton Performing Arts Studio, Hawaii Public Radio, 738 Kaheka St.

Tickets: $17.50 general, $15 HPR members and $10 students

Call: 955-8821

Kotani admits that if he didn't teach on a regular basis, he would only occasionally pick up the guitar.

Yet, last Sunday, not only did he play his own solo set early at the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival at Kapiolani Park, but he happily sat in on backup during former student Danny Carvalho's set immediately afterward.

Carvalho will return the favor at Kotani's sold-out concert at the Atherton Performing Arts Studio Saturday, guesting along with another former student of Kotani's, Lori Kidani, and lyrical ukulele player Gordon Mark.

Kotani said he hadn't anticipated doing yet another show, but ticket sales indicated enough demand to add an afternoon Sunday concert.

While it would be easy to peg Kotani as a masterful instrumentalist, his self-effacing personality wouldn't allow such a lofty description. "I call myself an advanced player," he said, "or a senior player, since I've done this for about 25 years now. I learned from the best -- Peter Medeiros, Sonny Chillingworth -- and I consider them the masters. I'm not comfortable putting myself in their company, because I still have so much to learn.

"Besides," he adds with a laugh, "I don't know if I have the energy to continually practice."

Compared to players such as Jake Shimabukuro and Keola Beamer, musicians whom Kotani says are known for "cutting new technical work, for me, it's more about the tune, to get that superlative sound.

"They're full-time musicians, I'm not," he admitted. "I don't do enough traveling to invest in the kind of equipment they use."

Like many other local musicians, Kotani holds onto a regular job, as registrar for the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. "I was told early on, while I was studying with Sonny, don't make music a full-time job, because there's always the pressure that you can't make a good living on it. And with my own family, they emphasized scholastics, and finishing your education."

But let's give Kotani credit where credit is due. The man is a respected enough guitarist that he was among the soloists in the Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar album series on George Winston's nationally distributed Dancing Cat label. And even though Kotani's latest solo album, "Paka Ua (Raindrops)," released last month, is on the Daniel Ho Creations label, Winston gave the project his blessing, even writing a laudatory blurb for the album.

KOTANI SELDOM performs live nowadays. "Teaching keeps me in touch with the guitar," he said.

His love affair with slack-key started "when I first heard Keola's instrumental work." Kotani decided early on that he would concentrate strictly on playing slack-key because, "if I started to sing, I'd have to be careful with the pronunciation of Hawaiian words as well."

Even after a quarter-century of laudable work, Kotani is cognizant of the perception of being "a non-Hawaiian playing in a Hawaiian tradition."

"Playing is enough to keep me interested," he said. "I'm not classically trained, although I've been told that my playing style has a vocal quality to it."

Kotani has also distinguished himself for a couple of self-taught qualities: his unique chording style ("those not typical to the tradition") and for using all the fingers on his playing hand for a distinctive rolling sound.

For a little over a year, the guitarist has been busy teaching groups of youngsters from the Papakolea Boys and Girls Club. He'll be starting with a second group of mostly teens next month.

"I believe in going out to serve such under-served communities as Papakolea. And I know I can teach slack-key guitar because I have a great lineage that stems from traditional players.

"I also have a concern with the dilution of the tradition. With slack-key guitar getting bigger and bigger on the mainland, with more attention put on it because of the Grammy Award, there's these variations being created that have nothing to do with Hawaiian-made music. I want to make sure that what I know is passed on to budding young guitarists here."

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