Slack Key Festival Hits Its Stride with Led Kaapana
Call me a stickler. I believe that once a festival has made it happen for three consecutive years, it has truly earned the word “annual.” The Third Annual Southern California Slack Key Festival is making it happen again on Sunday, January 24 at 2:00pm., transforming the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center into a slice of musical paradise.
If the art of slack key guitar is on your radar, then you’ll notice familiar names from the artist line-up of the past two years – Cyril Pahinui, Makana, Jeff Peterson., Jim “Kimo” West, for example. But one name you are seeing for the first time at the festival – Ledward Ka’apana. He elevates any tribute to this uniquely Hawaiian musical genre called ki ho’alu. His effortless lightning technique and deeply expressive interpretations have thrilled audiences from Honolulu to Nashville. I once saw him at McCabe’s sharing a program with Bob Brozman on steel guitar. The two blended their considerable talents with musical zeal and disarming playfulness.
Led Ka’apana inspires a loyal following the world over, the hardcore among them known as Ledheads (not kidding – his wife launched the tee-shirt line). He has 2006 and 2007 Grammies to his credit. His Force of Nature CD, in which he performs with 12-string virtuoso Mike Kaawa, earned a Grammy nomination in 2009 and won Led and Mike the Favorite Entertainer Award at the Hawaiian equivalent of the Grammies, the 2009 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. Despite continued accolades, he remains humble and forthright, embodying the spirit of old Hawai’i with his slight Hawaiian accent, tawny coloring, hearty build and irrepressible humor. One haunting arrangement he does of the song Killing Me Softly he insists on introducing it as Killing Me Slowly, which always gets a laugh.
Many slack key players who came of age before the 1970s recall their learning process as a bit of a struggle. No one sat down and taught them the elements of the genre – the different open tunings, the types of ornamentation, the repertoire. The Hawaiian tradition for learning – in hula, too – says to close one’s mouth, watch, and listen. Led’s musical abilities developed as he watched and listened to relatives jam in front of the house on the Big Island where he grew up. These informal musical exchanges, known as kanikapila also introduced him to the male falsetto singing style that doubles the delight of hearing him play. (If you have a chance to order any CDs of Hui Ohana, you’ll hear the beauty of that voice in its prime.) By the light of kerosene lamps, the parents, uncles (his Uncle Fred Punaloa influenced him immensely) and cousins would play into the night, from time to time changing the slack key tunings to create different emotional colorations. As with other musical Hawaiian families, they had developed a host of slack key tunings and carefully guarded them over the generations.
With the word generations, we come to what makes this slack key guitar festival so special. It is a meeting of the generations of slack key players, a testament to the transmission of musical knowledge. Led Ka’apana and Cyril Pahinui represent the tie to old Hawaiian family music tradition. Makana, John Cruz, Jeff Peterson, and Jim “Kimo” West represent the recipients, the more recent keepers of the slack key legacy.
Is there anything comparable in folk music on the mainland right now? Decades ago, the Seeger’s reached out into rural America, tapping musical treasures. We had the late Mike Seeger absorbing instrumental styles in Southern Appalachia, Pete Seeger traveling all over the country performing folk and social justice material. Meanwhile, Peggy Seeger was discovering folk music genres of the British Isles and returning with them. Their father, musicologist Charles Seeger, helped establish the UCLA Ethnomusicology Program and Professor Anthony Seeger continues to enrich the academic track. The eminent John Lomax penetrated the Deep South to find hidden musical treasures and facilitated the release of titan folk talent Leadbelly. Lomax’s son and apprentice, Alan Lomax, went on to collect and catalogue songs in the south and the world over while Alan’s sister, recently deceased Bess Lomax Hawes, also became a noted folklorist.
Cyril Pahinui represents a musical dynasty launched by his late father Gabby Pahinui, who played slack key with so much soul that one barely noticed his impeccable technique. At their home in Waikoloa, in southeastern O’ahu, Gabby’s sons Martin, Cyril, and Bla learned by listening and watching, just as Led did on the Big Island. Eventually the young Pahinui brothers joined in the kanikapila, joined their dad in performance gigs and became professional musicians. Gabby, ironically, made his living doing road work while his musical “sideline” made him a musical legend. Cyril gets a virtually orchestral tone out of his steel guitar in his slack key arrangements and exudes sincerity and joy in sharing his music.
Makana says the Pahinui style owes a lot to a lesser known but supremely gifted and influential player, the late Atta Isaacs. “Atta Isaacs played in the key of C mostly and he did a lot of moving around the fret board,” O’ahu-born Makana told me in Honolulu last summer. “Then you have Fred Punahola. He taught Sonny Lim and Ledward Kaapana (Fred’s nephew). Now Ledward is my favorite slack key guitar player. So much aloha shines through when he plays. It’s fun.”
Makana, who along with Jim “Kimo” West, is not of Hawaiian ancestry, still considers himself a link in the slack key musical chain, the recipient of a precious musical legacy, one received from his first slack key teacher Bobby Moderow, who appeared in the 2nd Annual Slack Key Festival.. Moderow is also a big fan of Led, telling me last summer, “Led is the man when it comes to slack key guitar. No one can remotely touch that man. His personality, everything about him…He’s so unpretentious. I hold him deep in my heart.”
Bobby Moderow, in turn, learned from another of the slack key “greats,” Raymond Kane, who emphasized a sweetness of tone and mellow style.
Makana’s second and pivotal teacher was the revered Sonny Chillingworth. Under Uncle Sonny’s tutelage, Makana came of age as a musician, picking up the demonic speed and passion that Chillingworth used in a highly expressive way. Makana has been eclectic in his musical choices, at times honoring the styles of the players who kept the slack key tradition alive from the late 1940s to the present day. At other times, he is a “world fusion artist,” in no way beholden to what went before but still feeling his roots in slack key. His recent all instrumental release shows a penetrating musical imagination. Recently the White House invited Makana to play at the First Family’s holiday celebration. With six albums to his credit, he was voted by Guitar Player Magazine as one of the top three guitar players in America.
The slack key guitarists joining Makana, Led, and Cyril on the program may not be legends (yet), but they have impressive credentials. Here are some snippets:
John Cruz was named the Best Singer Songwriter by Hawaii Magazine in 2008. In 2005, his original song “Jo Bo’s Night” was featured on the compilation CD Slack Key Guitar Volume 2, which won the first Grammy ever awarded for Hawaiian music.
Jeff Peterson absorbed Hawaiian tradition growing up on the ranch slopes of Haleakala on Maui where his father worked as a genuine paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy). Peterson is a multiple N