January-February 2008


By Audrey Coleman

Jim Kimo West
Photo Jim Viets

On January 20, nine acclaimed slack key guitarists will grace the stage of the Redondo Performing Arts Center in the first Southern California Slack Key Guitar Festival. They include Cyril Pahinui, Dennis Kamakahi, George Kahumoku, Ozzie Kotani, Makana, Jeff Peterson, Owana Salazar, Steve Espaniola, and Jim “Kimo” West.

Slack key is the least known of the guitar traditions despite the rich history, refined aesthetic, and continued vitality that should give it equal status with flamenco, bluegrass, jazz and blues guitar. But recently slack key has been attracting attention on the mainland, in part because of its presence at the Grammy Awards. This year a compilation of live performances by slack key guitar luminaries, Treasures of Slack Key Guitar (Daniel Ho Creations), is competing for a Grammy in the Hawaiian Music Category. The 2006 and 2007 music awards went to similar compilations.

Jim Kimo West is the only local boy represented in the Festival. Recognized in 2006 as an “L.A. Treasure” by the California Traditional Music Society and the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. The Canadian-born guitarist and composer resides in Van Nuys, California and has several albums to his credit, the first titled Coconut Hat.  In the mid-80s, he discovered slack key during several extended visits to beautiful, unspoiled Hana, Maui. “I would always listen to records by Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii,” he said. “I really gravitated towards slack key. I never had a teacher but I just picked it up by ear.”

For over 40 years, the slack key recordings of Gabby Pahinui that inspired Jim Kimo West have spurred musicians – Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian -- to embrace this unique style of playing the guitar. As we will see in the profiles below, the influence of Gabby and his contemporaries pervades the playing of the musicians lined up for Southern California Slack Key Festival.

But first, a few words on the origins of this 150-plus year old musical tradition. For that, we must thank the cattle that Captain James Vancouver brought to Hawaii in the 1820s as England’s gift to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I. The king had to import a contingent of Spanish vaqueros to teach the Hawaiians how to manage the burgeoning herds, and many of these Spanish cowboys brought their guitars along. Guitar music delighted the novice Hawaiian cowboys whose instrumental tradition had been limited to drums and rattles.

When the vaqueros returned home, some left behind their guitars – but no instruction book. The paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) tinkered with the strings and listened to the sounds they could produce until they came up with a way of tuning that differed markedly from the classical Spanish tuning. In fact, it was an efficient tuning method that allowed the player to play a chord on open strings. It was possible to pick a bass line with the thumb while playing the melody primarily with the index and third fingers. Ki ho ‘alu literally means to loosen or slacken the strings, but the term is a bit misleading. While some strings are slackened as compared with standard tuning, others are actually tightened, moved up a tone.

The basic concept of slack key gave rise to a host of tunings, each with a different tonal coloration, often given folksy names. Thus we have Taro Patch G, the Wahine tunings, the Moana Loa tunings, and tunings identified with their creators such as Atta’s C Major (originated by the late slack key virtuoso Atta Isaacs).

Amid the influx of cultural influences from abroad during the 19th century and into the 20th, slack key guitar stayed alive in the rural areas, developing its nuances at family gatherings and on porches where Hawaiians relaxed after work. Musicians created different types of ornamentation such as the hammer-on, pull-off, and use of harmonics. Improvisation became a significant element of the tradition, even when the slack key guitarist was accompanying a vocalist. In the second half of the 20th century, the practice of playing extended instrumental breaks between vocal verses, known as pa’ani, added another stylistic trademark to slack key playing and. But families guarded their special tunings with care, fearing exploitation of their creativity either by ha’ole (foreign, including American) or fellow Hawaiian musicians. Whereas the Hawaiian slide guitar gained international renown early in the 20th century and influenced country and western music on the mainland, slack key kept a low profile. alive.

Dennis Kamaka
Dennis Kamakahi
Photo Engene Lancette

In the 1940s, Gabby Pahinui brought kiho ‘alu out of the shadows. His five landmark recordings astounded musicians across the islands for the variety of tunings, delicate ornamentation, and sweetness of tone in his playing, not to mention his soulful vocals. By the 1960s, contemporaries Leonard Kwan and Sonny Chillingworth began to make their way to Honolulu recording studios and contribute to the rebirth of interest in homegrown Hawaiian culture that intensified in the 1970s. This ushered in an era of slack key mastery that has passed from generation to generation with no signs of abating. Today kiho’alu masters share tunings and techniques with novices, glad to keep the tradition alive.

Returning to the roster of musicians playing in the Southern California Slack Key Guitar Festival on January 20, we see it is no coincidence that the last musician to perform on the program is Cyril Pahinui, the son of Gabby Pahinui. His sound on the six or twelve string guitar is unmistakable. First reaction: Is that really only one guitar? His combination of picking and strumming creates such a full sound that it seems the product of a pair of instruments. Not only the resonant tone, but also the richness of the improvisation sets him apart from other players. Cyril grew up listening to his father’s soulful kiho ‘alu playing during backyard jam sessions at their home on Oahu’s windward side. As he reached his teens he played in the Gabby Pahinui band and received direct pointers from his dad.

Cyril Pahinui
Photo Chelle Pahinui

Preceding Cyril Pahinui on the program is the Reverend Dennis Kamakahi, a later member of another band founded by Gabby Pahinui -- the Sons of Hawaii. Renowned for the emotionally engaging melodies and lyrics he has composed for over 30 years, Dennis Kamakahi’s playing beautifully demonstrates nahe nahe, the soft, soothing, legato style that is the hallmark of slack key. Son of a trombonist in the Royal Hawaiian Band, he cites as influences the informal musical gatherings that took place at his home as he grew up, often attracting Gabby and other slack key masters.Pua’ena (Glow Brightly) is one of his many CD releases and this writer’s favorite.

Also appearing in the latter part of the show is George Kahumoku, who began playing professionally at the age of 13 with legendary singer/songwriter Kui Lee. Like Cyril Pahinui, he plays six and twelve steel string guitar, and gets a full, resonant sound as he weaves improvisational elements through the songs and instrumentals he performs. Some of his most moving recordings feature Christian hymns the Hawaiians learned from missionaries in the 19th century. Host of the Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key concert series held at the Napilili Kai Beach Hotel on Maui every week, he also co-produced the 2007 Grammy-winning CD Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar – Live from Maui.

Cyril Pahinui
Photo Chelle Pahinui

Slack key master Ozzie Kotani is best known for his CD release To Honor A Queen  (Dancing Cat) an exquisite collection of slack key instrumental arrangements based on songs by Lili’uokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch (1838-1917). The album not only presents the serene artistry of the prolific composer, but also showcases Ozzie Kotani’s nuanced slack key style. In the album, he always improvises in a style appropriate to the meaning of the song, be it romantic, uplifting, nostalgic, or wistful. Playing on nylon strings, his sound is markedly different from the fullness of Cyril Pahinui and George Kahumoku on steel strings. He credits slack key innovator Keola Beamer for inspiring him to take up the art. Son of legendary Hawaiiana and hula educator Nona Beamer and grandson of prolific song composer Helen Deshe Beamer, Keola Beamer focuses more on composition and mood painting than on improvisation in his slack key playing.

Owana Salazar is the only female slack key artist included in the Festival and the only one to be included in the Grammy-nominated Treasures compilation CD. She took up kiho ‘alu at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Dennis Kamakahi, George Kahumoku, Jr., Cyril Pahinui, George Kuo, Bla Pahinui, and the late Sonny Chillingworth helped to shape her slack key technique. Jazz and pop music have also influenced her. Her latest CD release, Hula Jazz (2004), shows that slack key is one among many colors on her musical palette.The final three guitarists to be mentioned represent the youngest generation to master ki’ho alu, but they retain a connection to older masters. Makana was a protégé of the late Sonny Chillingworth. “Uncle Sonny,” steeped in the country tunings of his aunts and uncles as well as the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) culture on the Big Island, played with Gabby’s band and dazzled fellow musicians with his pristine technique and memorable compositions. Makana’s playing can vary from highly energetic, ornamented arrangements to gentle, spare playing reminiscent of Sonny, but there is always an underlying emotional intensity. The tone matches the sweet vulnerability of his vocals, well represented in his CD Kiho ‘Alu: Journey of Hawaiian Slack Key (Makana Music)

Jeff Peterson also has a paniolo connection. He grew up on the ranchland on the lower slopes of Haleakala. His slack key sound is deceptively simple, restrained in its use of ornamentation. Like his contemporary, Makana, he composes songs in addition to interpreting slack key standards. He has absorbed a variety of guitar techniques from different traditions and his use of tremolo in Hi’ilawe is one of the highlights of his 2006 release The Artistry of Jeff Peterson (Palm Records).

Steve Espaniola is a multi-faceted musician who plays ki ho'alu as well as ukulele and upright bass. Of Hawaiian, Filipino and Spanish decent, he grew up in Aliamanu, Hawaii and now resides in the California Bay Area. He titled his debut album Ho’omaka, which means, “to begin” (Common Ground International).

The Festival’s multi-generational roster of nine slack key players is a remarkable opportunity to experience different facets of this musical tradition. During a program lasting from 3 pm to between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m., ticket holders will also be able to visit Hawaiian food and craft booths in the lobby. Concert organizer Mitch Chang says ticket sales have been brisk with patrons coming from as far as the East Coast. He anticipates making the Southern California Slack Key Festival an annual event.

(Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center is located at 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd. For ticket information, go to their website or to www.socalslackkeyfest.com).

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of world music and culture.