Slack Key Festival Hitting its Stride

By Audrey Coleman


You can tell from the bounce in his step that festival producer Mitch Chang enjoys what he's doing. Making final arrangements for the upcoming 2nd Annual Slack Key Guitar Festival at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, he is relishing the countdown to Sunday, January 18, 2009.

"I am expecting a full house," says 37 year-old Mitch, who filled about 1,100 of the RBPAC's 1,453 seats for last year's Festival. "Why? As I go around dropping off flyers, everyone keeps saying they'd heard about the last one from friends, co-workers, family, and wish they could've made it, and won't make that mistake again. Also, highest priced seats closest to the stage, which includes a pass to the reception the night before, are all sold out."

For the uninitiated, "slack key" is a uniquely Hawaiian style of playing guitar. "Slack" refers to the "slackening" of the strings from standard guitar tuning to a wealth of open tunings that have different tonal colorations. Decades ago, musicians and families were protective of tunings they had developed, but today successful slack key guitarists want to perpetuate the beloved musical tradition, sharing tunings and giving workshops.

The talent line-up is as tantalizing as last year's. Cyril Pahinui will be back with his dazzling technique and soulful interpretations of Hawaiian traditional songs and popular standards. His playing reflects the influence of his father Gabby Pahinui, whose performances and recordings expanded the creative boundaries of solo slack key guitar. This time, however, the multi-award-winning guitarist not only plays solo, but also heads the Pahinui Band.

Also returning are Jeff Peterson and Jim "Kimo" West. Maui-born Peterson has participated in the island-wide Annual Slack Key Guitar Festivals over the past six years and is featured on the CD that won the first ever Grammy for Hawaiian music in 2005, Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2. Toronto-born Los Angeles transplant Jim West was inspired to learn slack key after listening to vintage Gabby Pahinui albums during many stays in Maui. His mastery of the form earned him recognition as an "L.A. Treasure" by the California Traditional Music Society and Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.

New to the Festival are slack key masters representing three generations and three different styles of slack key playing. John Keawe, a Big Island veteran of the 1970s Hawaiian cultural renaissance, is also on the 2005 Grammy-winning slack key album. New York-born Barry Flanagan, who relocated to Hawai'i over 30 years ago, has won 10 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, Hawai'i's equivalent of the Grammy and in 1994 garnered the prestigious "Haku Mele Award for Excellence in the Art of Hawaiian Language Songwriting." Makana, like Flanagan, is a non-Hawaiian musician who became totally enthralled with Hawaiian culture. Having learned the slack key tradition from Sonny Chillingworth, a revered contemporary of Gabby Pahinui, Makana has developed his own "slack rock" idiom, appearing as the opening act for talents such as Sting, Santana, and Elvis Costello.

Bringing magical male vocal harmony to the Festival for the first time is the popular group Maunalua. Guitarist-vocalist Bobby Moderow studied with legendary slack key master Ray Kane and emulates the sweet falsetto style of the late Dennis Pavao.

"There will actually be three groups," explains Honolulu-born Mitch. "The Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Maunalua, and a trio made up of Jeff Peterson, Jim "Kimo" West and Barry Flanagan. I like the group thing because it offers variety and, in a way, it's more accurate in the sense that that's how it was in the earlier days - friends jamming together and having fun. So I actually have more artists this time but fewer acts. Group, solo, some sing, some instrumental, some with hula, some without."

That variety and folksiness will extend to the lobby of the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center where Mitch has expanded the vendor areas. "I think people will really enjoy all the products and services that will be represented -- for example, fresh flower leis, lei vases, island inspired art, Hawaiian quilts, Hawaiian cooking oils, and board games that teach Hawaiian culture.

Anything missing? As an aspiring slack key guitarist, this writer noticed the absence of female musicians in this year's line-up. "I'd love to have female artists involved," explains Mitch, "but there's just not that many doing slack key. Love Owana (Owana Salazar, who performed last year) but didn't want to have too many repeats. But she'll definitely be back. Good thing about this festival is that overall there's a lot of talent to get to and I look forward to being around long enough to get to everybody eventually!"

The Redondo Beach location lends itself well to this kind of festival, according to the producer, who recently located there from Irvine. "The people that live here are exactly the kind of people who seek out that vibe in their food, music and activities so it's got built-in appeal. Lot of surfers come out and there's also the nostalgia factor for those who visited Hawaii on their honeymoon and want to relive that experience. At least half the audience is actually 55 and older, perhaps because the music reminds them of simpler times here in the beach communities when surfing came around and Hawaii was this "new," mystical place. Just my theory."

Lessons learned from last year's Festival? "I learned that there is a fine line between a show that's too long and a show that gives attendees their money's worth. But I had to make a big splash for the first time around and it blew everyone away. Those that left early didn't leave because they were bored, they left hesitatingly because of prior commitments they had to attend. Another important lesson is delegation. Didn't have a choice because I didn't have much help but since then the Festival has really garnered a fan base and people want to be involved and keep asking how they can help because they believe in what I'm doing."

As last year, a pre-concert reception at Duke's in Malibu will start spreading the aloha on the Saturday evening before the Sunday afternoon Festival. A Hawaiian-inspired menu, a chance to talk with the musicians and the joy of listening to them jam in a relaxed atmosphere makes the drive up PCH well worth it. "It was so special and magical the last time...Just gotta provide the right atmosphere and the right amount of aloha from everyone to give things that "push" that inspires artists to do what they do spontaneously."

Having pulled off an Aloha Falsetto Festival at the RBAC last July and other music events when he was a student at the University of Hawai'i, Mitch Chang has found his niche as a festival producer. In coming months, he plans to collaborate on a guitar festival featuring a variety of musical traditions.

Did I mention he plays a pretty cool slack key guitar himself? With room left for spontaneity, chances are we will get to hear him, too, at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on January 18.

Tickets and information for the 2nd Annual Slack Key Festival and pre-concert reception are available at


Based in Manhattan Beach, Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of world music and culture.