Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar
By Brian Kluepfel

Slack key guitar (ki ho’ alu) is a happy historical accident. Mexican and Spanish cowboys (paniolo) were hired by Hawai‘i’s King Kahehameha III in the early 19th century to control the islands’ rapidly-growing cattle stock. When they departed, they left some guitars behind. The native Hawaiians, not knowing how they should be tuned, developed a series of tunings based on open chords, and the sweet, fingerpicked style evolved from there.

Different tunings became the closely-guarded secrets of individual families. (Legendary picker Raymond Kane, now 75, tells of having to swap fresh fish for lessons from someone who was not his ohana, or family). But the music was so fiercely protected that, by mid-20th century, it was in danger of dying out.

Slack key is now enjoying a renaissance among fans and players, and the secrets are being passed along to the next generation in ways the masters never would have dreamed. This reporter was lucky enough to be invited to George Kahumoku’s annual workshop on Maui to witness, first-hand, the living legends of this genre.

Kahumoku has been a musician, farmer and teacher, and under his leadership the annual weeklong workshop is a cultural immersion program. Students can learn how to play the ukulele, dance the hula (men and women!), sing Hawaiian chants and make leis from ti leaves. A personal highlight for me was driving 20 miles up the serpentine coastal Route 30 to visit the property of George’s relatives, where we hiked up through the terraces and got up to our ankles in muck while weeding and aerating a taro patch.

Students are also constantly reminded of the family connections that run through Hawaiian music. George’s son Keoke is the workshop’s ukulele instructor. Master composer Reverend Dennis Kamikahi — he’s written over 400 songs — is accompanied by his son, David, also on the uke.

Of course, if you want a family link to slack key history, there’s no better man than Cyril Pahunui, son of Gabby “Pops” Pahunui. Uncle Cyril turned up midweek in his cool wrap-around shades and chic beret and immediately caused happy chaos by re-tuning a couple of guitars from the more common “G” tuning to “D.” (By Saturday my guitar couldn’t take the strain of changing tunings so often, and — ping — the high “E” string popped.)

“When I was young my workshop was just eyes and ears, watching my dad,” said Pahunui. “If he were still alive, he might not do this, but it’s time to share our culture and our tunings.” The sharing continues after the week is over: Students will go home loaded down with songbooks, CDs and other materials to keep them busy for at least another year.

With players of this caliber (also teaching are Ozzie Kotani and Carlos Andrade), the nightly jam sessions heat up. It’s hard to imagine another art form where novices and masters can, after enjoying a hearty meal, sit beside each other in a large semicircle, swapping songs. But that is the aloha spirit, the openness and generosity of Hawai‘i, that we students are lucky to share.

At the heart of it all, literally, is Kahumoku. This workshop was his brainchild six years ago, and it has grown from a handful of participants to more than 50. George and his partner, the incredibly energetic Nancy Sweeney, oversee all the details, right down to helping prepare the giant buffet meals each night (a special mahalo to Wally Akuna, who tirelessly hustles up grub).

The big finale was our participation at the annual Maui Slack Key Festival on Sunday. George played a few tunes, then invited us onstage. We played and we danced (yes, I danced the hula in a neat little blue wrap-around number). We soaked in the audience’s applause and spent the rest of the day soaking in the sun and the cool ocean breezes, while watching our teachers — our teachers! — headline the festival.

“I want to keep up the tradition and follow in my dad’s footsteps,” said Cyril Pahunui, before hopping on a plane back to his Oahu home. “Most of all, I’m happy to see people from all over the world fly to Maui. It’s an honor to share.”