Jus’ Cruzin’ With Uncle Led

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One of the most innovative and accomplished musicians in Hawaiian music history is Ledward Ka`apana.  Starting with the group Hui Ohana in 1972, Uncle Led set a new standard for what sounds were possible within the realm of Hawaiian music.  His electric guitar playing with added reverb was new and exciting.  He was never afraid to push the boundaries, or HO`ANALU, of what was being done with slack key guitar.  He was by no means the first to play an electric guitar in a slack key tuning, but his extensive use of it and explorations of the outer realms of creative possibility was revolutionary.  Along with his twin brother Nedward on bass (another post solely about his bass playing is due) and falsetto vocalist Dennis Pavao, Hui Ohana was a Hawaiian power trio.  Exploding on the scene in Waikiki in the 70s these Big Island boys from Kalapana set a standard of musicianship and execution unmatched by anyone other than the all time greats the Sons of Hawai`i.  The group disbanded in 1978 when Dennis Pavao decided to pursue a solo career.  Led continued on, forming the group I Kona.  The group did reunite in 1987 to record the album “Hui Ohana”

Over the next 30 or so years Ledward has established himself as THE master of slack key.  Comfortable in any tuning, including standard, and with his emotional and well crafted falsetto voice, Uncle Led is a master musician in any culture, any musical environment, any where, any time.  Chet Atkins himself called him the greatest guitarist he ever saw or heard.  Go take a listen for yourself.  His albums are numerous and readily available.  While some of his work from Hui Ohana and I Kona are out of print, much is available on iTunes, as are his solo albums.  Especially notable is “Waltz of the Wind” which he recorded in Nashville.  It’s Hawaiian music with a bit of country, featuring guest artists like Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs and Bob Brozman to name a few.

Which brings me to his most recent piece of work “Jus’ Cruzin'”  Always willing to innovate, and go beyond what is known, ready to take risks, to push what we know of Hawaiian music, Uncle Led embodies the concept of HO`ANALU.  Which makes sense as the Hawaiian teacher who brought the term HO`ANALU to light for me also worked with Led to come up with his phrase “Jus Press.”  This album is a collection of traditional Hawaiian tunes recorded on the autoharp.  The autoharp is a stringed instrument with 36 strings that is played by strumming the strings with one hand and pressing a series of buttons with the other that depress and mute certain strings to create chords.  It is a fascinating instrument that is most often played in folk and bluegrass music.  It was used extensively by the Carter Family and can be heard in many of their recordings.  To say it is rarely heard in the world of Hawaiian music would be an understatement.

The fact that Led decided to record an album with this instrument is in line with who he is.  He is not afraid to play what he feels, to let the sounds come out of him as they may, unabashed by fear or prejudice.  He has one foot so firmly placed in the past that he can stretch it forward as he may.  When he plays “Sanoe” it sounds like it was composed on the autoharp.  When you hear “Kanaka Waiwai” you think “how did this song exist before the autoharp?”  No matter who or how Hawaiian music is recorded or with what instrument, anyone could tell you the only true requirement is how it FEELS.  It has to feel right.  It doesn’t matter the tuning, the microphone, who produced it, what custom koa guitar you use or how many Grammys it was nominated for, it has to feel right.  And that is something that can’t be taught or transferred without time and conscience understanding.  It comes from within.  There has to be that something inside your heart that you want to transfer through your music.  Without that it is just notes on a guitar or an ukulele or an autoharp for that matter.

I went to see Led play once at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki.  Between songs I went up to put some money in the jar.  He said mahalo and asked me where I am from.  I told him I am from Waimea.  He immediately says, “Oh, you one paniolo then eh.  You play music?”  I said “Sure I play a little.”  He asked if I would like to play something on his ukulele and he would back me up.  It was a transcendent moment.  Uncle Ledward Ka`apana the great slack key guitarist asking me, a little haole boy from Waimea by way of Honaunau to play a song with him.  To say I jumped at the opportunity would be an understatement.  I decided to play “Kaula `Ili” to pay homage to my Waimea roots.  I asked him to sing the added O`ahu verse to create a connection between my journey from the Big Island to O`ahu.

It was so magical.  This was early in my development as a musician and player of Hawaiian music.  To be able to stand on stage with the great master and share and play told me I was blessed with something special from Ke Akua.  That I must nurture and share this great gift the world.  I was grateful and humbled to have the experience.  The moment was HO`ANALU in action.  I was lifted beyond the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of and blasted into a new dimension of what was possible.  And to this day, whenever I see Uncle Led he always says to me, “Eh, the paniolo from Waimea!”

I love that man.  Take a listen.  Get to know his music.  Listen to his playing of the autoharp and imagine.  How can I HO`ANALU?  What can I do in my life to go beyond the boundaries of what is known?

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