Slack Key Tunings…Why???

I was doing some reading about open tunings and I started to realize that I’ve often felt the commonly held descriptions of the development of slack key guitar in Hawaii are lacking. The common story goes that the Mexican cowboys who came here to teach the Hawaiians how to rope cattle came with their guitars and upon returning to Mexico left them behind. Without any knowledge of European style “standard” tunings Hawaiians retuned the guitar to an open tuning that later became the basis for modern slack key. The element that is often ignored or unaddressed is why? Why would Hawaiians choose to tune their guitars to an open tuning instead of learning to play the guitars how the Mexicans had left them?

This is a question that the late ethnomusicologist Bob Brozman spent a lifetime trying to answer. Although he went about this is an often ego driven and at times elitist way, it is a very important question to ask. He had a very clear opinion on this and it is expressed in the following quote he made during his correspondence with the author of the book The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar, “The guitar accompanied colonists around the world, and the colonized people often retuned to open tunings, because the European standard tuning lacks obvious logical visual and audio cues. Open tunings provide a much clearer picture of the fingerboard, enabling self-teaching. Furthermore, the diatonic European system of music is, in fact, the odd man out in the world of musical cultures, the rest of the world preferring the more mathematically simple and therefore natural-sounding modal approach.”

While this appears to be logical and hold true to an extent there are a couple major problems with this statement as it pertains to the Hawaiian. The first thing I have a problem with is the term “mathematically simple.” This is inline with many of Bob’s sentiments that are often (much to his desired self-convincing of the opposite) derogatory of native cultures. I do not think the Hawaiian, or any colonized culture for that matter, prefers something “more mathematically” simple. I am more than convinced that the Polynesian voyaging culture that formed the basis of the Hawaiian intellect is far from mathematically simple. In addition there is no evidence or support that an open tuning presents something that is more mathematically simple. The assumption that the European “standard” tuning of the guitar is more complex is in direct conflict with his statement that it is illogical. I see someone fighting their own internal battle of complexity versus logic and whether or not they are interrelated.

And secondly, there is scant evidence at the moment that would point to the guitar as arriving here as the result of colonialism. If we consider the British, French and Russian explorers that first came to Hawaii between the 1770s and the 1810s, none of them travelled with guitars. In addition the first missionaries who arrived from the eastern United States shortly thereafter didn’t bring guitars with them either. So outside of the Mexican cowboys, did any other outside (or colonizing) culture bring the guitar to Hawaii?

This brings up a larger question, who were the colonizers of Hawaii? Upon a closer examination of the history of Hawaii one could argue that colonization didn’t happen until the illegal overthrow and dismantling of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the American government and their fellow sugar industry tycoons. This didn’t occur until the 1890s and there is extensive evidence that a strong guitar culture already existed in Hawaii by then.

But I don’t want to get to caught up in semantics. I do want to focus on the larger ethnomusicological question of where did the slack key tuning come from. While Bob Brozman may not have been the only voice in the question of the origin of open tunings in colonized cultures he certainly was the loudest. And his viewpoint centered around the idea of the “simpleton native” detuning the complex standard tuning of the European to form their open tuning styles. The irony here is that he considered himself a cultured man who believed he lived on par with the native peoples he exploited for his own musical prestige. Harsh words for sure, but not untrue if you dissect his actions. And, one listen to him singing Hawaiian music is proof enough he wasn’t the purveyor of native musics that he thought he was.

So really this isn’t just a question of whether colonization created an opportunity for the development of open tunings in Hawaii, it is a question of the need. By the 1840s when the Mexican cowboys were brought here and eventually departed, the guitars they left behind were unplayable to the Hawaiian. Anyone who picks up a standard tuned guitar and strums it will tell you that. This is where the illogicalness of the “standard tuning” comes to life. The practical and efficient Hawaiian would be the one who would decide to retune the strings to find something that sounded pleasant. Not the oppressed colonized Hawaiian of simple mathematical conceptions.

And that is all I really wanted to address in this blog post. The commonly held narrative of the development of slack key in Hawaii ignores the analysis of the how colonized peoples created open tunings. And the only accepted opinion of how these tunings were created comes from an ego driven, conflicted, contrarian ethnomusicologist who is no longer around. Where is he? What happened to “the voice” of the native music cultures? It is not my job to air others dirty laundry. Google Bob Brozman suicide and find out for yourself. Let me tell you now the truth is possibly stranger and more disturbing than you are prepared to see.

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