Defining the Undefinable

Each time the issue of defining slack key is addressed by either a specific artist or some governing body of musical societies, I find the divisiveness of these definitions and categories on the one hand interesting, but also unfortunate on the other. I do see it as a basic human trait to try and classify things into specific groupings, it is something we have been doing since the advent of language after all. But when it comes to the arts I struggle to see the need or inherent necessity of doing this other than to create differentiation and separation among people all trying to achieve the same thing, a desire to express their inner most emotions and feelings into a tangible form.

This issue as it relates to slack key guitar playing recently came to mind while reading an essay by Makana titled “What Is Slack Key Guitar”. Now right off the bat I was a little skeptical as he is clearly stating that he will attempt to define something that to me as an art form is undefinable. Please read his essay yourself to get an idea about his view point directly from the source, but I will clarify some of the main points here.

What I really struggled with when reading his essay is that in defining slack key guitar he actually makes the definition more muddled and convoluted. In the process of defining what slack key is, he mentions so many exceptions to its components that I was left scratching my head as to how you can decisively define such a varied and ever evolving style of guitar playing. For example he says “The strings are tuned relative to each other so that when strummed open (without fretting) the final result is a CHORD. Doing so emancipates the fretting hand from having to hold chords- the guitar is already holding a chord for it (there are exceptions, of course)” (emphasis mine). Also “Often (again, there are exceptions) some of the strings are “slacked” or loosened, hence the name “kī hō’alu” (“to slacken or relax”) (emphasis again mine).

So according to this the strings can or cannot be tuned to result in an open chord and the strings can or cannot be loosened. Basically in one fell swoop he covered every possible guitar tuning known in the history of the instrument, amazing!

He then moves on to the technique aspect of playing slack key. The first technique he addresses is an alternating bass line using the thumb. He goes to state that “Uncle Ray Kane as well as Uncle Sonny Chillingworth were VERY STRICT about this.” (emphasis his in this case). But then he follows that up that “when you listen to Peter Moon (Sr), and the Gabby BAND (not solo) recordings, the two of them aren’t playing the bass a lot of the time.” (emphasis on BAND his). So again a major contradiction is being presented here.

According to Makana an alternating bass pattern is a fundamental aspect of slack key guitar playing, in fact it may be the most important as it is the first one he lists. Also it was emphasized by two leading masters he mentions Sonny Chillingworth and Ray Kane, but two other leading masters of slack key didn’t play in an alternating bass style? He does qualify this statements saying “that is because they had multiple instruments accompanying them..this is still often considered “slack key” as they used the tunings and the melodies of Hawaiian mele”. All in all these are confusing and contradictory statements.

So again, if I tune my guitar in a slack key manner (which according to his opening section on tuning can mean anything really) I am still playing slack key if I play the melodies of Hawaiian mele?

For the second component of slack key playing Makana says “Fingers of picking hand execute the primary melody of the piece. This usually occurs on the two or three highest pitched strings, but of course varies broadly”. Again, I use the highest two strings to execute the melody, but it “varies broadly”. Here he seems to be even more inclusive of all variations of how the melody is played on the instrument. It can be played with the bass strings then I assume, or any of the middle strings as well.

Then for the final third component he says “Both thumb and pointer finger occasionally impart what I call a faux rhythm, to infer the illusion of an accompanying background strumming rhythm guitar. This is more apparent in styles like Gabby’s solo work as well as that of Atta Isaacs. It is a technique that is very difficult to articulate/ teach, therefore it is rarely incorporated, but it is witnessed in the playing styles of the legends.” What does this even mean? There is some sort of fake rhythm that is generating as an illusion, but it can’t be taught or explained and it is rarely incorporated? That makes absolutely no sense. Something exists, I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it  and it is rarely ever incorporated…but it’s there! My response would be, well then why are you even bothering writing an essay titled “what is slack key”.

Actually for me this component three seems to best summarize the entire definition of slack key. The whole thing is an illusion. Why even bother defining it. It just is. I do like the quote that Makana includes that Led Ka`apana uses to describe slack key, “slack key is the way we love each other, the way we share our Aloha with each other.” That to me is more tangible and more easily accessible than Makana’s definition full of contradictions and fuzzy logic. Because if I were to summarize Makana’s definition in my own words I would say “Slack key involves tuning your guitar in some manner that may or may not include slacking or loosening the strings and it may or may not result in an open chord. The guitar should be played with an alternating bass rhythm as it is an integral component as taught by the original masters, but often other master players ignore this component and don’t play with an alternating bass rhythm especially when playing in a group setting. The melody can be played on any string and there is great variations to what strings play the melody. And finally there is an unexplainable background fake illusionary rhythm that exists in the playing but it is very scarcely ever heard or seen and I can’t be taught.” How does that sound? Again, he is basically just explaining finger picked guitar, other than the esoteric “faux rhythm” part.

And I’m gonna stop there with referencing Makana’s essay as I can’t really accept much of anything of his conclusion based on the contradictions found in the entire body of his essay. What I can say is he goes on to explain in a whole host of lengthy justifications about what is and isn’t slack key and who can and can’t play it. You can read the essay for yourself to hear his explanations and justifications for these viewpoints.

But all kidding aside I think my points have strong validity and good reason to be brought up, and here’s why. A few years ago there was a big uproar in the Hawaiian music community over who was and wasn’t getting a very prestigious music award for best Hawaiian music album. The winners were consistently playing in what they called a slack key style and for the most part either resided outside of Hawaii or were produced by people not born or raised in Hawaii. The arguments and name calling that resulted ended with the particular awards committee dropping the category for best Hawaiian music album all together. We got so caught up in trying to define who we are that the broader music community said, you know what, since you guys can’t figure it our, we’ll just shut you out all together and just make your recordings available for the “American Roots music” category. Now this is fine by me, but I think has resulted in a vast void of self identification of what Hawaiian music is or does.

But for me as a musician living and working in Hawaii is a pretty apt summarization of where the industry as a whole is. So what am I trying to say? Well, that for Makana to try and define what slack key is he is doing himself and slack music as a whole a great disservice. As we say in Hawaii “just let the kids play”. Is there a deep and long history of a specific style of finger picked acoustic guitar playing in Hawaii? Yes or course! Does it matter what we call it, no I think not. It is a traditional folk style, that at this point is dead and has evolved past any specific labels or definitive components that can be easily establish, defined and categorized. Just get over it!

What I would like to see, and what I have tried to do in my capacity as a music teacher and educator is to do what I can to show and teach kids about his style of playing so it can hopefully live on in what ever capacity that it can. And good for Makana that he brings this up “we must encourage the keiki to learn Kī Hō’alu at a young age”. Now what he is doing to accomplish this I don’t know. I have not seen or be heard about what he is doing to actively engage and facilitate the learning of slack key guitar playing in the next generation. I really feel like he blowing some hot air here and just saying something that he thinks sounds and looks good. And in the context of his statement he was trying to justify his point that unless the very first guitar style you learned how to play was slack key you’re not playing real slack key. So if you were really breaking it down he is using the veil of the need to teach kids slack key as a way of proving his points about how he thinks slack key should be defined, pretty offensive if you ask me.

I have seen Makana in concert multiple times and if I were to make a general analysis of his demographic I would say they tend to be in the 50-65 year old category. I will say that judging by some recent promotional materials he has put together that it appears to be his desire to change this. You can see this particular you tube video that attempts to market his upcoming mainland shows to a new audience with the goal of changing the perception of what Hawaiian music is. In addition, his recent composition showing political support of Bernie Sanders may open up new audiences to his playing, I don’t know.

What I do know is that I would challenge Makana to really use his connections, resources and musical influence to get kids playing, learning and performing slack key music. If he values this deep cultural heritage and if he is so adamant about the fact that “Kī Hō’alu’s PURITY must be understood, valued, and considered, always.” He better get on it because it is disappearing and it is disappearing fast. I can see it and hear it in how the guitar is played by many of the next generation of guitar players in Hawaii, Makana included.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 3

I have a very special announcement coming this Thursday, so this is day three of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man.

As I set out on my professional music career it was as an `ukulele player that I found my niche. I had spent a number of years studying and practicing the instrument and I found myself playing in a Hawaiian music trio supporting singer Bruddah Smitty. On my own time I was continuing my explorations as a singer mostly influenced at this time by two artists: Sonny Chillingworth and Johnny Cash. Performing in a Hawaiian music group, anytime I was offered to lead a song I would choose one of Chillingworth’s classics, like “Kila Kila Na Roughrider” or “Pua Lililehua”. At times I would throw in a Hawaiian standard from the Gabby era like “I Ka Po Me Ke Au” or “Makee Ailana”. I also enjoyed pulling from Sonny Chillingworth’s lesser known songs from his work with the Sons of Hawaii like “Sunshine Between the Rain” or “So Sad and Blue”

One night while doing a gig Smitty requested I play something “I like play”. Like I said, I would usually chose a song to fit in with the  Hawaiian music we were playing, but I think he was trying to get me to come out of my shell a little bit and add something else to the group. For whatever reason I wanted to do a Johnny Cash song so I called out a key and kicked into “Walk the Line”.

And the crowd went crazy.

Whether it was a combination of me finally getting my feet more firmly planted in what I was doing, the sound of twelve string guitar and ukulele playing Johnny Cash or the simple fact that Cash is pretty popular int his paniolo town, the people ate it up. I was getting hana hous and people wanted more. So I kicked into another Johnny Cash song and another. And from then on that’s all people wanted to hear from me.

It was a transformative moment. I had finally discovered what I can do. I finally was able to represent something that was authentically me and real to what I enjoyed doing and felt. I loved every second of it. Soon Smitty was calling me “Johnny Trash” or “Keoni Opala” for fun and people were specifically requesting I do “Walk the Line or “Folsom” or “Ring of Fire”. I felt I had arrived. I felt I had something to offer and to bring to the table rather than just the novelty of being the tall haole `ukulele player.

I felt this simple little love song from 50 years ago gave me an identity. Now I was the `ukulele playing, Johnny Cash singing tall haole guy, and it felt good.

I Ulu No Ka Lālā I Ke Kumu

sons in studio

As the tourist economy continued to grow and the realities of statehood began to take hold with the people of Hawaii, a realization unfolded that the musical culture of Hawaii had moved significantly far away from its roots. While the Hawaiian language remained relatively strong in comparison with other colonized nations, musically, profound changes had occurred from the humble chant based beginnings of the pre-contact Hawaiian. As covered in detail in my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 7: This Is Getting Big” by the 1960s Hawaiian music had been deeply mixed and intertwined with the developments in American popular music and along with the concurrent commodification of the Hawaiian culture resulted in a watered down musical identity. So here I will be discontinuing my “World Cup” series of blog posts on outside cultural influences on modern Hawaiian music. By the 1960s the music of Hawaii had become some inundated with outside changes that it no longer contained its own unique musical identity. It was time to go back to the source of where Hawaiian music grew from.

And thus I chose the proverb “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu” for the title of this post. Translated as “the branches grow because of the trunk” this proverb refers to the branches that continued to grow during the commodification of Hawaiian music. While the music found in the lounges of Waikiki, the Hollywood movies of Elvis and the barrooms of the cruise ships may have been the systemized pop music of the Don Ho stage show, many Hawaiians were still playing a style of music that was a continuation of the music that was created from the influences of Mexican ranchera ballads, Madeiran folk songs and the jazzy steel guitar that laid the foundation of the modern Hawaiian sound. The difference being, these musicians were playing this music in their backyards and beach parties, rather than in the bars along Kalakaua Boulevard or lounges of the Moana Hotel.

There were two individuals that were very conscientious of this reality and dedicated themselves to changing what type of music was being played at the popular bars and restaurants of Honolulu; Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui. If you haven’t done so, I would recommend that you read Eddie Kamae’s account of this shift of consciousness in his biography Hawaiian Son.” In this stirring recollection about his meetings with Gabby during a weeklong recovery from near fatal sickness, Eddie recounts his discussions with Gabby about their frustrations with the type of musical demands put on them by the restaurant and showroom owners in Waikiki. At this point Gabby was in high demand as a steel guitar player in the resort music scene and Eddie had been recognized as the number one ukulele performer in all of Hawaii, even having toured the mainland. But they had become restless performing a style of music that had drifted too far from their idea of a true Hawaiian sound. Performing steel guitar in Andy Cummings backup band, Gabby was now playing the jazz and pop styles favored by the Hawaii Calls radio program. Eddie had become well known for his ukulele arrangements of Latin numbers and American standards he performed during Ray Kinney’s luau shows. Something had to give.

As Eddie tells it, it was through these discussions that Gabby began to feel alive. He got so excited that he began to eat and was finally able to regain enough strength to pick up his guitar again. Armed with his ukulele, Eddie began to play the music with Gabby that they remembered from their childhood. The rapid strumming of the ukulele and the finger picking of the slack key guitar along with the traditional ballads and place songs of the early 1900s reaffirmed the original joy that they got from playing music. Calling upon close friend Joe Marshall to bring his stand up bass, they knew they had tapped into something new that was based on the sound they had been missing. The final piece was the steel guitar of the elusive David “Feet” Rodgers who had maintained the traditional steel guitar style of his father, rather than the new pedal steel style that had emerged as the dominant sound.

For the next four months they met regularly honing this new sound. Rather than trying to replicate the sound of the past, they were looking to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. They took the songs of previous generations, but by applying a fresh new musicality to it, developed over their years and years of performing, created something that had never been heard of before. Eddie began to research the archives of the Bishop Museum incessantly, looking for the original vocal and musical arrangements and the original unadulterated verses of long lost Hawaiian compositions.

After these months of long jam sessions, this group, now dubbed the “Sons of Hawaii” debuted their new music at the Sandbox in Honolulu to raucous crowds. People would travel from all over Oahu island to see this new group who had a sound that was distinctly different from what was being played on the “Hawaii Calls” radio show. Gone were the jazzed up chord vamping of the electric guitar, the repetitive downbeat root notes of the bass, the chang-a-langy open chord rhythms of the ukulele and the long drawn out reverb laden notes of the steel guitar. These were replaced by the rapid melodic fingerpicking of the open tuned steel string acoustic guitar, the complex closed chordal voicing and intricate lead lines of the ukulele, syncopated dulcet tones of the stand up bass and the tight staccato flourishes of the steel guitar. On top of this were Hawaiian vocals that, through the guidance of cultural elder Mary Kawena Pukui, were sung with proper intonation and pronunciation with conscientiousness adherence to the original intentions of the composer.

Soon they were one of the highest paid and most in demand Hawaiian music groups in all of Hawaii, as people eagerly attended their shows to soak up this “new” music that so strongly tapped into their ancestral consciousness with clearly an ear and eye on the future. With the release of their debut album “Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii” (so named as Eddie Kamae was still under contract with another label and couldn’t legally identify himself with this recording) and the subsequent album “Music of Old Hawaii” The Sons set down onto vinyl their new sound. 30 seconds into the debut track “Na Ono Na Ia Na Kupuna” you can tell you are listening to something that sounds uniquely fresh, yet is firmly growing from the foundational trunk of the past. This is the moment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries!

These well attended performances and popular first two albums, along with the recordings of slack key guitarists Leonard Kwan and Raymond Kane set the ground work for what would later became known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” in Hawaiian music. They were perpetuating a style that was soon to be actively absorbed into the younger generation that grew up hearing these recordings. Groups starting with The Sunday Manoa, Hui Ohana and later, Olomana, The Makaha Sons of Niihau, Keola and Kapono Beamer, were branches along this tree whose trunk grew from the Polynesian chants of the original Hawaiians.

And through it all The Sons of Hawaii continued to perform and record. Over the years, Gabby Pahinui left, Moe Keale joined, as did Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth and a formidable who’s who of Hawaiian musicians. One of the most influential being the late Dennis Kamakahi, whose original compositions jump started the Sons back into the limelight during the musically dense 1970s when every bar and restaurant in Honolulu were hiring “traditional” Hawaiian music groups. Later avoiding the ever growing reggae infused island music of the 1980s, Eddie Kamae and The Sons of Hawaii trudged on with new members Braddah Smitty, Goerge Kuo, Gary Haleamau and Paul Kim. With the passing of Joe Marshall, Ocean Kaowili joined and later Mike Kaawa. Always with their ever present palaka shirts, The Sons of Hawaii held high the candle of this new Hawaiian music sound with over 10 albums of music to draw from.

As a “Spiritus Mundi” took hold on the consciousness of the world with an emphasis on where we came from and the cultural identifiers of our past, so it did in Hawaii in well. Led by Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui, a concise musical language was developed to reflect this changing consciousness. This became the framework of the type of music being produced in the backyards and barrooms across Hawaii.

A parellel could then be drawn to the growing folk music scene of the 1960s in America. Much like The Sunday Manoa and the like were drawing from The Sons of Hawaii, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Cosby, Stills Nash and Young, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds were the new groups drawing from the foundation laid by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, The Weavers, Lead Belly and Big Bill Broozny.

Today as American musicians are looking back to these folk music traditions to create a new sound rooted in the past to oppose the electronic and pop laden music of today, will Hawaiian music do the same? Well that is a complex question and one I would like to address in more detail in a future post. Mostly because almost the opposite thing has happened here in Hawaii. Even though the popular music in the islands today is a watered down rhythm and blues reggae style called “Jawaiian”, “traditional” Hawaiian music has remained strong.  But again through the demands of the tourist industry to create a standardized form of Hawaiian music, the original intentions of Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui and other members of the Sons of Hawaii have been misconstrued. The idea as I see it is to coninue to grow. To continue to be the branches growing from the trunk. And this is the idea of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. But unfortunately this has not happened. Instead the branches have ceased to broaden. The same branch has continued to grow in one direction, never having expanded into new territory. Unfortunately this will cause the branch to collapse under its own weight. So today I ask my fellow musicians and lovers of Hawaiian music to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. This is what I strive to do. Use different instrumentation, compose new mele with variations in tempo, key and rhythm. Experiment, try new things. Adapt and incorporate new sounds from music you enjoy. But always remember the trunk you grow from. Never forget that “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu”, “the branches grow because of the trunk.”

 

Under the Radar

The Hawaiian music recording industry is a funny beast. While there have been times of active recording and large scale album production, there have also been periods of big lulls. I would like to focus on one particular time period in which the Hawaiian music recording industry was not as strong, but produced some amazing music, namely the early 1980s to the mid-90s. We could bookend these years with the deaths of Gabby Pahinui and Israel Kamakawiwo`ole. What is interesting to note is that Gabby’s death signaled the end of the slack key recording boom of the 70s and Israel’s passing coincided with the beginning of the slack key recording boom of the late 90s and 2000s. So I have put together my top 5 under the radar Hawaiian music albums from the era.  All of these were recorded by big-time heavy hitters of Hawaiian music, but they are either albums that are out of print or extremely hard to find.  Also, it is rare that you hear these songs on the radio for that very reason. What I hope to do with this post is to expose you to some albums that you may not know about and also get you to appreciate these artists that continued to work and record during the dark years. When Jawaiian began to take over the air waves and the future of true Hawaiian music recordings was in limbo these individuals showed the true spirit of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.

Here in order of year of release are my top 5 under the radar Hawaiian music albums:

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Haunani Apoliona “Na Lei Hulu Makua, Na Wahine Hawai`i” 1984.  This album is only available as an out of print lp or cassette and has yet to be released in cd or mp3 form.  This is a shame as it is a true gem of Hawaiian music, featuring exquisite slack key playing, impeccable vocals and that uniquely beautiful sense of Hawaiian vocal phrasing. I was lucky to find the cassette on ebay in a lot of random Hawaiian music albums.  Definitely a score! Fortunately a sample of one of the tracks from the album can be found here: http://ec.libsyn.com/p/8/f/1/8f13631f54f68094/04_Na_Kuahiwi_Elima___Kimo_Hula.mp3?d13a76d516d9dec20c3d276ce028ed5089ab1ce3dae902ea1d06c88736d5c85ff931&c_id=5335405

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Moe Keale “Aloha Is a Part of Me, a Part of You” 1985. This album was printed onto cd but has since gone out of print.  This album features what I think to be one of the greatest compositions in the history of Hawaiian music, the English language song “Aloha Is…”  While IZ’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gets lots of attention from its inclusion in numerous Hollywood productions, this song is where it’s at. The mood of the song, subtle masterful `ukulele playing and spiritual lyrics and singing makes for a universal song of pure beauty. I discovered this album while working at an `ukulele store as it was part of a random assortment of albums they had to play while we were open. A quick burn onto my laptop while clocked in helped add this to my collection. Hear for yourself as someone put a recording of the song onto youtube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6B34PKhBWw

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The Lim Family “Aloha Na Makana: Gifts of Love” 1988. Something about the Lim family always uplifts my spirits.  Their intricate and complex harmonies with masterful instrumentation just makes for something special. They always have unique song choice that is delivered in a way that is fine tuned yet so natural and real. This is an extremely difficult album to find, definitely snap one up if you see it either on ebay, at a garage sale or thrift store. Luckily a music teacher college of mine had a copy that I was able to borrow and burn for myself. The best I could do was find a link to their cover of the country classic “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol Days)” here: http://www.allmusic.com/song/grandpa-tell-me-bout-the-good-old-days-mt0002280872 

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Led Ka`apana and the New Ikona “Nahenahe” 1991. Ledward of course has had a long and illustrious recording career, but his albums with his group Ikona aren’t that well known outside the realm of hard core Hawaiian music listeners.  This album along with “Jus Press” from 1985 are must have for any fan of Hawaiian music. This is another score from my days working in the `ukulele store. A mix of instrumentals and vocal tracks, there isn’t a misfire on the whole album. A highlight is his version of “Sands.” This steel guitar classic is in just the right place in Ledward’s hands. Sadly I couldn’t find any audio resources on the web to share so that you could get a feel for how great this album is.

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Mel Amina “Ku Ha`aheo Kakou, E Na Hawai`i” 1996. I was unaware of this album until a close friend of mine and musician brought it to my knowledge. It just goes to show there are so many hidden gems out there buried under the thousands and thousands of Hawaiian music recordings. While Mel is well known for his work with his cousin Israel and the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau, this solo album has everything: chanting, slack key guitar, Hawaiian vocals and a classic English language song just waiting to be discovered “Na Pali Outlaw.” Again, I couldn’t find anything online to give you a taste of the diversity found on this album so you’l have to seek it out yourself.

All these albums helped keep the flame of true Hawaiian music burning while outside influences threatened the vitality of the Hawaiian music industry. As Jawaiian music gained in popularity many artists were forced out of jobs and pressure mounted to change their sound. But these artists along with others from this era pressed on. They understood it was important to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries and create music that would last forever. It is my hope that as time goes on and more people see for themselves the greatness of these recording they get rediscovered and become available to the Hawaiian music listening public.