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.