Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival #3
George Kahumoku, Jr., the Rev. Dennis Kamakahi and Cyril Pahinui
@ The Cedar Cultural Centre, February 6, 1998

Slack Key guitar (ki ho’ alu in Hawaiian) is an acoustic finger picking guitar style unique to the Hawaiian Islands. The roots of this wonderfully rich melodic music can be traced back to the 1830’s when the guitar was first introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Mexican cowboys who were brought over to teach the Hawaiian cowboys how to handle the growing cattle population. When the Mexicans returned home they left several guitars and very little instruction on how to play or even tune them. The guitar was quickly adopted into the rich Hawaiian culture and served to accompany the colorful oral folk music tradition. Because the Hawaiians were left to their own devises on how to play the new instrument they came up with some creative and unique ways of playing and tuning the guitar. Slack Key literally means "loosen the key" and refers to the practice of "slacking" or loosening some the strings from the standard tuning to create unusual open tunings that suite the vocal range of the singer and create a very melodic sound. This style of guitar playing has evolved over the past 160 years into a rich folk tradition characterized by stories being put to song and a finger picking style played on the open tunings that uses harmonics and hammer-on and pull-off techniques that create a unique and hauntingly beautiful music.

This evening featured three modern day proponents of the Slack Key tradition, George Kahumoku, Jr., the Rev. Dennis Kamakahi and Cyril Pahinui. The first two performers each played a solo set followed by a break, that lasted a little too long. Then Cyril Pahinui performed a short solo set followed by all three musicians closing out the evening. What struck me most about this show was the mesmerizing quality of the music and the colorful story telling that accompanied each song. The story telling was a major part of the performance with each performer telling a story or giving an introduction to each song. Many of the song themselves were simply stories put to music.

The Rev. Dennis Kamakahi related an amusing story on how the cattle came to Hawaii in the first place. It seems a cow and bull were given to the Hawaiian King as a present. Because they had never seen cattle before they didn’t know what to do with them and treated them like pets, letting them roam free on the big island. It was after the breeding got out of control and the cattle population grew to unmanageable levels that the Hawaiian’s asked for help from the Mexican cowboys. So it was the gift of two cows that ultimately led to the development of the Slack Key guitar.

George Kahumoku was probably the best storyteller of the bunch. He has a deep, engaging, earthy voice that was well suited to the storytelling and singing. The Rev. Dennis Kamakahi has been a prolific song writer over the past 25 years and is a gifted Slack Key guitarist and has a lilting and almost ethereal sounding voice. He had the most intricate and captivating finger picking style of the three. Some of his songs were almost trance inducing. Cyril Pahinui is carrying on the tradition of his father Gabby Pahinui who was one of the important Slack Key guitar players of this century, considered by many to be the father of modern day Slack Key guitar. Cyril’s singing was not as appealing and his guitar style was more elementary than Kahumoku and Kamakahi and I found his performance to be somewhat lacking compared the other two. The audience, however, seemed to give Pahinui the greatest response, especially in the recognition of some of the songs he performed. When the three guitarists all got together at the end of the show it was surprising that they could actually play together considering the unique, individualized style and tunings used by each performer. The sound was so full, rich and beautiful, someone described it as sweet music.

There is an interesting similarity between Slack Key guitar and the blues. They both have a tradition that is fluid and feeling based, with the guitarist often playing the song differently each time (even with different tunings) based on the emotion of the moment. This creative improvisation is a key element in both styles. I highly recommend you catch the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival #4 when it comes to the Cedar next year!

Mailbox E-mail Ray Stiles at: mnblues@aol.com

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Copyright © 1998 by Ray M. Stiles
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