Two years was just too long a time between this and the previous Slack Key performance (February 6, 1998). But it was definitely worth the wait. Picture a group of over 500 people packed into the sold out Cedar Theater, all sharing the Aloha spirit and listening the sweet melodic music of Hawaiian slack key guitar…in the middle of Minnesota…in the dead of winter. At first look it may seem incongruous but in actuality there is a strong Hawaiian contingent (as well as spirit) here. Members of the group who were performing also have family and friends who live in Minnesota and Wisconsin. We also have the fishing connection. Hawaii is surrounded by water and Minnesota DOES have more than 10,000 lakes. That may be stretching it a bit but Martin Pahinui commented that he wished he had the time to come back here in the summer to fish. And then he added with a laugh, "if anyone catches a yellow fin tuna I’m moving to Minnesota."
Similar to the last slack key performance here, the evening was divided into 2 sets. George Kuo played first followed by Dennis Kamakahi and his son David. After a short intermission they came together as a group, along with Martin Pahinui, and closed out this wonderfully entertaining evening of Hawaiian slack key music. Hui Aloha, the name of their group, is a relatively new joining composed of three of Hawaii’s most celebrated traditional slack key performers and a surprisingly gifted young ukulele player. The name, Hui Aloha, means "meeting of compassion" in Hawaiian. An interesting name that makes sense after listening to these remarkable players perform their beautiful music. A music that is filled with a reverent respect for tradition and a spirit of innovation.
Slack Key guitar (ki ho’ alu in Hawaiian) is an acoustic finger picking guitar style unique to the Hawaiian Islands. "Played from the heart and soul through the fingers, and flowing with vivid tropical images, Hawaiian slack key is truly one of the great acoustic guitar traditions in the world." 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 other techniques that create a unique and hauntingly beautiful music.
"There is a mystique surrounding slack key guitar music - it is very personal, and can be very magical in feeling. Slack key derives its unique sound from techniques such as ‘hammering-on’ and ‘pulling-off.’ These techniques mimic the yodels and falsettos common in Hawaiian singing. Harmonics ("chiming"), produced by lightly touching the strings at certain points on the fretboard, and slides in which one or two treble notes are cleffed and then slid (usually up) to sound another note, are also common. All these enhance the feeling of aloha, joy or longing expressed, sometimes all in the same song. Many Hawaiian songs and slack key guitar pieces reflect themes like stories of the past and present and people's lives. But it is the tropical surroundings of Hawai'i, with its oceans, volcanoes and mountains, waterfalls, forests, plants and animals, that provide the deepest source of inspiration for Hawaiian music. These currents run deep in slack key guitar playing, as accompaniment to vocals, as instrumental compositions or as interpretations of vocal pieces. Slack key guitar music is sweet and soulful, and it is said that slack key is drawn from the heart and soul out through the fingers of each player."
Like the blues, slack key guitar has a tradition that is very flexible and emotion based. In both traditions the same musician will play a song differently each time, sometimes using different tempos, and even different tunings. As each musician learns to play in the slack key guitar style, they find their own individual style with distinct tunings, repertoire and tempos. It is this very individualistic tradition as well as a penchant for creative improvisation that links slack key with the blues.
The group, Hui Aloha, is made up of Dennis Kamakahi and George Kuo on guitars and vocals, Martin Pahinui on bass and vocals and David Kamakahi on ukulele and vocals. Dennis, George and Martin have been playing with other groups or as solo artists for more than 25 years, and just recently formed this exciting new group. Their self-titled, debut album was released on Dancing Cat Records in 1999 and features four new Dennis Kamakahi originals and eleven standards.
Dennis Kamakahi, was born in Honolulu on March 31, 1953, into a musical family. His father, Kenneth Kamakahi was the youngest 1st seat trombonist in the Royal Hawaiian Band at the age of 21. Dennis fondly recalls his childhood as an important time in his musical development. "After dinner," Dennis recalls, "our family and neighbors would come outside on our porches, play music and talk story. You didn't have TV, you had each other. The last thing you'd hear at night was music lulling you to sleep."
Dennis’ father and grandfather both played slack key guitar and passed on this family tradition to Dennis who has done the same with his own son David. After graduating from the Kamehameha Schools (for children of Hawaiian ancestry) in 1971, Dennis studied classical music composition and orchestration at Leeward Community College before being asked to join the celebrated slack key group the Sons of Hawaii in 1973. Taking over the slack key guitar spot left by one of the modern masters of the instrument, Gabby Pahinui, Dennis knew these were very big shoes to fill. In fact Dennis drew inspiration from many of the slack key masters, especially Gabby Pahinui, as well as Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan and Ray Kane. "They were the grandfathers of us all," Dennis says. "The majority of us learned from those five masters."
Dennis, who began writing songs while still in junior high school, continued to write for Sons of Hawaii, penning a string of songs that have become Hawaiian slack keys classics. Dennis since has become one of Hawaii's most prolific and popular songwriters (with more than 400 songs to his credit). He is also an engaging singer and gifted guitarist easily evoking the moods and feelings of the ki ho`alu (slack key) tradition.
George Kuo was born on November 17,1955, but his beautiful slack key guitar style dates back a generation or two. "I feel a lot of appreciation for the old style of slack key and the lifestyle of my grandparents, granduncles, grandaunts and all the older players. There's a special aloha for them that I try to convey in my style of slack key."
George first took up the slack key guitar in high school learning from friends like Antone Gabriel who played in the traditional style of their elders. "When I heard Antone," George says, "I said to myself 'that's how I want to play the old style.’" Encouraged by his family George continued to learn from legendary slack key figures such as Ray Kane, Aunty Alice Namakelua, Tommy Solomon, Sonny Chillingworth, Atta Isaacs, and Gabby Pahinui. "That was a real rare opportunity to be with those old masters," he says.
Throughout high school and college, George continued playing the clubs with small groups and as a solo artist as he continued studying with the masters. The 1970’s were a slack key guitar player’s dream in Hawaii. That time spawned a revival of traditional Hawaiian culture with many of the slack key masters publicly sharing their skill and knowledge (often for the first time outside of their family). George acquired a large repertoire of traditional slack key standards and began writing many of his own songs, to which he continues to add today. In 1979 he won a slack key guitar contest in Waikiki, which brought him to the attention of a wider audience and launched his performing career. He has been recording since 1980 and in 1986 Eddie Kamae asked George to join his group, The Sons of Hawaii. George considered that a great honor and developed a special kinship with the other members which included Dennis Kamakahi.
John Martin Pahinui, born July 21, 1951, is the youngest out of 10 children of the late "Pops" Gabby Pahinui and has a golden voice very similar and in keeping with his father's legacy. Martin first started playing music at the age of twelve with his father and other musicians in backyard "jam" sessions. By the age of thirteen, he was in his first group with his brother, Cyril, and other friends, playing rock and roll music for parties. Martin performed with several groups for many years and performed with musicians such as Rodney Arias, Watty Kaia, Prince Hanalei, and Randy Lorenzo to name a few.
In the 1980's, Martin became a member of the Peter Moon Band and established himself as a lead vocalist on many recordings. Big hits such as "Flying," "Cane Fire," and "Jealous Guy" are only a small sample of Martin's contribution to the music industry. In 1991, he joined brothers, Cyril and James "Bla" as "The Pahinui Brothers."
In 1995, Martin released his first ever solo project, simply entitled, "Martin Pahinui" on the Mountain Apple Company label with producer, Jon De Mello. Martin's dynamic vocal range gave him the freedom to create and perform a wide variety of Hawaiian, contemporary and rock music.
Martin said that one of his musical highlights was meeting Ringo Starr and talking to George Harrison (he is a huge Beatles fan). He also said his influences on bass guitar were Paul
McCartney, Bill Wyman, Al DuPre, and Willy Weeks. And his vocal influences are Paul McCartney, James Ingram, Donnie Hataway & his dad Gabby Pahinui. He also added with his ever present good humor and laugh, "I love chocolate cake."
Often finding time to jam with his friends Dennis and George, these informal get-togethers and their long-standing friendship led to a regular gig in 1998 playing Sunday nights at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel. These shows began attracting large crowds and loyal fans of the Gabby Pahinui Band the Sons of Hawaii Band. It wasn't long before Dancing Cat Records got them together to record this excellent debut album.
David 'Iolani-o-Na'o'o Shunichi Kamakahi , the youngest member of the group, was born on November 12, 1980 in Honolulu, second child of Dennis and Robin Kamakahi. At the age of 10, he showed great interest in the martial arts and began his study of Shito Ryo Karate under the guidance and teaching of Sensei Chuzo Kotaka of Osaka, Japan and Glenn West, with the International Karate Federation. He quickly earned many trophies and awards in tournament competition and in 1992 he was the United States American Athletics Union National Karate Champion in kata (form) and kobudo (weapons) in the 12-13 age division, winning two gold medals for Hawaii. In 1993 he earned a gold medal in kata (form) and a silver in kobudo (weapons) and a bronze medal in kumite (sparring). He currently holds the rank of 1st Dan (black belt) and is a lifetime member of the IKF.
In 1994, he earned the Martial Arts Federation's "Most Outstanding Competitor Award" for boys 12-14 years in kobudo. That same year he entered the Kamehameha Schools (a school for children of Hawaiian ancestry) as a freshman and excelled in ROTC earning the President's Medal for the most outstanding cadet. While attending Kamehameha, he began to develop his interest in Hawaiian music and the ukulele because he felt it was simple and fun. David's musical influences were Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawaii and The Sunday Manoa. He taught himself the ukulele and began a serious study of the instrument under ukulele master, Eddie Kamae. David has mastered the stylings of Eddie Kamae and has traveled with his father throughout Hawaii, the United States and Japan. He has released a CD with his father entitled "Ohana (Family)" in January 1999. A graduate of Kamehameha Schools Class of 1998, he now attends Leedward Community College majoring in Liberal Arts and tours with his father and the Hui Aloha band.
David has developed a scintillating ukulele style that combines traditional strumming techniques with electrifying solo runs. Hearing the melody picked out on the ukulele rather than a guitar is a very refreshing experience. David, and his father Dennis, often play as a duo and the combination of their tight vocal harmonies along with their remarkable guitar and ukulele playing makes for a totally fresh and exhilarating experience.
As a group, Hui Aloha, plays with a robust spontaneity that is extremely enjoyable to watch and listen to. They easily know where the other members are going with their music and communicate it through their playing. Their harmonies are inspiring and when Martin Pahinui takes a vocal solo—well let’s just say there were a few jaws dropping to the floor in amazement. They are also a very friendly and engaging group. They carry on a conversation with the audience, tell stories and relate anecdotes as introductions to each song.
In addition to the traditional slack key and other Hawaiian music, the group performed a number of more contemporary songs from blues, swing and even country music—all done in the distinctive slack key form with remarkable results. Here’s hoping the Cedar will bring the Slack Key Festival back next year rather than having us wait two years again!
Quotes, background and biographical material provided courtesy of Dancing Cat Records (www.dancingcat.com), Hawaiian Music Island (www.mele.com), Dennis Kamakahi (http://hometown.aol.com/naukilo1/index.html), Robin Kamakahi, and Martin Pahinui. All rights reserved.
The Cedar Cultural Centre's website: www.thecedar.org
This review is copyright © 2000 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.