The year 2000 marked Led Kaapana's thirty-seventh year as a professional musician. In that time, Led's hard work and easy going attitude have earned him a reputation as one of Hawai'i's most beloved traditional musicians. A master of ki ho'alu (slack key guitar), Led is also accomplished on 'ukulele, autoharp, bass, steel guitar and other plucked string instruments. He plays the slack key guitar in at least eight tunings, six of which are represented on this recording. He is a fine, emotional singer as well, in both baritone and leo ki'eki'e (falsetto). Perhaps most importantly, Led blends his virtuosity with an infectious joy for performing, a generous spirit and a kolohe (rascally) sense of humor. This makes him not only a pleasure to hear, but also good fun to be around.
Born August 25, 1948, Led grew up in a very musical family in the tiny village of Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawai'i. His brothers and sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors all played something. "We didn't have electricity, no television, not even much radio," he says. "So we entertained ourselves. You could go to any house and everybody was playing music."
Kalapana parties were famous for kanikapila (playing music), that sometimes went on for days. "People played in shifts, taking over when somebody went to bed," Led recalls. "You'd fall asleep to the music, wake up and the music was still playing. That was the best alarm clock I ever had! Even today when I play, I still picture all the 'ohana (family) getting together and sharing their songs and their aloha."
Like most Hawaiian musicians, Led learned to play at a young age by watching, listening and imitating. Encouraged by his kupuna (elders) and disciplined about practicing, he developed a seemingly inexhaustible ability to improvise. Led says that, from the beginning, improvisation came natural to him. "I was doing it before I knew what it was," he jokes. He adds that, as he sees it, the best improvisation is based on two things: the song itself and the mood of the moment, which changes each time you play the song. "Everything you play, every time you play, there's a mood, an energy. If you plug into it, the music just flows. Even in a simple song, there are so many different ways to play the melody, the rhythm, the harmony. It never stops if you stay open to it."
Led's improvisational skills help him fit in with a variety of musicians and styles. He is a favorite of singers, especially leo ki'eki'e singers such as Aunty Genoa Keawe, Uncle Joe Keawe, The Ho'opi'i Brothers, David Chun and others. He also likes to team up with other slack key guitarists, especially Cyril Pahinui, with whom he has toured Europe and the Mainland. Since Led first jammed with steel guitarist Bob Brozman in 1986, these two virtuosos became close friends, on stage and off. "He's like a brother to me," says Led. Under the auspices of the National Council for Traditional Arts, Led has toured nationally three times with a host of top country, blues and jazz guitarists. Of these great players, he feels especially close to dobro wizard Jerry "Flux" Douglas. "Flux always blows me away," Led says. "He's a master of the metal bar." In the last year, Led has opened for Bob Dylan, at the request of Dylan's band, and for bluegrass sensation Alison Krauss, with whom he's recorded. Many performers make a point of catching Led's act when they're visiting the Islands, including members of the wonderful Cajun band BeauSoleil and country troubadour Steve Young.
Led's flexibility has also made him a regular in the local media. For example, last year, he appeared on four Hawai'i Public Television shows: as slack key accompanist for Aunty Genoa and The Ho'opi'is, as a jamming partner with Bob Brozman, as an 'ukulele soloist in a tribute to 'ukulele virtuosos, and as a featured performer in his own right. "He's in a class by himself," says public television producer Stuart Yamane, "an awesome player and so easy to work with. He fits into just about any music project you can think of." Producer George Winston says, "Led plays with great soul, happiness, gratitude, virtuosity, respect for his influences and peers, and love of his audiences. He enjoys playing more than anyone I've ever seen. And to see him with the reunion of the original members of his trio I Kona, with the equally joyous Bernard Kalua and the great supportive rhythm guitarist Alika Odom, is so exhilarating."
Led cites his mother, singer Tina Kaapana, and his uncle, slack key guitarist Fred Punahoa, as his main influences. "I feel a strong connection to what they and the other kupuna shared with me," he says. Despite the isolation of the town of Kalapana, he also heard and absorbed many outside sources. "I've always listened to country, jazz, Latin music, even rock and roll. Sometimes back in Kalapana, I'd sneak a little Pipeline or Walk Don't Run into the Hawaiian music. My dad would say 'Hey, that's not slack key.' But nobody ever stopped me. They just said to play what you feel and play with aloha."
In 1972, Led formed Hui 'Ohana with his twin brother, bassist Ned and his cousin, falsetto singer and rhythm guitarist Dennis Pavao. Through fourteen albums and countless live appearances, they proudly maintained Kalapana's musical traditions. Afterward, Led stayed with the trio format, creating I Kona, which has released six albums to date.
Led's relationship with Dancing Cat began in 1989. To document Led's diversity, releases on Dancing Cat have spanned a wide spectrum. First came LED LIVE - SOLO (Dancing Cat), a collection of solo performances recorded at concerts in California, where he has built up a strong following. Next, KIKA KILA MEETS KI HO`ALU (Dancing Cat) paired Led with Bob Brozman for a series of sizzling, improvised duets. For 1998's WALTZ OF THE WIND (Dancing Cat), Led took his guitars, 'ukuleles and autoharp to Nashville for an all-star session with Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, her brother - bassist Viktor Krauss, her husband - guitarist Pat Bergeson, Sonny Landreth and others. "That was a real dream come true," he says. "It was a real honor to meet them all and to share the music. That's something I'll never forget. I just want to say mahalo (thanks) to all of them."
Led's latest solo release, BLACK SAND, brings Led back to the solo setting to explore Hawaiian classics, originals and old family favorites. "It all goes back to the 'ohana," he says. "My mom and dad, Uncle Fred, all the musicians back home in Kalapana. They shared the music with me and I've been lucky enough to share it with others all around the world." Through the hard times and the triumphs, Led has steadfastly maintained his aloha for the music that first inspired him to pick up an instrument and play. He has been richly rewarded for his loyalty to his art. "I got more good memories," he says, "than the Big Island has black sand." His trio, I Kona, is currently playing regularly at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki in Honolulu.
Most recently, Led has reunited with Bob Brozman for their second all acoustic album of duets, IN THE SADDLE (released on January 9, 2001). A treat for all guitar fans, this new Dancing Cat release gives both artists maximum freedom to stretch out and express themselves. While retaining the spontaneity of their first collaboration, it also reveals an added depth to Led and Bob's evolving musical relationship. "Since the first album, we've done about fifty concerts as a duo," Led says. "All that time together comes across on the new record. We sound very comfortable with each other."
"When we made the first CD, I knew only 1900 to 1935 steel playing," Bob adds. "Since then, Led and I have developed a nearly telepathic musical rapport. And I've developed a whole new language for accompanying slack key. But mainly, I've learned a lot about the act of playing music from this amazing guy I consider to be a genius."
IN THE SADDLE contains fourteen tracks: two vocals and twelve instrumentals. As with most Dancing Cat releases, the main emphasis is on creative interpretations of Hawaiian classics. These include familiar favorites, like Aloha Ia O Wai`anae and No Ke Ano Ahiahi, as well as rarities such as He Olu La No`u, last recorded by the great Sol Ho`opi`i in the 1920s. While both Led and Bob play with great love for tradition, they also enjoy adding their own touches. On Waialae Waltz, for example, they play with a strong 6/8 feel, giving the slack key standard a slight Mexican flavor. Indian musician Subhashis Bhattacharya also joins them on tabla, adding another unique ingredient.
Originals on IN THE SADDLE include Ami Ami Slack Key, and the title track, which marks Bob's debut on slack key guitar. "I've got to start catching up," he jokes, adding, with admiration, that Led is not only a great slack key guitarist, but also an `ukulele virtuoso, an autoharp picker, a bassist and an increasingly accomplished steel player.