Ozzie Kotani is a respected teacher, arranger, composer and accompanist as well as a solo performer. He has played ki ho`alu, Hawaiian slack key guitar, for over 20 years, representing it on the Mainland, in Spain and Japan, as well as all around the Hawaiian islands. Like the late slack key master Sonny Chillingworth, with whom he studied, he freely interjects his own personality into his playing, preserving and expanding the tradition.
Born in 1956, Ozzie grew up in the Honolulu neighborhood of Pauoa. He learned a bit of `ukulele in the fourth grade as part of the statewide music and culture curriculum. His interest in ki ho`alu blossomed during high school when he heard one of the great instrumentals from slack key guitarist Keola Beamer's album, HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY GUITAR IN THE REAL OLD STYLE (Music of Polynesia 22000), on the radio.
"I was captivated by his sound," Ozzie recalls. "I somehow managed to learn some elementary slack key by listening to a tape of Keola over and over. Not having the faintest idea how to tune, I experimented. Some of the harmonics gave me a clue to the melody strings." Ozzie also developed a distinctive four-finger picking method. "Many people insist I'm a classically trained guitarist when they watch or hear me play. This could not be further from the truth!" In 1975 Ozzie enrolled in Peter Medeiros' slack key class at the University of Hawai`i Continuing Education Program (where he later returned to teach and continues to do so today). In 1976 he began studying privately with legendary Sonny Chillingworth. The 1970s were an exciting time in Hawai`i as many young people of all backgrounds began to look to na kupuna (the elders) for inspiration. Many of the legends of Hawaiian music and dance performed regularly and made albums, some for the first time. With the guidance of his teachers, the influence of recordings and long hours of practice, Ozzie established a style of his own. His completely unique guitar techniques are instantly recognizable to aficionados of ki ho`alu. He recorded his landmark first album, CLASSICAL SLACK (Pacific Sound Design 1001) in 1988. It is an all-instrumental and mainly solo collection of his own compositions and his great interpretations of Hawaiian standards, such as Ku`u Pua I Paoakalani. He is currently recording a series of solo instrumental guitar albums for Dancing Cat Records' Hawaiian slack key guitar masters series, documenting his entire repertoire as well as other experimental pieces.
Ozzie's first release for Dancing Cat is entitled KANI KI HO`ALU. It includes six originals, including the title piece which translates as "The Sound of Slack Key," which was a name given to Ozzie when he was studying the Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. "I feel that every artist in an oral tradition sounds different," Ozzie says. "Slack key puts a premium on playing from your heart with your own special touch. That's why I'll show anybody anything they want to see."
Five distinctive features of Ozzie's playing are his frequent use of the nylon string guitar, a distinctive, vocalizing approach to ballads, his use of atypical chord progressions, rolls played with the thumb and three fingers and a stand-up bass-type sound on the low strings on the first and third beats of the measure.
Ozzie returned to the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in 1986 to teach slack key for the College of Continuing Education and Community Service. "The main thing I want to do with my playing and my teaching is to give back to others what Sonny so patiently shared with me." He is also working on an instruction book/cassette tape set, due to be released in 1995.
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