On Slack Key Music
George has produced more than thirty solo guitar recordings of other musicians, in the Hawaiian style known as slack key. This beautiful finger-picked guitar tradition is George's favorite and is featured in his PBS special George Winston - Seasons In Concert. These recordings are released on George's label, Dancing Cat Records.
The Hawaiian slack key guitar tradition has totally inspired George Winston since he first heard the recordings of Gabby Pahinui and Keola Beamer in the early 1970s. Soon after, he heard Leonard Kwan, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, Atta Isaacs, Ledward Kaapana and others. "The first time I heard the music of the slack key guitarists, I thought of springtime in Montana, where I mainly grew up," he says. "I realized right away that my priority was to help make this tradition better known."
Slack key is an enchantingly melodic finger-picking guitar tradition. Also know as ki ho'alu in the Hawaiian language, it is based in traditional Hawaiian music with subtle influences of Mexican, Spanish, Portuguese, American, and European music. Slack key largely evolved on the ranches of the Big Island of Hawai'i when Hawaiians began to experiment with guitars brought to the islands by the vaqueros (Mexican and Spanish cowboys) in the 1830s. Although the better-known Hawaiian steel guitar, which was invented in the 1880s, became a successful commercial product and spread throughout the world, slack key has until recently remained a folk tradition performed primarily in backyards and at house parties. Because slack key was infrequently brought into the studio before the 1970s, few recordings of the oldest styles exist. Most of the recordings that have been made since the 1970s have tended to feature slack key as part of a back-up band, usually with bass, 'ukulele, rhythm guitar in standard tuning and steel guitar. George is focusing on documenting the seldom-recorded pure slack key sound by recording the artists mainly solo.
"Slack key is hard to describe to people who have never heard it," George says. "It's not folk, it's not the older jazz or ragtime, it's not blues, it's not country but it's musically akin to these traditions. It's like trying to describe the color green to somebody who hasn't seen it by saying that it's not blue and not yellow in the rainbow, but someplace in between. The sound is very familiar in some ways and yet very unique as well. It comes from deep feelings. It has tremendous feelings of the moment and yet of nostalgia. It speaks in a language all its own, a language of longing, of happiness, of sensitivity and strength. Slack key is so full of aloha, of goodwill. Like the musicians say, to play slack key properly, it has to come from the heart. It's such an individual thing, and no two people play alike. Without the individuals, there wouldn't be traditions. Each individual player is really their own category when it comes down to it."
"Recently, we have been extensively recording the playing of the late Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Ozzie Kotani, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo, James "Bla" Pahinui, Dennis Kamakahai, George Kahumoku Jr., Cindy Combs and others. We have also recorded acoustic steel guitar in duets with slack key, a combination which has never been done on record. The first recording was of the late Barney Isaacs on acoustic steel with George Kuo on slack key. We are now recording duets with Bob Brozman on acoustic steel and Ledward Kaapana on slack key. We hope to release about 40 to 50 albums in the long run."
"I feel that the slack key tradition is at its height right now in the nineties," says George. "We record the artists as much as we can and we're going to continue doing that because there is so much to do. When somebody tells me, 'Oh, you probably don't want this, it's just an old song, it's obsolete, it's too simple,' I get excited, because we're looking for the feeling of the way the guitar was played in the 1800s, since historically very, very little of the older ways of playing slack key has ever been recorded."
Hawaiian musicians have always been masters of adaptation. Like Sol Ho'opi'i and other world famous steel guitar wizards of the 1920s, the slack key guitarists incorporate elements from a wide variety of sources into their playing. "Sonny Chillingworth played great Portuguese songs, as well as country & western and ragtime-type pieces," George says. "Ozzie Kotani does some Japanese songs and some Brazilian, Keola Beamer does some classical, Leonard Kwan does some Caribbean, Ledward Kaapana does some Mainland American country, folk, and pop, as do Cyril Pahinui and Moses Kahumoku, but it's always grounded in the Hawaiian tradition. If you've got the gift, the mana, or feeling in the soul for something, stick with it because there's nothing that can top that."
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