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A Short History of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (Ki Ho'alu)

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Hawaiian slack key guitar (ki ho'alu) is one of the world's great acoustic guitar traditions. However, due to Hawai'i's isolation (the islands lie furthest in the world from any major land mass) ki ho'alu remains one of the least known traditions. Ki ho'alu, which literally means "loosen the key," is the Hawaiian-language name for this unique finger-picked style. The strings (or "keys") are "slacked" to produce many beautiful tunings, almost always based on a major tonality and often containing a full major chord, or a chord with a major 7th or 6th note. Each tuning produces a characteristic resonance behind the melody, and each has its own characteristic color and flavor, like a beautiful basket of fruit.

Many Hawaiian songs and slack key guitar pieces reflect themes, such as stories of the past and present, and aloha for loved ones. Hawai'i's tropical surroundings, with its ocean, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, forests, plants and animals, provide other deep sources of inspiration for Hawaiian music.

These currents run deep in slack key guitar playing, as accompaniment to vocals, as instrumental compositions, or as instrumental interpretations of vocal pieces. Drawn from the heart and soul out through the fingers, slack key music is sweet and soulful.

Slack key's unique sound comes partly from techniques such as the hammer-on, an ornament produced by plucking a note and immediately fretting that string to produce a second higher tone; and the pull-off, produced by plucking a fretted string and immediately pulling the finger off that fret, sounding a second lower note that is either open or fretted by another finger. For a great example, see Ray Kane's Punahele from his album of the same name. These techniques mimic the yodels and falsettos rooted in ancient chants and common in Hawaiian singing. Other techniques include harmonics ("chimes"), produced by lightly touching strings at certain frets, and slides, in which one or two treble notes are fingered and then slid (usually up in pitch) to sound another note. A beautiful effect is sometimes created when a guitarist is singing and the note or notes on the top pitched strings sound like a second voice. These techniques all enhance the expressions of aloha, joy or longing--sometimes all in the same song.

Like blues guitar, the slack key tradition is very flexible and can have great emotional depth. A guitarist will often play the same song differently each time, sometimes changing tempos, or even tunings. As guitarists learn to play in this very individualistic tradition, they find their own tunings, techniques, arrangements and repertoire.

Four Slack Key Styles

Today there are four basic types of slack key guitar. Some guitarists play more than one style. The first is simple but profound, most evident in the older playing styles, such as that of the late Auntie Alice Namakelua. The second is a sort of "slack key jazz" with a lot of improvisation and is used prominently in the music of Atta Isaacs, Cyril Pahinui, Led Kaapana, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo, Ozzie Kotani and Peter Moon.

The third type creates a unique sound using ornaments like hammer-ons and pull-offs. These techniques are featured on Sonny Chillingworth's Ho'omalu Slack Key, Ray Kane's Punahele, and George Kuo's Kohala Charmarita. Guitarist Manu Kahaialii uses another technique called "Hei Kuikui" on his song So Ti in Eddie Kamae's documentary film THE HAWAIIAN WAY and on Manu's out-of-print album KAAHAIALII MAUI STYLE. In this technique, the left hand holds the chord normally while the right-hand index finger produces a beautiful and unique sound by hammering down on the string and pulling off very rapidly, rather hand plucking it. (The late George Kahumoku, Sr. called this same technique "Ki Panipani.")

The fourth slack key style is performance-oriented and features entertaining visual and sound techniques. These include playing with the forearm, playing with a bag over the fretting hand (as performed by the late Fred Punahoa and his nephew Led Kaapana) and the intriguing needle and thread technique, where the player dangles a needle hanging from a thread held between the teeth across the strings while otherwise playing normally; this creates a sound a bit like a mandolin or a hammered dulcimer. It can be heard on the fourth verse of the song, Wai Ulu, on Sonny Chillingworth's recording SONNY SOLO. This technique can also be seen in two great slack key films: Susan Friedman's KI HO`ALU, THAT'S SLACK KEY GUITAR on the song Kaula 'Ili by Sonny and in Eddie Kamae's THE HAWAIIAN WAY on an improvised piece by slack key guitarist Fil Secratario.

Origins of Slack Key

There are different theories about the beginnings of slack key guitar in the Islands. Music is one of the most mobile art forms. European sailors around the beginning of the 19th century possibly introduced Hawaiians to the gut string guitar--ancestor of the modern nylon string guitar.

Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys), hired by King Kamehameha III around 1832 to teach Hawaiians how to handle an overpopulation of cattle, brought over guitars. In the evenings around the campfire, the vaqueros--many of whom worked on the Big Island, especially around the Waimea region--probably played their guitars, often two or more together with one playing lead melody and the other bass and chords. This new instrument would have intrigued the Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, who had their own strong, deep-rooted music traditions. Given the long work hours, however, the Hawaiians probably didn't have time to learn a lot about this new music.

The vaqueros returned to their homelands a few years later and some gave their guitars to the paniolo. Geniuses of assimilation, Hawaiians wove what they had learned of the Mexican and Spanish music into their traditional chants, songs and rhythms and created a new form of music that was completely their own. Unique Hawaiian musical traditions were the dominant force in this guitar music, as they have historically been with other musical influences that have come from the rest of the world. Hawaiian music never stops evolving, and yet it always remains in touch with its deep roots and inspiration.

From the start, slack key guitar became a significant part of the music that the paniolo played after work or with families and friends at gatherings, and this paniolo tradition continues today on the Big Island and Maui. Many guitarists choose to play just for family and friends rather than playing professionally or recording. George Kuo, reflecting on his slack key mentors, points out, "Sometimes the older players would lock into a groove (keep the same tempo and feeling) and stay there all night." This can sometimes be heard in the playing of Ray Kane and Ni'ihau guitarist Malaki Kanahele.

At first there may not have been many guitars or people who knew how to play, so the Hawaiians developed a way to get a full sound from one guitar. They picked the bass and rhythm chords on three or four of the lower-pitched strings with the thumb, while playing the melody or improvising melodic fills on three or four of the higher-pitched strings with the fingers. The gut string guitar introduced by the vaqueros had a very different sound than the steel string guitar, which arrived later, probably brought in by the Portuguese around the 1860s. By the late 1880s, the steel string sound had become very popular with the Hawaiians, and slack key had spread to all of the Hawaiian Islands. To this day the steel string guitar predominates, although slack key artists Keola Beamer, Ozzie Kotani, Moses Kahumoku and Bla Pahinui have also prominently used the nylon string guitar.

Until the mid-20th century, vocals were the most important element of Hawaiian music. The guitar was relegated mainly to a backup role, often grouped with other instruments. Played in a natural, finger-picked style with a steady rhythm, guitar was used as an accompaniment to hula and singing. The guitar usually did not play the exact melody of the song, but played a repeated fragment with improvised variations, often using ornaments such as hammer-ons, pull-offs and harmonics. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, slack key guitarists increasingly played an instrumental verse between some of the vocal verses, sometimes called the pane or answer verse, which had previously been played by the steel guitarist.

Since the 1960s, and especially in the 1990s, Hawaiian slack key guitar has evolved into a highly developed instrumental art form, in both solo and group formats. When played solo, the beautiful and unique intricacies of the slack key guitar can be most fully appreciated, as the music of each master has great depth and individuality.

King Kalakaua & Queen Lili'uokalani

The slack key tradition was given an important boost during the reign of King David Kalakaua, who was responsible for the Hawaiian cultural resurgence of the 1880s and 1890s. King Kalakaua supported the preservation of ancient music, while encouraging the addition of imported instruments like the 'ukulele and guitar. His coronation in 1883 featured the guitar in combination with the ipu (gourd drum) and pahu (skin drum) in a new dance form called hula ku'i. At his Jubilee in 1886, there were performances of ancient chants and hula. This mixing of the old and new contributed to the popularity of both the guitar and 'ukulele.

King Kalakaua's conviction that the revitalization of traditional culture was at the root of the survival of the Hawaiian kingdom became a major factor in the continuity of traditional music and dance. His influence still shows. This was a great period of Hawaiian music and compositions, when traditional music was actively supported by the monarchy. Kalakaua, along with his siblings W. P. Leleiohoku II, Miriam Likelike and especially Lili'uokalani, composed superb songs that are still well-known today. After King Kalakaua passed away in 1891, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani, who was Hawai'i's last monarch. Among her classic pieces are Aloha 'Oe, Sanoe, Ku'u Pua I Paoakalani, Pau'ahi O Kalani, Ahe Lau Makani, He Inoa No Ka'iulani, Manu Kapalulu, Queen's Jubilee, Queen's Prayer, Ka Hanu O Ka Hana Keoki, Ninipo (Ho'Onipo), Tutu, He Ai No Kalani, Ka Oiwa Nani and many other beautiful songs. These compositions are still deeply part of Hawai'i's music today.

One of Hawai'i's greatest and most prolific present-day song-writers, Dennis Kamakahi, has been deeply inspired by Queen Lili'uokalani. He says, "Queen Lili'uokalani and I have one passion, that is, the passion to write what we see and hear around us and transform these images into music. She has been the inspiration for me to write in the most poetical way, using the Hawaiian language she knew so well." With this inspiration, Dennis has composed many beautiful songs and Hawaiian standards such as Koke'e, Wahine 'Ilikea, Pua Hone, Ke Aloha Mau A Mau, Kaua'i O Mano, Lei Koele, E Hihiwai, E Pupukanioe and Ka Opae.

Slack Key Tunings

A wide variety of tunings in several different keys were created to effectively back up singers with their various vocal ranges. Hawaiians retuned the guitar (usually lowering some of the strings) from the standard Spanish tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E, from the lowest to the highest-pitched string) and the "slacked" strings resulted in sweet and resonant sounds. Strings tuned too low lost their tone, strings tuned too high were likely to break, thus tunings in six keys were developed. (Early Hawaiians probably did not have guitar capos--a strap or clamp which fits on the guitar neck and raises the pitch, allowing the same guitar fingerings in a higher key.) The many ingenious tunings the Hawaiians invented fall into five basic categories: Major, Wahine, Mauna Loa, Ni'ihau/Old Mauna Loa and miscellaneous.

In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood ki ho'alu, and the ability to play it was regarded as a special gift. To retain and protect the slack key mystique, tunings were often closely guarded family secrets. This practice has changed with the times, as the preservation of older Hawaiian traditions has become more conscious and deliberate.

Slack key guitarists are now more willing to share their knowledge with those outside the family circle who sincerely wish to learn. The sharing of tunings and techniques greatly helps ensure that the slack key guitar tradition will endure.

Some of the most commonly used tunings are the Major Tunings, where the guitar is tuned to a major chord or has a major chord within the tuning. Especially popular is the G Major "Taro Patch" Tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D). Also often used are the Wahine Tunings, which contain a major 7th note. Two of the first Wahine Tunings to be developed may have been the C-G-D-G-B-E and the G-C-D-G-B-E tunings, in which the four highest-pitched strings retain the same tuning as the Standard Tuning, but the bass notes are retuned to the open strings of the C and G chords. Two other popular tunings in this category are another C Wahine (C-G-D-G-B-D) and the G Wahine (D-G-D-F#-B-D), which is especially Spanish influenced.

Also common are the Mauna Loa Tunings, in which the top two pitches are tuned a wide fifth interval apart. In these tunings, what is often played on the first string and the thicker third string in other tunings is instead played on the first string and thinner second string, producing the characteristic sweet sound of Mauna Loa Tunings. The three most frequently used Mauna Loa Tunings are C Mauna Loa (C-G-E-G-A-E), G Mauna Loa (D-G-D-D-G-D, with the third and fourth strings tuned to the same tone) and Bb Mauna Loa (F-Bb-D-F-G-D). Violins and mandolins which were brought to Hawai'i--and normally tuned in fifth intervals--may have influenced these Mauna Loa Tunings.

When two or more guitarists play together, they often use different tunings in the same key. For example, one guitarist might use G Major Tuning and the other might use G Wahine Tuning. Guitars can also be played together with different tunings in different keys, using a capo on various frets to sound in the same key. An example of this would be one guitarist playing in a G tuning, with a second in a C tuning capoed up to the 7th fret to sound in the key of G.

Two of the most stunning duets ever recorded are by Abraham Konanui and an unnamed second guitarist (possibly Fred Punahoa--both uncles of slack key great Led Kaapana) on the songs Hawaiian Melody and Maui Serenade. These, along with the earliest recorded tracks by Gabby Pahinui and five other 1940s and 1950s slack key artists, have been reissued on the album THE HISTORY OF SLACK KEY GUITAR.

Slack Key Cross-fertilization

Hawaii is a crossroads of cultures, and its music reflects many influences: Mexican, Spanish and Portuguese music; Caribbean and Polynesian music, especially from Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga; European music, especially from Germany and England; as well as music from the American Mainland, including jazz, country & western, folk and pop. Hawaiians have absorbed it all and enriched it with their mana (soul or spiritual power).

Mainland music has enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with music from Hawaii. In the early 1890s, Hawaiian musicians such as the Royal Hawaiian Band, steel guitarists and vocal groups began touring in the U.S. The 1912 Broadway show BIRD OF PARADISE helped introduce Hawaiian music (although not slack key guitar) to the Mainland, as did Hawaiian shows at the big Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. In the following years, Hawaiian recordings, especially acoustic steel guitar tracks and vocal tracks, became the biggest selling records in the U.S. These increased recordings and tours by Hawaiian performers greatly influenced blues musicians who played slide guitar, as well as country & western steel guitarists. (Steel guitar--as opposed to steel string, finger-picked guitar--refers to any guitar played with a metal bar, regardless of what material the guitar is made. Likewise, slack key does not refer to a type of guitar but rather a style of playing that can be performed on any kind of guitar.)

In the late 1880s, some slack key guitarists began holding the guitar flat on the lap and playing it with a metal bar. These guitarists used slack key tunings, particularly the G Major or "Taro Patch" Tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D). Soon after, the strings were raised so that the metal bar would not hit the fretboard and different steel guitar tunings evolved to accomodate the limitations of playing with the metal bar. This evolved into the lap steel guitar, which was later played more often on a stand. Much later, pedals were added and it became known as the pedal steel guitar, which is prevalent in country & western music.

Some Hawaiian steel guitar tunings, and thus some Mainland lap and pedal steel guitar tunings, evolved from slack key tunings. For example, the "High Bass G" Major Tuning (G-B-D-G-B-D) for the dobro, or acoustic steel, and lap steel, evolved from the G Major "Taro Patch" Tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D), which is also often called "Low Bass G." The C Major 6th Tuning for the pedal steel guitar may have come somewhat from the C Mauna Loa Tuning (C-G-E-G-A-E), which has a sixth note (A) in the tuning.

The hot jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, especially the great trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, influenced the Hawaiian steel guitar players, most notably Sol Ho'opi'i (1902-1953). The great acoustic steel player Tao Moe points out that when he was a boy growing up in the pre-World War I era, many steel guitar players were playing in the slack key style. This later changed, however, when Sol Ho'opi'i began changing the tunings and concentrating on jazzy single note lead lines. Because of the distance between islands, each developed unique styles, sometimes even specific to regions of an island. The Big Island, due to its size, has engendered the greatest variety of regional styles. Some players, especially those around Honolulu (on Oahu), often developed more modern and improvised styles as a result of greater exposure to different musical traditions from the American Mainland and other parts of the world. To this day, slack key artists draw from the traditions of the area where they grew up and from the music of their 'ohana (family) and add to it their own individual playing style. In recent years, learning from recordings has become more common, as well as learning from professional teachers, both in schools and private lessons.

Philip "Gabby" Pahinui

The most influential slack key guitarist in history was Philip "Gabby" Pahinui (1921-1980). The modern slack key period began around 1946 when Gabby, often referred to as "The Father of The Modern Slack Key Era," made his first recording. Gabby was the prime influence that kept slack key guitar from dying out in the Islands. His prolific and unique techniques led the guitar to become more recognized as a solo instrument. He expanded the boundaries of slack key guitar by creating a fully-evolved solo guitar style capable of creatively interpreting a wide variety of Hawaiian traditional and popular standards, original pieces and even pieces from other cultures. Gabby's beautiful, expressive vocals, especially his incredibly soulful falsetto, have also inspired many musicians.

The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band of the 1970s is a good example of the complex sound that slack key can achieve with multiple guitars. Along with Gabby, this band featured the late great slack key guitarists Leland "Atta" Isaacs, Sr. (1930-1983), Sonny Chillingworth (1932-1994), and Gabby's sons, Cyril and Bla Pahinui. On the band's recordings, each guitarist usually played in a different C tuning (and Bla and Cyril played in D tunings tuned down to the key of C), providing a thick, multi-textured sound.

The tunings of the Gabby Band were as follows:

Gabby Pahinui: C-G-E-G-
    B-E or C-G-E-G-
      A-E
Leland "Atta" Isaacs: C-G-E-G-
    C-E
Sonny Chillingworth: C-G-D-G-B-D
Cyril Pahinui: D-A-D-F#-B-E (tuned down to C, yielding C-G-C-E-A-D)
Bla Pahinui: D-A-D-G-B-E (tuned down to C, yielding C-G-C-F-A-D), and Standard Tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), especially in the keys of C and A (sometimes using a capo)

Besides Gabby, the two other most influential slack key artists have been the late Sonny Chillingworth and the late Leonard Kwan. These three musicians are noteworthy not only for their beautiful playing (and singing, in Gabby's and Sonny's cases), but also for their recordings: Gabby from the 1940s through the 1970s, and Leonard and Sonny from the 1950s through the late 1990s. Auntie Alice Namakelua (1892-1987), whose 1800s style was the earliest recorded, has also inspired many players.

Gabby's five earliest recordings from the 1940s (78 rpms on Bell and Aloha Records) are especially impressive: Hi'ilawe (twice), Key Khoalu [sic], Hula Medley and Wai O Keaniani. (These have been reissued on THE HISTORY OF SLACK KEY GUITAR.) These recordings inspired and astounded many other slack key guitarists, given the level of Gabby's playing and because each song was in a different tuning. He also made more great recordings in the 1950s for the Waikiki label, which were mostly issued on three different albums: HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY - VOLUME 1, HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY - VOLUME 2 and THE BEST OF HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY. In 1961 the late Dave Guard of the first Kingston Trio, who grew up in Hawai'i and was inspired by Gabby, produced the beautiful album PURE GABBY, which was eventually released in 1978.

The release of several great slack key albums in the 1960s by Leonard Kwan, Ray Kane, Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui on Margaret Williams' Tradewinds label further increased the awareness and popularity of slack key guitar. These four artists, plus Sonny Chillingworth, recorded in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and influenced all the younger slack key guitarists. The next generation's three most influential slack key guitarists issued their own first recordings in the 1970s: Keola Beamer (solo and with his brother Kapono), Led Kaapana with his trios Hui 'Ohana and I Kona), and Peter Moon (with his groups The Sunday Manoa and the Peter Moon Band). Leonard, Ray and Sonny (until his death in 1994), continued to record and influence many others into the 1980s and 1990s.

Slack Key Since 1970

Since the early 1970s (often called the era of the Hawaiian Renaissance), Hawaiians have increasingly looked to their cultural roots, and because of this, slack key guitar has steadily grown in popularity. The Hawaiian Music Foundation, founded by Dr. George Kanahele, did much to increase awareness through its publications, music classes and the sponsoring of concerts, including the landmark, first ever slack key concert in 1972.

The slack key tradition is now at its peak. Currently, there are several annual slack key festivals held in the Islands. More slack key guitar recordings are now available throughout the world. More guitarists are giving concerts more frequently in and outside of Hawai'i, including on the Mainland, in Japan and in Europe. Additionally, slack key is gaining recognition in more institutional music settings. In 1998, Ozzie Kotani gave the first ever solo instrumental slack key recitals. With these developments, and with the techniques and influences of today's players expanding the range of slack key guitar, the future looks bright for ki ho'alu. It is a testament to the depth of the slack key traditon that it is one of the oldest music traditions to still be a viable (other than just historical) part of a modern culture, like Irish dance music and Spanish Flamenco guitar.

Dancing Cat Records

Dancing Cat Records is producing the ongoing Hawaiian Sack Key Guitar Masters Series, which consists mainly of solo albums by many of the best players in Hawai'i. The entire repertoire of each player, as well as experiments beyond, are being recorded. These guitarists include the late Sonny Chillingworth, the late Leonard Kwan, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, Led Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui, Ozzie Kotani, George Kuo, Dennis Kamakahi, Bla Pahinui, George Kahumoku, Jr., Moses Kahumoku, Cindy Combs and Patrick Cockett, as well as a reissue of the late Gabby Pahinui's PURE GABBY album. Albums by these artists are listed on the following pages. Ultimately, Dancing Cat plans to release sixty or more albums.

Dancing Cat Records is also producing a series of Hawaiian acoustic steel and slack key guitar duet recordings. Until recently, this combination has curiously been absent from the entire history of Hawaiian recording. The first of these, HAWAIIAN TOUCH, with the late steel guitarist Barney Isaacs and slack key guitarist George Kuo, was released in 1995. In 1997, Dancing Cat Records issued KIKA KILA MEETS KI HO`ALU, featuring Bob Brozman on acoustic steel guitar with Led Kaapana on slack key. Bob also plays duets with Cyril Pahinui on slack key on the 1999 recording FOUR HANDS SWEET & HOT and again with Led on the 2001 recording IN THE SADDLE. More of these duet alums are planned.

View a list of recommended slack key recordings,
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