Keola Beamer - MOE`UHANE KIKA - Tales From the Dream Guitar
Keolamaikalani Breckenridge Desha Beamer was born February 18, 1951, in Honolulu. He grew up in Waimea on the Big Island of Hawai`i and can trace his roots in Hawaiian music at least as far back as the 15th century; to illustrious kupuna (ancestors) such as Ahiakumai Ki`eki`e, queen of the Big Island, and Ho`olulu, one of the kapu (sacred) twins born of Kameiamoku, favored wife of Kamehameha Nui. In traditional Hawaiian society, ali`i (royalty) such as these recognized that sounded words possess mana (spiritual power). They encouraged musical expression as a way to preserve information and communicate with one another or the gods.
“I think that’s why my family is so serious about music,” Keola says. “We have been, are, and always will be. We came from a history of oral tradition in which music played a big part. Our genealogies, land boundaries, and navigational information were all in the chants. If a Polynesian navigator were to disassociate from the mnemonic overlay that he employed to remember the positions of thousands of stars, he and his companions would soon perish at sea. We are only now beginning to realize the wealth of that knowledge, how much has been lost, and are finally making some serious footholds in regaining some of these meanings.”
Throughout the generations, the Beamers have maintained a high level of involvement in the musical arts. In the 20th century they have produced a large number of influential performers, composers and teachers. These include songwriter and hula exponent Helen Desha Beamer (Keola’s great-grandmother), composer Pono Beamer (his grandfather), master teacher Louise Beamer (his grandmother), falsetto singer and pianist Mahi Beamer (his cousin), and chanter and teacher Winona Beamer (his mother). Keola continues this proud legacy. “That’s part of being in the Beamer family - trying to live up to your own heritage,” he says.
From a young age, Keola has played guitar, piano and `ohe hano ihu (bamboo nose flute). He studied hula and sang in glee clubs while attending Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu. He also began to play for dancers at his mother’s hula studio. Since the early 1970s, he has been recording albums, ranging from cutting edge Hawaiian pop to Slack Key in his own unique style. In 1972, he released his groundbreaking solo Slack Key album, HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY IN THE REAL OLD STYLE (Music of Polynesia MOP-22000), which featured his beautiful instrumental arrangements of Hawaiian standards, vocal pieces backed up by Slack Key guitar, and his original compositions. The recording has had significant influence on many Slack Key guitarists of the younger generation, most notably Ozzie Kotani (KANI KI HO`ALU, Dancing Cat Records 08022-38013). Keola was also an active teacher of ki ho`alu in the early ’70s, and compiled a book, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (Oak Publications; originally issued as Keola Beamer’s First Method for Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar). It was the first comprehensive teaching manual to be published on the subject. His teaching continues today with an instructional video, THE ART OF HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY GUITAR, which also features a booklet containing music and tablature. Along with the recordings of older performers like Gabby Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, and Ray Kane, as well as younger players Ledward Kaapana (with his group Hui Ohana) and Peter Moon (with his group The Sunday Manoa), Keola’s contributions to Slack Key during this time also helped spark public interest in ki ho`alu, launching a statewide revival of the tradition.
Keola is especially noted for his ability to recontexturalize ancient Hawaiian mele (songs) into contemporary settings, in which he has created a beautiful style uniquely his own. He has fashioned stirring instrumental arrangements of many traditional pieces for one or more guitars by adding innovative, often complex introductions, bridges and endings to fill in simple melodies. Keola’s solo guitar technique is characterized by his use of hammer-ons and pull-offs (see song #11, Au Kai) and his marked use of the nylon string guitar in addition to the more common steel string guitar. He has also brought the evocative sounds of the ipu hokiokio (gourd whistle) and 'ohe hano ihu (bamboo nose flute) into his arrangements.
After twenty-two years of recording and many hit albums later, Keola returned to the studio in 1994 to produce the critically acclaimed WOODEN BOAT, an album of original and traditional songs that skillfully navigate the deep waters of both Slack Key and world music trends. Keola continues his Slack Key journey with MOE`UHANE KIKA, a collection of instrumental tales from ka moe‘uhane kika, the dream guitar.
“The concept for this recording,” Keola says, “comes from the way that my guitar intonates. In the last year or so I’ve been concentrating on the solo aspects of my performance and some interesting things became apparent to me. One of the first things I noticed is that in some of these tunings, the vibrating of sympathetic strings creates a beautiful overtone series. The overtone series, of course, has been around since time immemorial but actually embracing it, working with it, and within it is something I tried to focus on in this recording. It is probably most apparent when I use the low C Wahine tuning. If you listen very carefully, you can hear a high spectral or ghost-like presence. The mysticism and spectral shadowing inherent in this halo, or veil, reminds me of what one may experience in a dream. That’s how the idea for this recording came into being.”
“I have a guitar design philosophy where I have instrument makers move the main brace about six inches up toward the neck,” says Keola. “That’s why instead of there being a sound hole in the center, there are two smaller holes on the sides. This frees up six more inches of sound board to vibrate and produce sound. Also, I use close grain spruce for the guitar top. If the grain is tight and straight, then the molecules in the sound board more easily align and there’s a uniformity of vibration.” Even under ideal conditions, acoustic instruments can be kind of cranky for the first few minutes they’re handled. “The molecules have to set up,” Keola says. “When they begin to align, that’s when the tone begins to get real sweet. If cherished, well taken care of, and played constantly, an acoustic instrument will also sound better with age. This is in keeping with the Hawaiian sense of things: that the instrument becomes so infused with human spirit, or the mana of the player, that it begins to have a soul of its own.”
Like all experienced artists, Keola acknowledges that some performances seem to sparkle with more life than others. Like all great artists, he is humble enough to acknowledge his own sense of mystery about this. “Magic just sort of happens,” he says. “You can be as prepared as possible but sometimes that’s not enough or maybe it’s too much. What is that intangible thing that makes a good performance and can that be controlled? I don’t think so, it just sort of happens. I believe that there are quite a few of those moments on this recording. I’m proud of it.”
1. E Ku`u Morning Dew – on steel string guitar in a C Old Mauna Loa/Niihau Tuning (C-G-C-G-A-D, from the lowest pitched string to the highest).
`Ukulele virtuoso, researcher, and filmmaker Eddie Kamae, his wife Myrna, and Larry Kimura collaborated on this lovely mele ho`oipoipo (love song) about a romance that remains as fresh as morning dew. Keola performs solo on a steel string acoustic guitar in an Old Mauna Loa/Niihau type Tuning, C-G-C-G-A-D. Old Mauna Loa/Niihau means a tuning where the 6th note of the scale and the 2nd note of the scale are on two successive strings with the 6th note of the scale being on the lower of the two. Keola begins this piece with an original introduction, and the lightly diffused ho`opapa (harmonics) heard in the middle and at the end delicately evoke the first blush of morning light pushing through the leaves of trees.
Keola says he found the inspiration for this impressionistic arrangement in the misty uplands of Waimea on the Big Island, where he spent his youth. “Our little house, Pu`unani (beautiful hill) was in a small clearing in the forest. In the very early mornings, only the soft hush of the wind would speak in the complete silence of the forest. I often think that one of the most precious things in the world is the space between things - the air that lives amid the strings, the space that sings between the notes.”
2. Lei `Awapuhi – 2 nylon string guitars in Keola’s C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E), played in the key of G.
This popular standard speaks of an `awapuhi (ginger) lei that binds two lovers securely. Royal Hawaiian bandleader Mekia Kealakai is said to have composed the melody in 1893 on a train enroute to the Chicago World’s Fair. At the fair, Kealakai apparently made quite an impression: John Philip Sousa offered him a job with his band. He chose instead to return to Hawai`i, where this song still circulates widely. It is a particular favorite of Slack Key guitarists.
“I’m old enough to remember when we all thought Slack Key would die,” Keola says. “There were many reasons for that. One of them was that our kupuna had lost so much, their land, their religious system, their sense of place in the universe. The last thing they wanted to lose was their music, so tunings became very cultish and protected. The irony was that by way of holding the secrets so close, this art form was actually dying, suffocating because the information wasn’t being communicated. Maybe there is truth in the saying that one should hold the things that one loves with an open hand. Now we talk of these tunings and share them on records with total strangers, and we want to do that, but in the old days, no, never.”
For this recording, Keola uses his trademark C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E), and plays the song in the key of G. He begins the song solo, then adds a second nylon string voice, symbolically uniting the lovers portrayed in the song.
3. Winter Tide – nylon string guitar in Ka Honu Tuning (C-G-D-G-D-E).
On this original composition for solo steel string, Keola plays in a tuning he invented, kalling it Ka Honu Tuning C-G-C-G-D-E, a variant of Mainland Open C Tuning (C-G-C-G-C-E). He draws his inspiration from the sight and sounds of the ocean in winter. “Some people think Hawai`i doesn’t experience seasonal changes,” Keola says. “But that isn’t true. We definitely have seasons. Winter in Hawai`i brings huge swells from the Northern Pacific. It’s a time of darkened skies and powerful waves rolling toward the shore.” Like the winter tide, the guitar’s tonality here changes into an almost brittle, shard-like quality, as if a series of these waves has appeared, disintegrating like glass against the sharp lava rocks of a windy, black coastline.
4. He Punahele No `Oe – nylon string guitar in Keola’s C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E).
This song, written by Albert Nahalea, has become a popular Island favorite. You often hear it being dedicated to loved ones over the radio and even at weddings or a baby’s luau. Keola performs it solo on the nylon string guitar in his C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E) that has come to be known in Slack Key circles as ‘Keola’s C,’ since he has used it most prominently. ‘Wahine’ is the term for a tuning that contains a Major 7th chord or has a Major 7th note in it, here the B note on the second string. A characteristic of Wahine Tunings is the open Major 7th note that is hammered on on the first fret to produce the tonic C note, and Wahine Tunings also have a resonant open partial V chord, here the G chord. Some say these tunings are referred to as ‘Wahine’ because of their sweet flavor. Others say the tuning got its name in older days, when women used to favor this tuning in their playing.
Keola also adds a beautiful bridge with a bittersweet F minor to C Major progression. One of his fortes is adding a bridge to a song that only has one repeated section, especially when he is playing a piece that is normally a vocal piece as an instrumental. Throughout the performance he interjects extremely subtle tempo variations to evoke the image of a beautiful child asleep in a softly lit room. “The guitar whispers,” he says, “rising and falling like the gentle breathing of a small soul.”
5. Slack Key Music Box – 3 steel string guitars in F Wahine Tuning (C-F-C-G-C-E); two are capoed up to the ninth fret to sound in the key of D; and a third one is played in the key of C while capoed to the second fret to sound in the key of D.
The arrangement for this dulcet original centers on two steel string guitars in F Wahine Tuning (C-F-C-G-C-E) capoed up to the ninth fret to sound in the key of D. A third guitar, also tuned to F Wahine, is occasionally added and played in the key of C while capoed to the second fret to sound in the key of D. The song reflects both a man’s love for his wife and a musician’s heightened sensitivity to sounds. As Keola explains, “My wife, Moana, has a small collection of Hawaiian music boxes. As she gets ready for work, she enjoys lifting the lids of the little koa boxes and hearing the music waft through the house. One day I sat down and imagined what a little Slack Key music box would sound like if it were sitting on the dresser in her room.”
6. Ku`uipo Ku`u Lei – nylon string guitar in Keola’s C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E).
Many Hawaiian mele use poetic images of flowers to express affection. The title of this traditional lovely old melody, which translates as ‘my beloved sweetheart, my beloved lei,’ typifies this romantic custom, and Keola plays it here on solo guitar.
7. Sweet Singing Bamboo – 2 nylon string guitars and 1 electric guitar, all in Keola’s C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E).
`Ohe (bamboo) of various types has grown in Hawai`i since the earliest human settlement, and ancient Hawaiians utilized it for the instrument ka`eke`eke (bamboo pipes held in the hands and struck against a firm surface). Depending on the strength of the wind blowing through it, bamboo seems to be whispering, sighing or singing. Prolific composer Maddy Lam wrote this charming mele hula, inviting us to listen as the bamboo sings about a rendezvous where tradewinds softly kiss the cocoa palms on flower scented nights.
The term mele hula refers to mele (song) in which hula (dance) provides visual embellishment for the text. Because the words are the central focus (as they were in all traditional Hawaiian music and dance), mele hulas leave little or no room for instrumental breaks. To aid in hearing and remembering the words, melodies tend to be strophic. With the arrival of a wide variety of melody instruments in the 19th century, Hawaiian musicians began to expand the role of instrumental music, building on, rather than abandoning, this logogenic (word based) focus. Scholars and artists alike often point to the voice-like qualities of ki ho`alu (Slack Key) and kika kila (Steel Guitar). The single note phrasing, frequent slides up to pitch, subtle alterations of volume, love of contrast, and other stylistic features all perpetuate aspects of Hawaiian chant.
This arrangement nicely illustrates the vocal attributes of Slack Key. Keola created it around a trio of guitar voices in his C Wahine Tuning. A nylon string guitar carries the main melody, while an electric adds harmonics and texture effects. A second nylon guitar adds harmonics and softly muted percussion. For Keola, the three guitars evoke feelings of the land, the sky, and the vastness of the ocean.
8. Medley: Ke Ali`i Hulu Mamo & Kimo Hula – nylon string guitar in Keola’s C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E), played in the keys of C Major and A minor.
In this medley, Keola pays tribute to the compositional genius of his great grandmother, Helen Kapuailohia Desha Beamer (1881-1952). “She is the backbone of the Beamer family,” Keola says. “There is a timelessness to her work that transcends generations.” A very well known singer and hula dancer, ‘Sweetheart Grandma,’ as she was affectionately known, composed many songs that have become Hawaiian standards. She skillfully combined Western ideas of melodic structure with thoroughly Hawaiian attitudes about the function of songs and the primacy of words. She drew inspiration from dreams, journeys, people, and events. She embroidered her mele with imagery from nature and kaona (hidden meaning), writing most often to honor particular people or commemorate events.
Ke Ali`i Hulu Mamo honors Princess Elizabeth Kahanu Kalaniana`ole, wife of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana`ole. The title proclaims her the ‘mamo-feather ali`i.’ The verses convey images of the mamo and `o`o birds (whose feathers adorned the traditional cloaks of the ali`i) as well as love in the delicate soft brush of the lehua.
Kimo Hula was written for James ‘Kimo’ Henderson and his lovely estate, Moanike`ala, in the uplands of Pi`ihonua above Hilo town. Helen clearly expresses a sense of appreciation in the third verse, which says, “Mahalo ia `oe e ka hoa aloha i ka ho`okipa e na malihini (Thank you, dear friend, for your gracious hospitality to visitors).”
Keola begins this medley with a beautiful impressionistic passage in the key of C and then goes between the keys of A minor and C. This use of the relative minor key (three half steps down from the Major key) is rooted in traditional Hawaiian oli, or chant and the use of these two keys goes back at least to the early 20th century.
9. Roselani Blossoms – steel string guitar in F Wahine “Leonard’s F” Tuning (C-F-C-G-C-E).
This Johnny Almeida classic celebrates Maui’s official flower, the lokelani rose. The song is said to have been inspired by a lei given to a woman friend. It speaks in typically poetic language of the author’s desire to sip the delicious waters of the `Iao Valley on Maui. Keola plays it solo on the as the steel string guitar in a F Wahine Tuning, (C-F-C-G-C-E), which is sometimes referred to as ‘Leonard’s F’ because the first recordings in this tuning were made by Slack Key master Leonard Kwan (1931-2000), who was one of the three most influential Slack Key guitarists of all time (along with the late Philip “Gabby” Pahinui (1921-1980), and the late Sonny Chillingworth, 1932-1994).
10. Holo Wa`apa – 2 nylon string guitars in Keola’s C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E).
‘Hawai`i’s Songbird,’ Lena Machado (1903-1974), began her career in 1920, and rose to fame during the 1940s, an era often described as the Golden Age of Hawaiian Music. Her charisma endeared her to audiences throughout Hawai`i and the Mainland. Her mastery of ha`i (vocal breaks) and other traditional Hawaiian vocal ornaments inspired countless singers of both genders. Although most of her great recordings are, sadly, out of print, many of her songs remain popular.
Keola’s arrangement for two nylon string guitars in his C Wahine Tuning again features an inventive bridge.
11. Au Kai – steel string guitar in F Wahine Tuning (C-F-C-G-C-E).
Another original inspired by the subtly swirling ocean tides, this solo steel string guitar composition in F Wahine Tuning distinctively displays many of Keola’s trademark ornaments. His use of ‘hammer-ons’ and ‘pull-offs’ can almost be felt as well as heard. A ‘hammer-on’ is an ornament produced by plucking a note and immediately fretting above that note to produce a second tone. ‘Pull-off’ refers to plucking a string and immediately pulling the finger off that note, producing a second note that is either open or fretted by another finger.
12. Haole Hula – nylon string guitar in C Mauna Loa Tuning (C-G-E-G-A-E)
This song was composed in 1927 by the great Hawaiian songwriter R. Alex Anderson (1894-1995). This is one of his three best known songs, along with Lovely Hula Hands and Mele Kalikimaka. Keola recorded a Slack Key version of the 1940 composition Lovely Hula Hands on his very influential 1973 instrumental album, HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY GUITAR IN THE REAL OLD STYLE (Music of Polynesia Records), and played it in his C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E). Cyril Pahinui recorded a Slack Key version of Mele Kalikimaka, the popular Hawaiian Christmas song composed by Anderson in 1949, in the C Major Tuning (C-G-E-G-C-E) on the album with various artists, KI HO'ALU CHRISTMAS (Dancing Cat Records).
Keola plays Haole Hula here solo in the C Mauna Lou Tuning (C-G-E-G-A-E) on the nylon string guitar. Mauna Loa Tunings are based on a Major chord with the two highest pitched (thinnest) strings tuned a 5th interval apart. These two strings can be played in 6th intervals (as the 1st and thicker 3rd strings are usually played in several other tunings). This 6th interval sounding in the higher pitch produces the recognizably sweet Mauna Loa sound. The two highest pitched strings can also be “frailed” (strummed rapidly) with the index finger, producing another characteristic sound of this tuning, as Keola does in the introduction. This tuning was first recorded by Slack Key master Gabby Pahinui (1921-1980), Cyril Pahinui’s father, and the founder of the modern Slack Key era, and who made the first ever Slack Key recordings in 1946, including Key Kohalu (aka Ki’ho alu) in this C Mauna Loa Tuning.
Keola again adds a beautiful new section.
13. Medley: Bali Ha`i & Stranger in Paradise – nylon string guitar in C Wahine Tuning [C-G-D-G-B-E].
For nearly two centuries, the South Pacific has served (usually totally misconceived) as one of Western popular culture’s favorite Eden’s; an idealized paradise of green cliffs, white beaches, and blue lagoons. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Bali Ha`i and Stranger in Paradise for their 1947 hit musical SOUTH PACIFIC, an enormous hit in cold, competitive New York.
Played solo in his C Wahine Tuning on the nylon string, the ghost-like overtones of the Dream Guitar are very apparent. For Keola, the arrangement suggests a stark desert island.
14. Ku`u Lei `Awapuhi Melemele/Pua Be Still – nylon string guitar in F Wahine Tuning (C-F-C-G-C-E), played in the keys of F and B flat.
Ku`u Lei `Awapuhi Melemele (My Beloved Ginger Lei), is another song for the lovely heavily scented ginger lei. It is variously attributed to Darby and Emily Taylor, Abbie K. Wilson, and John Keawehawai`i. Pua Be Still, by falsetto and hula legend Bill Aliiloa Lincoln, takes us to his boyhood home in Kohala, as the morning breeze wafts the fragrance of the Be Still flowers to two people who are so close that only the breeze is there to join them. Keola notes that the Be Still flower is often planted alongside graveyards, as a loving testament to the departed, and as solace for both those who visit, and those whose souls are forever still. Here first Keola plays Ku`u Lei `Awapuhi Melemele, and then a verse of Pua Be Still, and then he goes back to Ku`u Lei `Awapuhi Melemele again. For the second verse he modulates to the key of Bb (the first time anyone has played in that key in this tuning), and then concludes with a verse of Pua Be Still in the key of F.
15. Sanoe - 1 steel string guitar in F Wahine Tuning [C-F-C-G-C-E), and 3 electric guitars in Keola’s C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E), played in the key of F.
Keola built this poignant arrangement of Sanoe for four guitars; a steel string acoustic in F Wahine Tuning, and three electric guitars in his C Wahine Tuning, played in the key of F. Keola refers to the electric as his ‘water guitar,’ because its sound expresses his strong connection to the ocean. He also weaves in the `ohe hano ihu (nose flute), a traditional Polynesian instrument he has long championed and often features in his performances. “A lot of musicians in the past treated the nose flute as a frame,” Keola says. “They played it only at the beginning and the end of the piece. I try to integrate it into the songs. It has a gorgeous sound and texture.”
By Hawaii’s most beloved composer Queen Lili`uokalani (1838-1917), and Kapeka Sumner, this serenade chronicles a romance in the court of Lili`u’s brother, King David Kalakaua. “I have tremendous aloha for the compositions of the Queen,” says Keola. “Aloha `Oe, Ku`u Pua I Paoakalani, Queen’s Jubilee, Queen’s Prayer, Manu Kapalulu, Pauahi `O Kalani, He Inoa No Ka`iulani, and many others. She was one of the greatest songwriters in history.”(Extensive research is being done on the 150+ songs that Lili`uokalani composed) “She was a very, very special person. She made music of soulful heart and tenderness held in the arms of her own personal melancholy. She knew her kingdom was lost. Her premonition is still singing in the quiet spaces between the notes.”
Notes written by Jay W. Junker and George Winston.
Keola Beamer’s Tunings Used on this Album:
C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-E), also known as ‘Keola’s C’ for the songs Lei `Awapuhi, He Punahele No `Oe, Ku`uipo Ku`u Lei, Sweet Singing Bamboo, Medley: Ke Ali`i Hulu Mamo & Kimo Hula, Holo Wa`apa, Bali Ha`i & Stranger in Paradise, and Sanoe (electric ‘water’ guitar).
C Mauna Loa (C-G-E-G-A-E) for `Alekoki
C Old Mauna Loa/Ni`ihau (C-G-C-G-A-D) for E Ku`u Morning Dew
C Major variation (C-G-C-G-D-E) for Winter Tide
F Wahine (C-F-C-G-C-E), also known as ‘Leonard’s F’ for the songs Slack Key Music Box, Roselani Blossoms, Au Kai, Medley: Ku`u Lei `Awapuhi Melemele & Pua Be Still, and Sanoe