Dancing Cat Records Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection - Vol 1  

This instrumental collection is an introduction to Slack Key guitar (ki ho alu), and to Dancing Cat’s HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY GUITAR MASTER SERIES. First developed by the Hawaiian cowboys of the early 1800s, Slack Key is unique to the Hawaiian Islands. This finger-style guitar tradition is characterized by a variety of tunings and the expressive individuality of the players, and continues to evolve with the contributions of each artist. George Winston has been recording the masters of this evocative world music for Dancing Cat Records since 1986, and is concentrating on the solo playing of each guitarist. The songs included here are from eleven albums in this ongoing series.  

  1. CYRIL PAHINUI - Panini Pua Kea 3:59 

  2. OZZIE KOTANI - Ku’u Kika Kahiko (My Old Guitar) 3:48 

  3. MOSES KAHUMOKU - Pohakuloa 4:41 

  4. LEONARD KWAN - Ke’ala’s Mele 6:10 

  5. BARNEY ISAACS & GEORGE KUO – Medley: Ahulili & Nani Wale Na Hala  4:22   

  6. SONNY CHILLINGWORTH - Moe ‘Uhane (Dream Slack Key) 2:54 

  7. KEOLA BEAMER with GEORGE WINSTON - Kalena Kai 4:22 

  8. LEDWARD KAAPANA - Whee Ha Swing 2:32 

  9. KEOLA BEAMER -  Ku’u Morning Dew 4:44 

  10. GEORGE KUO - Waikiki Hula Medley 4:29 

  11. RAY KANE - Punahele 3:37

Hawaiian Slack Key (ki ho’alu) is truly one of the great acoustic guitar traditions in the world. Yet unlike the steel guitar, it remains relatively unknown outside Hawaii. Slack Key is played from the heart and soul through the fingers, flowing with vivid, warm tropical images which transcend the Islands to express universal feelings.  

The roots of Slack Key can be traced to the 1830s when the guitar was first introduced to the Islands by Spanish and Mexican cowboys who came over to help Hawaiian cowboys (panilolo) handle an overpopulation of cattle. The Hawaiians quickly adopted the guitar into their culture, slacking the strings to create many ingenious tunings to suit their music. “Slack Key” means that some of the strings are loosened from the standard tuning, with the thumb playing the bass while the other fingers play the melody and improvisation. Slack Key guitarists play in a finger picked style, often with steady rhythm to accompany hula dancing and singing, tuning their guitars down or up to match the range of the singer. The tradition continues to grow and evolve, and today’s players, in developing their individual styles, draw from family techniques and tunings handed down through the generations.  

Until now, most recordings have included Slack Key guitar only as accompaniment in a group setting. With the HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY MASTERS SERIES, Dancing Cat Records brings solo Slack Key guitar into the forefront, with performances by many of the best players in the Islands: Keola Beamer, Sonny Chillingworth, Cindy Combs, Ledward Kaapana,Dennis Kamakahi,  George Kahumoku, Jr., Moses Kahumoku, Ray Kane, Ozzie Kotani, George Kuo, Leonard Kwan, Bla Pahinui, Cyril Pahinui and others. 

In producing the Series, there artists have been encouraged to record multiple albums that showcase their entire repertoire and beyond. Some of the albums include their rich Hawaiian vocals with solo guitar accompaniment. On each album you will hear the beauty of the individual styling of each player. These masters are taking Slack Key to new heights furthering its evolution as solo guitar music.  

We invite you to join us in our exploration of ki ho’alu, a unique cultural legacy.


1.Panini Pua Kea - In the C Major Tuning (C-G-E-G-C-E) from the lowest pitched string to the highest, tuned down one half step to sound in the key of B. 
Cyril Pahinui 

With a distinctive, magical sense of rhythm and improvisation, Cyril continues to advance the musical legacy of his father, the legendary Gabby Pahinui (1921-80), and Gabby’s friend and performing partner, Slack Key guitarist Leland ‘Atta’ Isaacs (1931-82). Since beginning his professional career around the age of 12, he has shared his talents, traditions and aloha with many of Hawai’i’s best known performers. His striking original compositions and powerful interpretations of timeless Hawaiian pieces reflect this history, and place this gifted musician in the ranks of today’s most acclaimed guitarists.  

Closely identified with Gabby, this musical favorite attributed to mandolinist, composer and bandleader Johnny Almeida describes the effects on the heart of tasting the honey of a panini pua kea (white cactus flower).  

Like jazz musicians, many ki ho’alu players like to quote from other songs when they notice a similarity in melody or structure. “In this recording,” Cyril says, “I added some licks from Hame Pila. The two are pretty close in melody; it’s just going back and forth with a lot of triple plucking and single plucking. Just go with the flow.” 

Cyril plays it in the C Major Tuning he learned from Atta Isaacs on a 12-string Martin, which is his favorite. “I like the 12-string for the octaves,” he says. “It was also my dad’s favorite. He did more magic on it.” 

From the album 6 & 12 STRING SLACK KEY  

2. Ku’u Kika Kahiko (My Old Guitar) - In C6th Mauna Loa Tuning (C-G-E-G-A-E) tuned down one half step to sound in the key of B. 
Ozzie Kotani 

Ozzie Kotani is one of the contemporary ki ho alu’s leading teachers and composers, preserving and expanding upon the Slack Key tradition learned from the masters with whom he studied, especially Sonny Chillingworth. His unique style, instantly recognizable to ki ho’alu aficionados, incorporates a wide variety of techniques and influences, including his distinctive four-finger picking, developed through years of experimentation.  

Ozzie composed Ku’u Kika Kahiko in 1990 on the guitar the title refers to. “My sister had this old beach guitar,” he says. “It had a big chip in the back of the body and a big crack by the sound hole, but the sound was nice and deep. Earlier I’d played all steel string, but this nylon was not bad. Next thing you know, I was playing it quite a bit.” 

Ku’u Kika Kahiko features Ozzie’s trademark alternating bass, which evokes the sound of an acoustic bass player. “A lot of my early compositions sounded more contemporary, “ Ozzie says, “but here I really try to center into the ki ho’alu sound and use some of the characteristic techniques.” Ozzie recorded this on his beloved old beach guitar, and the song’s end features two more of Ozzie’s musical signatures; beautiful rolling cascades and an altered chord progression.  

From the album KANI KI HO’ALU (The Sound of Slack Key)  

3. Pohakuloa - Nylon string guitar in G Major “Taro Patch” Tuning tuned down to one half step to sound in the key of F#. 
Moses Kahumoku 

A pillar of Big Island Slack Key for the past few decades, Moses is a powerful improviser and a gifted composer. Making his living primarily as a fisherman and farmer, he is perhaps best known outside of his home island for his performances and recordings with his brother George as The Kahumoku Brothers.  

Moses plays this original composition on a nylon string guitar in G Major Tuning, also known as Open G or Taro Patch. It showcases his trademark ballad style, particularly in the way he uses his thumb to sound the chord after he picks the melody.  

The song expresses many Hawaiians’ feelings about a beautiful place high on the side of the Mauna Kea volcano. “Pohakuloa has lava rock, native plants and animals and great mana (power), but the US military was using it for bombing practice,” Moses relates. “The song was written in 1978 when I was hiking the area. It was written with the feeling, the sadness, that they were bombing our land.” 

Moses interjects a sense of hope into this version of the song, communicating the good news that the bombing has not stopped, while Pohakuloa and aloha ‘aina (love of the land) live on. 

From the album HO’OKUPU (The Gift)  

4. Ke’ala’s Mele - C Wahine Tuning (C-G-D-G-B-D) tuned down two half steps to sound in the key of B flat. 
Leonard Kwan 

Leonard Ke’ala Kwan combines a solid family musical background with a firm grounding in Western music theory. Although he seldom appears in public, his recordings, arrangements and instruction book have influenced many, many players, among them Ledward Kaapana, Peter Moon and George Kuo. He is a recipient of the Bank of Hawai’i’s Ki ho’alu Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1994 was designated a Living Treasure of the City and County of Honolulu.  

Although Leonard is best known for playing and recording on an old Gibson F hole electric guitar, on the album KE’ALA’S MELE, he plays solo on a Martin acoustic. 

Leonard’s middle name, Ke’ala, translates as ‘sweet’ or ‘fragrant,’ and mele means ‘song,’ or ‘story and song.’ In this epic original, the title track to Leonard’s first albumin over twenty years, he tells a profound story using many of his favorite musical phrases. He plays in his trademark C Wahine Tuning, which has become known among Slack Key guitarists as ‘Leonard’s C.’  

From the album KE’ALA’S MELE  

5. Medley: `Ahulili &Nani Wale Na Hala 
Barney Isaacs (acoustic steel guitar) 
George Kuo (Slack Key guitar) 

Barney plays in the A minor 7th Tuning (C-E-G-A-C-E), and plays his featured verses in the key of F, and George plays in the C Major “Atta’s C” Tuning (C-G-E-G-C-E), and plays his featured verses in the key of C.  

Barney Isaacs is a member of the celebrated Isaacs family, which includes his late brother, influential Slack Key guitarist Leland ‘Atta’ Isaacs (1929-1983). After learning steel guitar from his father, Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs, he went on to develop his own unique steel guitar style, become one of Hawai’i’s most versatile and active performers. Barney’s recording credits number in the hundreds, including his well-known recordings on electric steel with Slack Key guitarist Gabby Pahinui’s band in the late 1950s on Waikiki Records. 

This medley was recorded by Barney on acoustic steel guitar, accompanied by Slack Key guitarist George Kuo (also see track #10). The recording is a milestone, marking the first time in recording history the acoustic steel guitar has been recorded in pure duets with Slack Key guitar.  

Attributed to Scott Ha`i, ‘Ahulili refers to a mountain on Maui. Lili means to be jealous. The mele puts this coincidence to good use as it tells the tale of a widow courted by two suitors: one a hard working paniolo (cowboy) and other a kolohe (rascal) musician. The song is probably best known today from Gabby Pahinui's Slack Key versions on THE BEST OF SLACK KEY (Waikiki Records #340) and on PURE GABBY (Hula Records HS-567), both in G Major Tuning. 

George says, “We did it reminiscing how Barney and his brother Atta used to jam together. We start real Hawaiian style then move to Nane Wale Na Hala, which has beautiful jazz runs. We ended up with a duet in the last verse. The improvisation is real jazz-like, representative of the whole Isaacs family and really most of the players of that generation, including Gabby, Pua Almeida, and the Kalimas. I guess you could say they all broke out of the older tradition at that time but kept the melodies and rhythms and feelings uniquely Hawaiian.”  Also known as Na Hala O Naue (The Hala of Naue), Nani Wale Na Hala (So Beautiful the Hala) honors Queen Emma referring to her as Kaleleonalani, the name she took after the death of her husband, Kamehameha V. It is attributed to J. Kahinu. George here plays in the C Major Tuning (C-G-E-G-C-E), a tuning created by Barney’s brother, Slack Key guitarist Atta Isaacs. 


6. Moe ‘Uhane (Dream Slack Key) - In the G Major Tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D) tuned up one half step to sound in the key of A flat. 
Sonny Chillingworth 

One of Hawai'i's three most influential Slack Key guitarists (along with Gabby Pahinui and Leonard Kwan), Edwin Bradfield ‘Sonny’ Chillingworth, Jr. (1932-94) embodied the legend of the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy). Known as ‘the Waimea Cowboy,’ he is fondly remembered for his boundless creativity, his personal warmth, and simple courage. 
In Hawai'i's multicultural environment, Sonny's curiosity and incredible ear for melody led him to experiment with American jazz, country and pop, as well as Portuguese, Mexican, Spanish, and Polynesian songs, influencing his legendary Slack Key guitar style. The extent of his contribution to Hawaiian music was recognized in 1992, when he was awarded the Bank of Hawai'i Na Hoku Lifetime Award for Slack Key Guitar. 

Sonny received this song in a dream (moe 'uhane is the Hawaiian word for ‘dream’). "The melody was so haunting," he said, "that it woke me up and I had to put it on tape before I forgot it." He said that he had received other songs in dreams as well, but this was the first one he managed to get down in a finished form.  

From the album SONNY SOLO  

7. Kalena Kai – Keola plays in an F Wahine Tuning (C-F-C-G-C-E) tuned up one half step to sound in the key of F#), and George plays eight-string guitar (tuned G-C-D-G-D-G-B-D, tuned down one half step to sound in the key of F#. 
Keola Beamer (with George ‘Keoki’ Winston) 

Keola Beamer is one of Hawai'i's premier Slack Key guitarists, singer/songwriters, arrangers and composers, and he has always been a strong advocate for ki ho'alu. His well of talent springs from five generations in one of Hawai'i's most illustrious musical families, who trace their roots to the 15th century. 

On WOODEN BOAT, Keola is joined by a select group of musicians, resulting in an uplifting mix of contemporary and traditional Hawaiian music, with flavors of calypso, Island rhythm and pure Slack Key. On this Slack Key duet, he is joined by guitarist/pianist George Winston.  

According to Hawaiian history, Kalena Kai was written in the early 1900s by Charles E. King. He called it Bath House, because there was a favorite bathing place that Hawaiians enjoyed, near an area called ‘Watertown’ on the island of O'ahu. The setting is oceanside, and Keola and Keoki give it the happy treatment of a fun-filled outing. In this instrumental Slack Key arrangement, the guitarists extend a special aloha to Sonny Chillingworth for his everlasting contributions to Slack Key guitar. (This piece is sometimes credited to John Kalapana.) 

From the album WOODEN BOAT  

 8. Whee Ha Swing - In G Wahine Tuning (D-G-D-F#-B-D) tuned down one half step to sound in the key of F#. 
Ledward Kaapana 

Ledward earned his nickname, Lima Wela (fiery fingers), with his dazzling technique and lightning-fast ability to improvise. Emerging in the 1970s with the very popular family group, Hui Ohana, and continuing in the 1980s with his trio, I Kona, Led has been a mainstay of the Hawaiian music community. 
A guitarist and showman beyond compare, Led continues to stretch the boundaries of Slack Key guitar with his fretboard improvisations, wide-ranging vocals, and animated stage presence. 
The late ki ho'alu master Sonny Chillingworth created this virtuosic vehicle to test the mettle of Slack Key guitarists. Led offers his version to honor Sonny, one of the guitarists he most admires. 
"I saw Sonny play this in 1965 and I was amazed at his fingers," remembers Led. "I sat down and tried to learn it the next day. I could always tell when it was him from his picking style and when he started to slap the guitar like an ipu (gourd drum). I loved his vocal style too, that vibrato." 

From the album LED LIVE - SOLO  

9. E Ku’u Morning Dew - In a C Ni'ihau (or Old Mauna Loa) Tuning (C-G-C-G-A-D). 
Keola Beamer  

Keola draws on a Hawaiian heritage that encompasses traditional chant and hula, himeni (hymns), the royal art songs, folk and pop. All of these influences contribute to his very original and beautiful Slack Key style. 
This piece is from Keola's first instrumental album for Dancing Cat Records, which is his first instrumental release since his landmark 1973 debut album, HAWAIIAN SLACK KEY GUITAR IN THE REAL OLD STYLE, on the Music of Polynesia label.  

The melody of this beautiful mele ho'oipoipo (love song) was composed by 'ukulele virtuoso Eddie Kamae. Since its debut with Eddie's group, The Sons of Hawai'i, E Ku'u Morning Dew has become a local standard. 
Keola performs it here on his custom double sound hole Mango guitar. The overtone series generated by the instrument weaves a soft musical veil, through which the piece is perceived. This creates a dream-like quality that Keola calls moe'uhane kika, tales from the dream guitar. 

From the album MOE ‘UHANE KIKA  

10. Waikiki Hula Medley - In the G Major Taro Patch Tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D) tuned down two half steps to sound in the key of F. 
George Kuo 

A steady alternating bass sound, a strong sense of melody and improvisational techniques characterize George Kuo's Slack Key style. His compositions and his instrumental arrangements of many traditional and standard Hawaiian pieces distinguish him among Slack Key artists. George learned from the elders of Slack Key: Gabby Pahinui, Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, Leonard Kwan, Tommy Solomon and others. George is a formidable soloist, and a highly-respected member of The Sons of Hawai'i as well as an alumnus of The Kipapa Rush Band. He recorded his first solo album, NAHENAHE, on the Hula label in 1980.  

George assembled Waikiki Hula Medley based on both musical and subject considerations, trying to capture the feeling of the old Hawaiian style. Royal Hawaiian Hotel is about the Waikiki luxury hotel of the same name. Prolific composer Mary Pulaa Robins created the song in 1927 for the hotel's grand opening. Le'ahi is the Hawaiian name for Waikiki's most famous landmark the volcanic peak known around the world as ‘Diamond Head’. The song, attributed to Robins and to Johnny Noble, points out that the makai (sea-facing) side of the mountain resembles the head of an 'ahi (yellow-fin tuna). Kaimana Hila (the Hawaiian translation of ‘Diamond Head’) celebrates the beauty of the crater by moonlight and is attributed to Charles E. King and Andy Cummings.  


11. Punahele - In the G Wahine Tuning (D-G-D-F#-B-D).  
Ray Kane 

Raymond Kealohapoina'oleohelemanu Kane's nahenahe (gentle) and elegant approach has captivated audiences around the world. Widely regarded as the ambassador of Slack Key, Ray embodies the essence of traditional Hawaiian music in 1987 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship award, the nation's highest folk arts honor. 
Ray's middle name means "voice of love will never be forgotten where it come from, and like a bird away it flies." His sweet, soulful guitar is showcased in this original and influential piece. 
Punahele means a favorite or pet. Ray's best-known composition and the one most often recorded by others, Punahele came to him one night in 1938 on Zablan's Beach in Nanakuli, Ray recalls, "I sat there in the dark in the nice cool breeze. I heard the waves bouncing on the sand and saw the moonlight flicker on the water. It inspired me, something so nice. So mellow." 

This song features a variety of beautiful, complex hammer-ons and pull-offs which occur often in Ray's playing, but are developed to the fullest in this piece. 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 which is either open or fretted by another finger.  

From the album PUNAHELE  

Liner notes by Jay W. Junker and George Winston. 
Produced by George Winston. 
Recorded, engineered and mixed by Howard Johnston. Additional engineering by Ben Churchill, Adam Munoz and Tyler Crowder.  
Package design by Nelson Makua Design. Photography by David Cornwell, Nelson Makua and Suzo Uemoto. 
Booklet interior design by Su Gatch and Lynn Piquet. Liner notes edited by Su Gatch, with research assistance from Heather Gray and Leimomi Kuo. 

Special thanks to: all the artists, Nona Beamer, Ben Churchill, Jay Junker, Leimomi Kuo, Windham Hill, BMG Music and Surfside Distributors, Inc.