January-February 2012

Hawaiian Happenings

By Audrey Coleman

As we head into the depths of SoCal winter (having to wear coats, living with the threat of rain, and oh, those heating bills), how uplifting to think on news from the Hawaiian music scene.

Slack Key Guitar Festival Adds New Faces

This year’s Festival takes place Sunday, January 22, 2012 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. It still features Cyril Pahinui, arguably the heart and soul of the event. Without the enthralling sounds of Cyril's slack key playing and soulful vocals, we wouldn't feel that link to his father Gabby Pahinui, whose performances and recordings transformed the art of slack key from a hidden, down-home gem to a world class guitar style. Other returnees: Composer-guitarist Jim ‘Kimo’ West has a mellow nahe-nahe sound, deft technique, and gift for arranging that make him one of the most sought-after slack key guitarists in the Southland. Bay Area-based Steve Espaniola received a Hawaiian Music Award for 2007 New Artist of the Year for his proficiency not only in slack key, but also Hawaiian falsetto singing, ukulele, and upright bass. Maui-born Jeff Peterson has played slack key at all the major festivals, accompanied renowned vocalists, and has experimented with fusions of slack key and jazz. He will be joined by acclaimed vocalist and bass player (formerly of Hapa) Nathan Aweau for a set of "slack key jazz" along with newcomer Jeff Linsky. Linsky is known for combining classical guitar technique with improvisation and jazz. From his bio: "Always eager to experience different cultures and musical influences, Jeff...performed with variety of artists from the popular gypsy violinist Marcus Reinhardt (Django's nephew) in Germany to ukulele master Ohta-San in Hawaii."

Another first-timer is the Oahu-based trio Hi'ihua, deriving its name from the Hawaiian word that means "to carry on one's back." The bio speaks of the trio’s commitment to passing on musical traditions. "Hi'ikua's music reflects the belief that without asking, knowledge of our ancestors has already been placed within us, in the hope that we, too, will shoulder that responsibility in unbroken journey into the future...Hi'ikua's music is either composed or performed by Kalehua Krug, Kamuela Kimokea, and Blake Leoki-Haili."

Newcomer Ed Gerhard has built his reputation composing and arranging music for solo guitar in what his bio calls "a staggering array of alternative tunings. He is a master of the Weissenborn, an acoustic Hawaiian lap style guitar, which should mesh well with the slack key performers at the Festival.

The program will open with Kalyn Aolani, student of Mitch Chang. Not much background on the web about Kalyn, but Mitch promises that she "will blow everyone away when she opens the Festival."

Hawaiian Soundtrack Kicks The Descendants Up A Few Notches

Trailer for the movie The Descendants

The emotional family drama has more going for it than a winning performance by George Clooney. Amazon.com calls The Descendants “the first mainstream American movie scored exclusively with Hawaiian music." Director Alexander Payne chose music from a treasure trove of authentically Hawaiian recordings, some of them archival -- the polar opposite of Don Ho fare. The L.A. Times calls the music "laid back but melancholy." Such a description does not convey the depth of feeling that slack key music can both express and evoke from the listener. The music of slack key masters Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, and Keola Beamer threads through the drama. A scene in a restaurant features the trio Kanak Attak performing Hawaiian male falsetto, that yodel-type sound perfected in rural jam sessions of generations past. Of course, the soundtrack will be available from Amazon.com and other outlets. Chances are that the impact of the music in The Descendants will outlast the memory of the drama it accompanies.

Hawaiian Albums Garner Grammy Nominations

With mixed feelings, I will share the Hawaiian nominees for then 2012 Grammy Awards which will be bestowed on February 12, 2012. Why mixed feelings? The "Hawaiian Music" category has been eliminated or rather absorbed into a new category called "Regional Roots Music," which also includes Native American, Cajun, Zydeco, and Polka. I’ll say it: the Academy is opting to streamline the awards show at the expense of respect for ethnic identity; furthermore, it is doing so hypocritically. Why do the Grammy nominations still include categories such as "Best Banda or Norteno Album" and "Best Tropical Latin Album"? Let us ponder...

Nominated under "Regional Roots" is one Hawaiian CD, the newest album by multi-Grammy winner George Kahumoku, Wao Akua - The Forest of the Gods. George performs this instrumental slack key guitar collection of traditional and original songs on his signature 12-string guitar.

Under the "Pop Instrumental" category, we find another previous Grammy winner (both as musician and as producer), Daniel Ho. He performs on solo piano a collection of songs inspired by his late father. The CD title is E Kahe Malie.

Daniel Ho and George Kahumoku are planning a "Nomination Celebration Concert" in Manhattan Beach a day or two before the Awards presentation. Stand by for information on date, time, and location. This promises to be a fabulous show. In addition to the two nominees, the tentative line-up includes Keoki Kahumoku, Tia Carrere, Kimo West and others.

Book on Slack Key Delves into Tradition, Teaches Technique

At the E Hula Mau Competition last summer, I learned about a fascinating book on slack key guitar by Peter Jay Kapahua Medeiros, who has taught two generations of slack key players since learning the art from his father and such greats as Sonny Chillingworth. Hawaiian Slack Key: A Lifetime of Study, published in 2009, is a hefty volume for those interested in not only acquiring the playing techniques but also absorbing the aesthetic, philosophical, historical, and spiritual underpinnings of the genre. Medeiros takes the student through 11 frequently-used tunings, using musical staves along with tablatures. The book has scholarly references that enhance the instruction and deepen understanding. For example, Medeiros quotes University of Hawai'i music professor Takeo Kudo: "Whereas in other forms of guitar music, we can clearly say that embellishing pitches are just that - not structural, like chord tones are, the embellishments (in slack key) are so much a part of the texture that the line between 'structural' and 'decorative'...is blurred...” Yes, this book is for people who are passionate about slack key guitar.

That's the FolkWorks Hawaiian news for now. Ha 'Oli Makahiki Hou (Happy New Year)!

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music.


All Columns by Audrey Coleman