January-February 2015


Southern California Slack Key Guitar Festival 2015:

By Audrey Coleman

Gabby Pahinui (1921-1980) is considered the father of modern slack key guitar.

“I have a professional set director helping me design the stage this year,” Southern California Slack Key Guitar Festival organizer Mitch Chang told me. “We're going for a Hawaiian backyard look to honor the "Let's Play Music" theme of the famous Gabby Pahinui backyard jams at his house.”

Hundreds of returnees along with new initiates to slack key guitar will make the pilgrimage to the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on the afternoon of January 18, 2015, to attend the largest such festival of the guitar playing style outside of Hawaii. The atmosphere always is celebratory. The Hawaiian shirts, leis, and floral print dresses you see in the audience blend right in with the booths selling Hawaiian merchandise and food, making it a true festival, not just a three-hour afternoon concert.

Cyril Pahinui has continued the family’s musical tradition, performing and teaching in Hawaii and on the mainland.

Mitch’s idea for the stage set reflects the spirit that permeates the event. Truly it belongs to Gabby “Pops” Pahinui. Although Hawaiian families had been performing the open tuning style of guitar for over 100 years, playing guitars using customized open tunings during backyard jams, it was Gabby who revealed the brilliance and creative potential of the style with his recordings and performances from the 1940s through the 1970s. He transmitted his inspiration along with his flawless technique to sons Cyril, Martin and Bla. Cyril Pahinui, the honored elder of the SoCal Festival, always makes a heartfelt statement about his dad during his set. Cyril and his contemporary, George Kuo—performing at the Festival for the first time in 2015—started their musical careers in the midst of the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, a rediscovery of hula, Hawaiian language, slack key, and other facets of traditional island culture. For a portion of that period, it was still possible to hear some of the elder masters of slack key perform—Gabby, Sonny Chillingworth, and Ray Kane among them.

Bobby Moderow studied slack key with Gabby’s contemporary Ray Kane.

The elders were generous teachers when they believed young musicians had the right attitude and motivation to absorb and pass on the slack key tradition. One eager student was Bobby Moderow, who returns to the Festival this year. For three years he studied with Ray Kane, driving over an hour from his parents’ home in southeast O’ahu to Kane’s home in Nanakuli on the west side of the island. He absorbed the sweet mellow nahe-nahe style from the master. He shared with me some vivid memories of sessions with Uncle Ray; sometimes they were anything but mellow.

"There was a time that I got stuck on a part and his neighbor was using his edger, one of those loud rackety things" Moderow said, "So he got really mad and [yelled at me] 'Stand up! Come behind my shoulder! Bite my guitar!'

"I said, 'Excuse me?' "

"Bite my guitar! You see by my f-stop? Bite it!"


"Bite the guitar and close your ears."

"So I bite the guitar and closed my ears. He played the song. It was the strangest, surreal thing. It funneled into me, and I sat down and I played it verbatim. It worked! It just channels right into your head. All I heard and all I became was that melody. I couldn't get away from it. It showed me that there's more than one way to get you to understand."

Known both for his solo slack-key work and award-winning trio Maunalua, Moderow, in turn, gave instruction to a guitarist a few years younger than he who took the stage name Makana, which means “gift.” Known for his passionate, rock-infused slack key stylings, Makana also received about a year of instruction from an ailing Sonny Chillingworth, one of Gabby Pahinui’s and Ray Kane’s esteemed contemporaries. Makana described “Uncle Sonny” to me as “the polar opposite of Ray Kane—a speed demon.”

Makana studied slack key with Bobby Moderow and old-time master Sonny Chillingworth.

Award-winning hula dancer Manalani Mili Hokoana English will perform at the Slack Key Festival in Redondo Beach.

As usual, the roster of the Festival is a who’s who of slack key. Maui-born Jeff Peterson absorbed the sounds of slack key growing up on Maui’s Haleakala Ranch, where his father worked as a cowboy or paniolo. His slack key playing also draws on his studies in classical guitar and jazz. Jim “Kimo” West first took inspiration to play slack key from listening to records of Gabby Pahinui during extended stays on Maui. For several years West has been earning kudos playing plays slack key gigs in both Hawaii and on the mainland when he isn’t playing lead guitar for Weird Al Yankovic.

Newcomer Danny Carvalho began his formal studies at age 10 with master teacher Ozzie Kotani whose album To Honor a Queen is still one of my favorite slack key albums. Kotani studied for several years with Sonny Chillingworth and is steeped in the old style. Carvalho brings to it his youthful energy.

There isn’t time to mention everyone who is on the jam-packed SoCal Slack Key Festival program. But you see how the musicians are part of an extended family, related not by blood but by love of an art form and the desire to learn, teach, and perpetuate it.

Forgive me for veering off topic now, but you should know that the event will feature a performance by Manalani Mili Hokoana English, winner of the 2013 Miss Aloha Hula title at the world’s most prestigious hula competition, the Merrie Monarch Festival. Talk about getting value for your ticket! For ticket information, go to www.slackkeyfest.com. The website also provides information on slack key guitar workshops by Cyril Pahinui and George Kuo as well as hula workshops.

Audrey Coleman-Macheret is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist exploring traditional and world music developments in Southern California and beyond.


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