August '09

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Slack-key is a style of acoustic guitar that was developed in Hawai'i. It is usually played finger-style, or without picks, and is characterized by its open chord tunings, many of which were closely held family secrets until relatively recently.  The term slack-key describes the loosening or "slackening" of the strings. The lower tones give the strings a looser more relaxed sound, which is sonically synonymous with the laid back feeling of the Islands. The most common Hawaiian slack-key tuning is known as "Taropatch." It is an open-G chord (D-G-D-G-B-D from lowest to highest). But there are many other variations of tunings in many different keys.

Part of the distinctive sound of slack-key music comes from the alternating bass notes played on the open strings, with supportive rhythms & harmonies played on the middle strings, and the melody typically played on the higher notes. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, and harmonics (or "chimes") are some of the techniques that embellish the genre.  

Slack-key, or ki ho'alu in the Hawaiian language, is not the same as the Hawaiian steel guitar music that is played with a metal or glass bar pressed down on top of the strings. That sliding often electrified sound conjures up images of hotel lounges overlooking palm tree framed sunsets, and is played by some very gifted and wonderful players. But slack-key has a sound all its own. The heart and soul of the sound is in the feeling that the artist puts into it, that is ideally described as capturing the feeling of aloha in the music.

I spent my teenage years in Hawai'i when my Dad moved to Honolulu to start his own business drawing caricatures of tourists at the International Market Place in Waikiki. He had been drawing those "big head small body" one minute caricatures at Disneyland throughout most of the '60's, but he broke away and found his little pot o' gold at the end of that Hawaiian rainbow.

So I was there from age 13-20. I was already playing guitar, as music has always been a part of our growing up in Orange County. Beatles, Creedence Clearwater, Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, stuff like that my sister and brothers and I pounded out on the guitar.

In my senior year at Kalani High School on the east side of Honolulu I joined the choir at the behest of one of my surfing & guitar buddies, Robert. 

His reasoning for joining the choir? 

There were about 30 girls and only 2 guys. I liked those odds, so I tried out by playing a Beatles song. I guess I passed the audition because next thing I know I'm plying guitar in a Hawaiian trio as part of the choir's Polynesian show. I had heard a lot Hawaiian music here and there but hadn't yet got that deeply into it yet. It was a crash course in the music and the culture, and I really started loving it more right away.

In the trio there were two Hawaiian guys, Ryan Tang and Keith MacMillan, who played ukulele and upright string bass respectively, and I played guitar. The choir was super active with doing all kinds of different shows. In addition to the Polynesian shows, we performed church music, popular music, Broadway music, and even sang barbershop quartet for a grand opening at a Farrell's restaurant at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. We spent a lot of time together as a group and as friends.

After our rehearsals and shows we would party and jam guitars and play our own music instead of what the choir director wanted. At one of these impromptu jam sessions Keith and Ryan had retuned their guitars and were playing something together that I couldn't follow because their fingering was different. I thought it sounded really cool so I asked them to show me what that was. They told me it was slack-key...I was hooked.

I learned initially from Ryan and Keith in the choir, and Ryan's father, the Rev. Charles Tang, also showed me some things at one of their backyard luaus. Other friends in the choir, like Keala Watson and others alos played slack-key and it became more and more a part of our after-hours jamming. Some of it eventually made its way into our Polynesian revue as we performed different events. 

There was a lot of slack-key music emerging into the airwaves during the '70's in Hawai'i as part of what they now call the Hawaiian Renaissance. An appreciation for preserving the culture and language was on the rise and many homegrown musicians rose up and made their mark on the music scene. Olomana, Keola & Kapono Beamer, Kalapana, Country Comfort, Cecilio & Kapono, Peter Moon and The Brothers Cazimero were writing some terrific music that was becoming more popular.

While these younger acts were not all playing slack-key exclusively, they were influenced by a previous generation of slack-key players like Gabby "Pops" Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, Atta Isaacs and Leonard Kwan and others. Their unique sound influenced the younger generation  

I learned initially from Ryan and Keith in the choir, and Ryan's father, the Rev. Charles Tang, also showed me some things at one of their backyard luaus. Other friends in the choir, like Keala Watson and others alos played slack-key and it became more and more a part of our after-hours jamming. Some of it eventually made its way into our Polynesian revue as we performed different events. 


When I moved to the Mainland for school in pursuit of my animation career I found myself keeping my guitar in slack-key tuning and playing as often as I could. I composed a lot of my own songs during those years.

In 2006 I treated myself to a week on the island of Moloka'i for the Aloha Music Camp run by Keola Beamer and his family. Keola is one of the masters of the slack-key genre. The music camp includes slack-key workshops with Keola and other masters of ki ho'alu like the Big Island's John Keawe and Maui's Kevin Brown. It was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had, just playing and learning from those guys. With the foundation I had been given back in high-school learning slack-key it was an honor to play with the masters and learn directly from them.

T. Dan slacking.

The guitar is obviously not a native instrument to Hawai'i. Here's what I've heard about the origins of slack-key:

British Captain George Vancouver had given cattle to the Hawaiian royal family in 1794. A "kapu" or taboo was placed on the cattle, meaning that no one was allowed to harm the cattle. They were free to roam the island freely. This was great, except when they multiplied and started tearing up the locals' taro patches and vegetable gardens, even sometimes knocking over huts and hurting and even killing people. Eventually the king decided to do something about it.

In the early 1830's, King Kamehameha III sent one of his kahunas to California, where he hired Mexican vaqueros and brought them to the Big Island of Hawai'i to teach the locals how to manage the cattle. This was the start of the Hawaiian cattle industry, which is still a thriving business in the Islands.

The Mexican cowboys became known as "paniolos", which is a corruption of the word "espanol." The paniolos brought guitars with them to play for their own entertainment, as well as to sometimes soothe the cattle at night. When they left a few years later, some of these guitars were left behind and the Hawaiian cowboys started to play them. The story goes that because they didn't have any formal training on how to tune the guitars, they tuned it by ear until there was a pleasing open chord. 

Many musical styles were introduced to the Hawaiian culture in these early years. The vaqueros brought their folk songs, the missionaries brought their hymns, sailors brought other music from Asia & Europe, etc. Over the years many musical styles also were welcomed into the Hawaiian sonic landscape. Jazz, swing, ragtime, big band, rock-n-roll, country, blues, Jamaican and other popular music added variety to what has become recognized as the Hawaiian sound. But the general feeling of aloha and the distinctive Island rhythms are at the core of Hawaiian music no matter what additional textures or flavors are added to it from other places. 

Keola & Kapono Beamer were my first direct exposure to slack-key, after my choir friends, of course. The duo Olomana, founded by Jerry Santos wrote some great songs that have become contemporary Hawaiian classics, such as "Ku'u Home Kahalu'u." Other artists that I love to listen to and am inspired by are Hapa, John Keawe, Ozzie Kotani, Jim "Kimo" West, Jeff Peterson, Ledward Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui and his late father Gabby Pahinui.  There's so many...

There are some great compilations from Dancing Cat Records that have various artists, such as "The History of Slack Key Guitar." Another great collection was the first Hawaiian recording to win a Grammy, which is Palm Records' "Slack Key Guitar." Keola Beamer has a few that are great to start with: "White Mountain Journal," "Hawaiian Slack Key in the Real Old Style," John Keawe's "Auhele" and "Beautiful Hula Dancer."  

As I look back on my 25 year animation career that I have always been hired to do someone else's art. Sure, I tried to be artistic in bringing a character to life, and sometimes I had a little more say in determining the look of the character than other times, but ultimately it was someone else's vision and expression that I was creating. I've realized now that my own art has always been my music, as I have written songs about different events and times of my life. They're like a journal of my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and dreams, my triumphs and disappointments. They are much more personal than any film or show that I've ever worked on. 

I am playing lead guitar for the band "O'ahu." The former lead guitar player, Jim "Kimo" West, was getting a little busy for the band, as the lead guitar player and musical arranger for Weird Al Yankovic. Kimo is an award winning composer and performer whose personal CD's are in the slack-key Hawaiian style. He is probably the premiere mainland-based slack-key guitarist around. He is an awesome player and a nice guy, too.

Lately I've been performing in restaurants, coffee shops, weddings, luaus, and other places around Southern California. I have three CD's that I have made that I've sold at some of the venues I've played at. My next goal is to get a musical website up where I can feature my music. So far I only have my animation portfolio on-line.


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