Grammy Wins 2005
by Gregg Porter
The long-awaited first Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album was presented in a non-televised ceremony in Los Angeles on the afternoon of February 13, 2005 , and the winning album was a surprise to many – a various-artists compilation titled “Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2.” Armchair analysis of how this album, from the Big Island-based independent Palm Records label, beat out the other famed nominees (Keali`i Reichel, the Brothers Cazimero, Ho`okena, Amy & Willie K) will probably continue until attention shifts to next year’s nominees, but the winning album has strong Island credentials, as each musician either was born there, or has lived and played music in the state for more than 25 years.
Producer/guitarist/label owner Charles Michael Brotman, who is originally from Mercer Island, has been living in Hawai`i for nearly thirty years, first on O`ahu (where he taught guitar at the University of Hawai`i for nine years), then on the Big Island since 1993, where he built Lava Tracks Recording Studio at his home in Kamuela. In addition to a solo career, he is also a member of the HOKU-award-winning acoustic-guitar trio called ‘Kohala,’ along with Charlie Recaido and Kevin Teves. Recaido also plays solo on the album; he was born and raised in Hawai`i , and formerly recorded and toured with the bands Summer and Kalapana.
Other guitarists on the Grammy-winning disc are Waimanalo’s HOKU winner Randy Lorenzo, who was a member of or recorded with the Peter Moon Band, Olomana, Country Comfort, Cecilio & Kapono, and Gabby Pahinui; Bryan Kessler, who won HOKUs with his Hawaiian Style Band; HOKU winner Sonny Lim, a member of the Big Island’s famous Lim Family; Keoki Kahumoku, son of kiho`alu master (and Grammy nominee himself) George; John Keawe, from the heart of the Big Island’s Paniolo country, who has also won numerous HOKUs as well as the Kiho`alu Award in 2002; Maui recording artist Jeff Peterson; famed touring and recording artist Ken Emerson; and multi-HOKU winner John Cruz.
Joining Brotman on stage to accept the award were Lim, Emerson and Peterson. Brotman’s speech honored the generations of musicians in Hawai`i ’s past, as well as thanking many others involved in their current success; following Brotman’s mahalos, Lim delivered his thank-you message in Hawaiian, with tears in his eyes. Brotman’s sister Jody, with whom he co-founded Palm Records in 1997, and wife Joanie, also accompanied him to the ceremony.
Recently, producer Brotman answered a few questions for the Northwest Hawai`i Times:
NWHIT: Can you recall what your thoughts were when they announced that your CD was the Grammy winner?
CMB: I’m sure that at that moment I was the happiest person on the planet! It was certainly a rush of adrenaline. I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.
How similar or different was this to your reaction when you learned of your nomination?
We found out we had made the final ballot when we began receiving emails from people saying “Congratulations.” We weren’t sure if it was true, so we had to log onto the Grammy site to check.
When you learned who the other four nominees would be, what did you think your chances of winning would be?
At first we were just so thrilled to have been nominated; we weren’t thinking much about the final voting. Because of the popularity of acoustic guitar, and consequently slack key guitar, I figured we were at least in the running. But as we got closer to the awards, I started to think we might win – it was just a feeling.
Please talk about the process of creating this CD – how did you decide which musicians would be featured, and what selections?
The process was very organic; I simply called up friends who were good slack key guitarists and brought them into the studio, one at a time. Usually they would play a few songs and let me pick the one I liked the best. Then we would start recording. Each musician on the CD has made a significant contribution to the development of music in Hawai`i over the last 20 years or so. It is a very diverse group – musically and in terms of personalities and I think that makes the CD interesting.
Kiho`alu music has seen a resurgence in the past decade, particularly on the Mainland and largely due to the Dancing Cat releases (as well as your own and a few others.) What effect do you think this Grammy win will have on slack key?
I’ve spoken with so many kiho`alu players who are thrilled about this. We have received a tremendous amount of national press. The articles usually talk about slack key guitar, explaining the history and the style. This Grammy win should have a very positive effect on expanding kiho`alu audiences.
Please tell a few details about your background in music – what projects you did before getting into slack key, and how you moved into this style of music.
I began my music career as a classical guitarist, and expanded into other styles. My first two CDs (Mango Cooler and Pacific Rendezvous) were smooth jazz CDs, released in the early ’90’s, with my classical guitar in a contemporary jazz setting. I have been interested in slack key, though, since the early 1970s, when I first heard the Beamer Brothers and Gabby. At the time I was still living in Seattle . After moving to Hawai`i in 1976 and starting graduate music studies at UH, I found myself in an environment where kiho`alu was everywhere. I have spent the last few years recording and touring (through Japan and Hawai`i mostly) with my acoustic guitar trio, Kohala. Kohala and Slack Key Guitar have been the cornerstones of our label, Palm Records. I started the label with my sister Jody Brotman seven years ago.
What guitars do you personally use, and what slack key tunings?
I always perform on a classical guitar; usually my Eric Sahlin (a Spokane luthier), although I also have a 1974 Ramirez that I sometimes record with. For tunings, anything goes, although I find that I am more comfortable if I can leave my D-string and B-string unaltered.
What music do you listen to for your own enjoyment?
In the car, always classical music, and preferably smaller chamber ensembles or soloists – I guess I like the clarity of smaller ensembles. On the guitar, a two-voice chord can sound very full, so I lean towards music that is uncluttered, where all of the voices can clearly be heard. I listen to all kinds of music, though: Hawaiian, jazz, alternative rock, new age, world, and so on. I try to keep up with what’s happening in the various other genres. It is so much easier now with internet radio and iTunes.
Your studio is noted for being designed with the sound of the acoustic guitar in mind. Can you briefly address your design concept, as well as the facility’s history?
The studio was designed in 1998, by Chris Pelonis of Pelonis Sound & Acoustics. I wanted to address some of the issues I have found in various studios I’ve recorded in. The sound I am after is a natural sound: my goal is that the listener can close their eyes and imagine they are in the same room with the musicians. This means miking a great sounding instrument in a fairly live room, and capturing the sound of the room along with the instrument. One of my pet peeves is guitars that are miked too close; it never sounds natural to me. When you start pulling the mic away from the guitar, more room sound also gets recorded. So the room, in effect, becomes part of the sound of the instrument; that can be a very good thing or a bad thing, depending on the sound of the room.
What’s next for you and for the label?
We’ve just started on a new Kohala CD, and we’re making plans for “Slack Key Guitar, Volume 3.” I’m just finishing mixing a CD I produced for Haley Williams, a singer-songwriter from Kamuela who is attending UW in Seattle ; her CD will be released here and in Japan this summer. I have a few other projects going on as well – they tend to pile up!
Are you likely to tour the Pacific Northwest any time in the near future?
One of the most exciting things about our Grammy win is the interest in having us do some touring. Right now we are putting together a ‘Palm Records Acoustic Showcase’ that will feature slack key guitarists from the Grammy CD, as well as our trio, Kohala. And yes, we’ll definitely be performing in the Northwest (probably sometime late this summer.)
(Music writer Gregg Porter is a voting member of both the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences/NARAS and the Hawai`i Academy of Recording Arts/HARA .)
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