Gregg Porter's Music Reviews
Slack Key Guitar Rules!
Slack key guitar rules! Well, it sure seems to, in the eyes of Grammy voters. One upside of all the attention given to this subgenre of Hawaiian music, due to the afore-mentioned awards, is that there has been a noted increase in the number of slack key releases in recent years, as well as more Mainland touring by these artists. Some recent releases include:
Various Artists: “The Spirit of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar” (Daniel Ho Creations)
The fourth compilation of live recordings from the weekly Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar concert series held on Maui, this is the album that will draw much attention, as its three predecessors each took home the Grammy Award for “Best Hawaiian Album” in their respective years (2006-2008).
As with the earlier releases, the album stretches a little beyond a strict “slack key guitar” definition; this time, artists such as `ukulele star Herb Ohta, Jr., famed harmonica player Norton Buffalo, steel guitarist Bobby Ingano and falsetto singer Richard Ho`opi`i make appearances throughout. But the guitar is still the star, and in the hands of top artists, this time including Dennis Kamakahi, Owana Salazar, Sonny Lim, series creator/host George Kahumoku, Jr., and his son Keoki – the lucky charm who has appeared on every Hawaiian Grammy-winning album to date.
Standards abound, such as “Hi`ilawe,” “Moana Chimes,” “Wahine `Ilikea” and “Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai,” but there are some surprises and special treats as well. Adding Buffalo’s harmonica to George Kahumoku’s take on “Hawaiian War Chant” is just one, as are the “new” lyrics Keoki Kahumoku (joined by Ohta) creates for “Lahainaluna,” as an inside joke for some of his workshop students in the audience.
If this album looks familiar to you, it’s because it is a re-issue of a Liko Records release from 1995, but out-of-print for several years. Four magnificent guitarists (all from Hawai`i Island, incidentally, and sometimes overdubbed on bass and/or `ukulele) are spotlighted in this collection of 17 instrumentals, artists whose names may not be among the first you think of when listing slack key masters, but whose playing is unquestionably beautiful.
We hear from Robert Keli`iho`omalu, Jr., whose steady take on “He Aloha Nō `O Honolulu” has been a favorite among the genre’s fans for years. Nolan Ha`o might be the least-known performer on the disc, possibly because his old band, Ho`āikāne, moved away from slack-key based recordings to being early adopters of the Jawaiian sound back in the mid-1980s, but he’s got a peppy version of “Maui Chimes” here. Gary Haleamau seemed to vanish from the slack key scene a few years ago, primarily to focus on making Christian music, but he does slack key concerts to this day from his home base of Las Vegas, and here does some lovely harmonic adjustments to “Makee `Ailana.” Now known better as Sonny, at the time of this release the remaining guitarist was referred to as Elmer “Kohala” Lim, Jr., and he gets one more track than the others, which gives him a chance to honor one of the great teachers/players of the past, Uncle Fred Punahoa Konanui, with “Punahoa Special.”
Unless you caught some of these guys on their recent West Coast tour, or go to their regular gig that provides the title for this album, this CD might be a little harder to find – but well worth the effort, as it faithfully captures a snapshot of what their live concerts are like. While the music is wonderful and has the live ambience that takes you to the show (including dedications to people in the audience, and mentions of hula dancers), there are no other notes with the disc – no details on when it was taped, who did the recordings and production, etc. But there’s no questioning the material, familiar songs like “Na Ka Pueo,” “Makee `Ailana,” “Kaulana Nā Pua,” “Nani Wai`ale`ale,” “Aloha Kaua`i" and Pahinui’s chicken-skin singing of “Pua Lilia.”
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