Slack key is inextricably linked to cow culture. Captain George Vancouver brought a mini-herd of bovines as a gift for the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha the Great, in 1792. Since the king made it taboo to harm the ungulates, they quickly multiplied, and soon cowboys followed to keep them in line. Mexican cowboys brought Spanish guitars and left their instruments behind when they departed. As Leilani Rivera Bond tells it, they didn’t teach anybody how to tune them properly, so Hawaiians came up with their own tunings, each jealously guarded by the family who invented it.
On my next green island, Maui, I meet one of Hawaii’s greatest living slack key players, George Kahumoku, who expands upon this story. Slack key was once a very intimate tradition, he explains. You would play for your loved ones but would turn your back to a stranger so he could not steal your technique. And when you put your guitar down, you would loosen the strings so he could not steal your tuning. “I am not one person,” he tells me. “When I play, I am my whole family.” George then gives me an astonishing private concert, in which he switches back and forth between his family’s musical styles. “This is how my uncle plays… and this is how my grandmother played… and this is how my great-grandfather played…”
George’s performance, in the theatre at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, has been arranged for me by Clifford Naeole, the hotel’s cultural advisor. How many high-ranking employees in luxury hotels make a habit of showing subversive movies to their guests? Clifford sits me down to watch And Then There Were None, a documentary whose title refers to the chilling demographic fact that by the year 2040, there will almost certainly be no pure Hawaiians left. As Clifford says nonchalantly, “My people are going to flatline.”
He and Paul Konwiser, an equally zealous cultural warrior, stage the Masters of Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar Concert Series every Wednesday in the Ritz theatre. It’s packed this afternoon with great musicians, and Clifford introduces me to another Hawaiian legend: Richard Ho‘opi‘i, an older ukulele player who sings in a haunting falsetto. He gives me a brief private performance, and when we chat afterwards, I mention Jake Shimabukuro. He smiles with amusement and says, “I am very traditional.”
Thanks to Clifford and friends, ukulele and slack key are alive and singing on the islands.
Copyright © 2004 enRoute is published monthly by Spafax Canada Inc. All rights reserved.
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