George Kahumoku Jr. defies the stereotype of a laid-back Hawaiian. A dynamo who exists on very little sleep, he crams all his passions into one very busy life. One of those many passions is slack-key guitar.
George, along with Paul Konwiser and Kamehameha Schools classmate Wayne Wong, have formed Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Productions, Inc., a company dedicated to showcasing the uniquely Hawaiian art of ki ho’alu. Currently, they are producing a series of Tuesday evening concerts at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua with George hosting a different slack-key artist each week.
The three friends sat around an outdoor table at Mama’s Ribs & Rotisserie in Napili Plaza. George had grabbed a nap after teaching art at Lahainaluna that day and was digging into some barbecued chicken before the evening’s concert. A group of George’s students whizzed past on skateboards, cheerfully greeting their teacher.
“Once when George was on tour in Minneapolis, 250 people were lined up in the snow and had to be turned away,” Paul said, emphasizing the popularity of Hawaiian music on the Mainland. “It’s not just the music, it’s the talking story.”
But here at home, Hawaiian entertainers are often playing background music in hotels, restaurants and bars where people aren’t really listening. With the exception of festivals and concerts, slack key in Hawaii doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
“We wondered why no one was doing a concert series,” Wayne said, and the idea for the company was born.
Wayne and George go way back. “We met in speech class at Kamehameha Schools,” George said with a grin. “Our pidgin was too thick.”
Paul, now retired, said he moved to Maui from the Mainland because of George and Hawaiian music. He was so enamored of George, his music and his accomplishments, that he traveled with him throughout the Mainland writing down his stories. The result is the book, “A Hawaiian Life,” for which George created the illustrations.
The stories spill out as if one life cannot contain them all. George talked of his art teachers at Kamehameha Schools, his attendance at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, his recent graduate studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
He first began playing music as a boy. Growing up in a household with 26 cousins, George remembers “everybody played music in my family.” His grandfather was a pig farmer who provided pigs for pa’aina or celebrations. “There was a party before, the party, and the party after,” he said. The kids were strictly forbidden to touch any of the instruments, so naturally when the adults would be partied out and sleeping, the youngsters would grab the instruments and copy what they’d heard.
When George was 11 or 12 years old and living in Honolulu, he had a job washing cars for Lippy Espinda. The car lot and service station was next to Forbidden City, a well-known club that featured Hawaiian music. When George wasn’t washing cars, he was playing music in the parking lot and one day the legendary Kui Lee heard him and invited him inside the club.
“I only knew one song,” George said. “The crowd was all construction workers, stevedores listening to Hawaiian music.”
The audience showered the youngster with money, $27.10 for one song, a much more lucrative career than washing cars at 10 cents each.
Young George was always hustling. He mowed lawns, hired an army of cousins and at one time had 200 accounts. Visiting his mother in Washington state during the summer, he would pick blackberries, cucumbers, beans and other produce and sell them. He remembered being able to pick 50 flats of berries in a day and selling them for 50 cents a flat. Again, he would hire cousins and pay them 25 cents a flat, making a tidy profit.
With such a big family, there was a kind of system. “You would be learning from the one person above you and teaching the one below,” he said.
Some of his fish stories seem like legends. “We had pet eels. We named them. They would eat opelu guts right out of our hands.”
The cousins also had a pet uhu or parrot fish on a string. “We would slap the water and he would come.” The fish began life as a female, a red fish, and later changed to blue, a male. Then there was his grandfather’s pet barracuda, 6 feet long and weighing about 100 pounds, trained to herd opelu in return for food.
And you can read in his book about the shark with whiskers that his grandmother fed, perhaps the same animal that towed George and a friend out to sea before giving him a body slap and taking off.
“My real love is gardening,” George admitted. On less than an acre in Kihei, he raises sweet potatoes, ti, avocados, six varieties of banana, sugar, taro, breadfruit, citrus and more, sometimes working all night long.
At one time he had what he called a farm on the Big Island, 4,000 acres, 3,500 in cattle. ” We grew alfalfa hay, corn, soybeans,” he said. “We had 1,200 pigs. I was in the ti-leaf business. I shipped 40,000 ti leaves to Honolulu a week.”
His 19 employees were all family members and George became adept at grant writing, funding a project to create compost from macadamia nut husks after the pigs had eaten them.
“I was the first to be certified organic,” he said. “I grew gourmet vegetables, herbs for the hotels. I knew the chefs, Peter Merriman, all those guys. I’d drop off vegetables and get garbage to feed the pigs.”
Another facet of George’s life began with a prophetic dream while he was living in California. He dreamed about young people in shorts building a stone wall at a not-too-pristine beach where there were junk cars. At the time he was working with drop-outs in Oakland teaching them painting and creating murals. He was invited to take a job with Kamehameha Schools; he and his family moved back to Hawaii, but the job turned out to be something different from what he had been led to believe and he turned it down. With no employment, he moved back to the Big Island and worked as a welder for the sugar companies, using skills he had learned making metal sculptures. Several years later, he was contacted again by Kamehameha Schools, seeking a principal for a new alternative school in Kona. When he went to survey the area on the beach at Honaunau, next to the City of Refuge National Park, he saw his dream in reality – kids in shorts building stone walls.
“Richard Lyman gave us 12 acres to use for the school. We had 300 students at the school that could only handle 50. Judges were sending kids from all over”, he said. “We built everything ourselves. We had hula, fishing, gardening.”
They planted nearly half a million koa trees and hunted the pigs, goats and wild sheep that wanted to eat them.
All this time he was still playing music at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel until it closed for renovations in 1992. He traveled all over the world for Westin and United Airlines, opening hotels in Japan, Singapore and China. He has played for the prince of Thailand and the Queen of England.
After the Mauna Kea shut down, the Westin then asked him to bring his music to Maui.
Along with playing, for the past seven years George has held a week-long slack key workshop attended by musicians from all over the world who want to learn from masters like George, Ozzie Kotani, Dennis Kamakahi, Cyril Pahinui and more. This coming weekend he will be hosting his first Hawaiian Songwriting Workshop.
The weekly concerts at the Ritz, which began this fall, bring Hawaiian music and sensibilities into a setting that makes it easy and comfortable to listen to the sweet sounds without distractions.
On this particular Tuesday, the guest was Owana Salazar, one of the few wahine slack key artists and the only known female steel guitar player in Hawaii.
Against a brightly painted backdrop of a Hawaiian sunset, George opened the show with some of the history of slack key, demonstrating as he spoke. He told how each family had their own tunings and kept the secrets so well-guarded that the art almost died out. During the ’70s, people started to share tunings, he told the group of visitors and locals gathered in the amphitheater.
He continued to weave his slack-key spell, bringing up his companion, Nancy Sweeney, a thick lei of Niihau shells swaying around her neck, to dance to “Hanalei Moon.”
Owana, crowned in fragrant plumeria, then took the stage with her steel guitar artistry, added some smiling talk story about the instrument’s origins and her own background, then switched to slack key, her voice as rich as her smile.
The evening’s program described slack key as being played from the heart and soul through the fingers and the entertainers reached out to the audience, warming their hearts as well. By the end of the evening, George’s nephew, Peter deAquino, had joined the group with his ukulele and some members of the audience were ready to get up and hula, backyard style. Everybody was smiling.
George Kahumoku has been called a Hawaiian Renaissance Man by George Winston, whose Dancing Cat Records have issued CDs by him and other slack-key artists.
His many accomplishments and projects consume his life. But it is through his music that he shares his spirit with thousands of others and perhaps, in doing so, replenishes his own soul.
|Master of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert Series
For more information, visit www.slackkey.com.
Copyright © 2003 — The Maui News