Slack key harmony

June 28, 2012 – Rick Chatenever

It’s all about the tuning, the musicians kept explaining to the crowd at the 21st annual Ki Ho’alu Guitar Festival Sunday at the MACC.

Turns out, it was about more than that.

We missed a lot of the artists, but still got a broad spectrum of stylings in this homegrown Hawaiian way of playing the gee-tah from three generations of artists including Brother Noland, Makana, nose flutist Anthony Natividad and Ola Hou with Kevin and Ikaika Brown and the young daughters of the late Pekelo Cosma.

Brother Noland brought soulfulness, Ola Hou brought the sense of ohana and Makana offered an introductory lesson in the tuning and strumming techniques that make slack key slack key.

But having been in the audience over the decades, watching festival producer Milton Lau fulfill his crazy dream of providing the best slack key artists in Hawaii – in other words, the best in the world – playing to grateful Hawaiian audiences for free, has provided its own reminder that ki ho’alu is more than the music.

I once heard masters Kindy Sproat and Ledward Kaapana playing slack key in a concert of blues, gospel, salsa and other sorts of American music one Fourth of July at the base of the Washington Monument. Slack key was the calming influence.

It’s medicinal, I remember thinking. It’s a muscle relaxer, a mood enhancer.

The history of this musical form – brought by early paniolos, who shared their songs and then gave their instruments to the resourceful Hawaiians – is also the history of these islands, at least since the outside world arrived.

Influences from Mexico, and Spanish flamenco before that, can be found in slack key, but so can the influence of the clouds in the sky or the wind in the palm trees.

It’s no accident that the slack key soundtrack was the best part of the Oscar-winning film, “The Descendants,” a well-intentioned effort by Hollywood to try to tell one little Hawaiian story right.

A new DVD, “George Kahumoku Jr.’s Slack Key Show, Masters of Hawaiian Music” tells the story better. It’s a collection of memorable performances recorded at George’s weekly Wednesday night shows at the Napili Kai Beach Resort.

What initially got my attention on the DVD was that Sterling Seaton, one of its featured artists, had been a student in my English class at Maui College a few semesters ago. When he wasn’t in class, he was off helping George win Grammys.

Those Grammys – which have sparked a certain amount of, uh, discussion over the years – become a source of humor in one of the songs, “Mr. Sancho Lee,” performed by Da Ukulele Boyz (Garrett Probst and Peter deAquino). Their lightheartedness, in contrast to the virtuosity of their playing, adds its own chapter to the slack key story which makes room for ukuleles, too.

Virtually all of the slack key greats have been part of this music series over its eight years; one memorable shot in the video features most of them on the same stage. But listening to the enthusiasm of the younger artists has a disarming effect. They were in awe of these masters, but not so in awe that they didn’t watch, and listen and get it.

While Kahumoku’s many talents are often summed up as “Hawaii’s renaissance man,” this appealing compilation showcases perhaps his greatest gift – his effect as a teacher.

Sterling, Garrett and Peter express humility at becoming hanai members of “Uncle George’s” ohana – but there’s a twinkle in all their eyes, a bit of the rascal in the way they tell their stories. The bar was set high for them but their mentor was patient, caring and has a twinkle in his eye, too.

The performances are what this DVD is all about, but their commentary is the secret ingredient that makes it memorable.

And when the discussion strays to learning to hunt, fish or tend the taro patch from George and his son, Keoki; or being invited to do “a little yard work” around George’s house (it’s the only house in the neighborhood with no grass, where everything is an edible plant, says Sterling), the DVD truly sings.

“When you’re hanai-ed into a Hawaiian family, that’s for life,” says George of his relationship with his “nephews.”

Behind mischievous smiles, it’s clear what a blessing that is for all three of them.

And for anyone else who gets to share it on this DVD.

Contact Rick Chatenever at For more on George Kahumoku Jr.’s “Slack Key Show Masters of Hawaiian Music” DVD. visit, or

* Contact Rick Chatenever at