|The Isaacs brothers & their father (L-R) Norman, Barney, Alvin, and Atta.From the cover of album Alvin Kaleolani Isaacs & Sons by Lilinoe Records|
In an interview with the Honolulu Skylark on Honolulu radio station KCCN in the early 1980s, Atta said that he started playing Slack Key in what he called Mokihana Tuning, the G Major “Taro Patch” Tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D – from the lowest pitched string to the highest), the most popular Slack Key tuning in Hawai‘i, and the one that most people begin learning Slack Key in. Like many players at the time, he heard Slack Key mainly at private parties and at home. He added that his wife Winola’s family played in the old nahenahe [relaxing] style, typified by the recordings of Aunty Alice Namakelua (1892-1987), who played in the oldest Slack Key style ever documented.
When Atta met the great Slack Key guitarist Gabby Pahinui (1921-1980), who had made the first ever Slack Key recordings in 1946, they were co-workers with the City and County of Honolulu Road Division “Road Gang” who happened to be talented musicians and Slack Key artists. Atta had been taking his playing in a different direction from the traditional styles, and then learned more about Slack Key tunings from Gabby, and felt the need to create his own tuning. As fate would have it they began jamming together and the rest is history.
In the 1950s, Atta created his signature C Major Tuning (C-GE-G-C-E). “Dad realized how inconvenient it was to always have to retune the guitar in the middle of a concert whenever a singer wanted to sing in a different key,” says daughter Cheryl Isaacs-Kila. “It became his obsession to find that perfect tuning and fingering that would allow him to play any key. Pops worked on finding his tuning, every night for years. Mom told us, ‘After I had fallen asleep, Pops woke me up in the wee hours of the morning. He had been up all night working on it and was so excited. He told me, Mama, I got it-I got it, I finally found the tuning!’ He then played it for her, showing her how he had finally found it.”
At first, Atta tried to play his new tuning at a fast tempo, because the band he played in at the Hawaiian Hut played a lot of fast songs. However, Winola told him to try playing it nahenahe [soft and gentle] and to test it by seeing if he could put her to sleep with it.
As Atta’s nephew and Slack Key guitarist Wayne Reis says: “Atta’s C Tuning opened the doors to a whole new world of Slack Key guitar playing. In most Slack Key tradition, tunings are limited to certain songs that can only be played in certain keys. There are certain ways that songs can be played, where the special sounds that are made in a section of the song can only be enjoyed in that certain tuning. Atta was able to create a tuning that would allow you to play any song in any key and in any tuning, so what he did is not only a tribute to him but also a gift to those who have learned from it.”
Atta very often played in keys other than C in his C Major Tuning, especially in the keys of F, G, and D, and sometimes A, and B flat.
He often changed keys within a song, which became one of his signature techniques. Another was his tendency to play jazz chords in Slack Key that were normally played by other guitarists in the Standard Tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E). He would add these rich sounding variations to introductions and endings, which made him especially popular as an accompanist for singers and instrumental soloists. He occasionally, on recordings, also played in the G Major Tuning.
Like his brothers, Atta played the booming local club scene and also stayed quite busy in the studio as a session musician and an arranger for such top artists as Linda Dela Cruz, Charles K. L. Davis, Jerry Byrd, Bill Kaiwa, Marcella Kalua, Melveen Leed, and the legendary Sons of Hawai‘i (a position also held by Slack Key guitarists Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, Dennis Kamakahi, and George Kuo). His last recordings were on the five albums recorded in the 1970s as a member of the widely popular Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, even singing lead vocals on the local hit Blue Hawaiian Moonlight.
When playing with Gabby, Atta tended to play more in the middle range of the guitar, while Gabby often played the high part. This was especially true when Gabby was in C Mauna Loa Tuning (C-G-E-G-A-E), where many of the variations are played on the two highest pitched strings, and played up high on the guitar neck.
Much of this two CD set has tracks reissued from the two albums Atta recorded for the Tradewinds label, founded by Slack Key enthusiast Margaret Williams (1906-1993). Although he had many offers, Atta only recorded two albums of his own. “TWO SLACK KEY GUITARS was
“My Dad was very humble,” says daughter Ku‘u. “He let the others take the limelight, he stood back. He was the kind of musician who loved his music and just went out and shared it. He was on so many albums, but it was like he did it to help others.”
“Whenever his friends would ask him to kokua [help] for a baby luau or birthday, my father would willingly accept and play for free,” Cheryl says. “He knew what it was like to struggle to make ends meet so he was more than willing to give his time and talents.”
Atta passed away April 15th, 1983 but is still fondly remembered for his easy-going personality as well as excellent musicianship. “When Dad died, we held his funeral at the church,” says Cheryl, “and all the parking lots were full. Lines of people came through the doors nonstop. Fine woven mats were presented to our mom, entertainers lined up for a chance to perform. I would guess that hundreds if not thousands of people patiently stood in line that night and the following day to pay their respects. Everyone loved him, we didn’t know how much or how many, until then.”
|Atta Isaacs contribution of creating that tuning and also the required chord patterns or fingering which allows the artist to play in any key without the need to retune, is the holy grail of Slack Key. As elusive as it is for the rest of us, Atta’s tuning is the age old quest that Slack Key artists have always dreamt of finding.
Randy Kila (Cheryl Isaacs-Kila’s husband)
|Atta was a great guitarist. Together with Pops [Gabby] and Sonny [Chillingworth], the best of thembest! I learned from just watching them with eyes and ears, no charge. When I play music I always think of my Dad and Atta and Sonny. Whenever I play I’m so thankful for what I learned from them in my younger days and I am just sharing what I learned from them.
Cyril Pahinui (Slack Key guitarist, son of Gabby Pahinui)
|Atta Isaacs was one of the best, one of the greatest. He has done so much for Hawai‘i. He was one of the best Slack Key guitar players I ever came across in my time... He was just phenomenal. - Bill Kaiwa (vocalist)|
|Dad [Atta Isaacs]always told us that we gotta learn the old style music. All the beautiful songs that were before, that have so much meaning and kaona [hidden meanings] in the songs are going to be lost, so go try to perpetuate that. I mean you can play the contemporary side, but you have to bring back the other...otherwise you lose the Hawaiianness of the music.
Barney Kapono Isaacs (Atta’s son)
|I never heard anyone on the planet play Slack Key the way Atta Isaacs did, his style was so unique, and it fit perfectly with my dad Gabby’s music. When the two of them hooked up with their guitars they didn’t speak in words, they just talked with their music - back and forth. And every time when it was Atta’s turn to take a solo, the sound just exploded, and my dad absolutely loved it. Atta was a part of what made my life wonderful and he’s part of what I’m trying to say through my music, because he was my dad’s right hand man, and Sonny Chillingworth was, too. - Bla Pahinui (Slack Key guitarist, son of Gabby Pahinui)|
|It was a great blessing to watch Uncle Atta Isaacs play Slack Key. It was so enjoyable, beautiful, uplifting, and special. For those who might not have had an interest in Slack Key before, it made them reconsider, and entertain the idea of how beautiful an instrument the guitar is and how beautiful Slack Key is when presented with a new twist. It made a good song even better just by playing the chords in his tuning, it just gave a whole new feeling to the song - and it was contagious, at least for me it was. I loved it to the point where I became obsessed to learn it on my own and I did. - Wayne Reis (Slack Key guitarist, Atta’s nephew)|
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|HOCD2015 Atta Isaacs The Legendary Atta Isaacs Innovative Slack Key Master|
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