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The Definitive Collection of Slack Key Guitar Firsts 1946-1950
Slack Key is to Hawaii - what Flamenco is to Spain - what Delta Blues is to the American South. Thanks to mastermind Michael Cord, extensive computer audio restoration, and digital remastering, the sound of these wonderfully gifted individualistic recording pioneer slack key players (1946-1950) survive.  Each contributed immeasurably to the artistry and evolution of modern slack key. Produced by George Winston, this anthology brings together the first-ever twenty commercial recordings of slack key. Each cut is a rare treasure, a complete gem. Without them, it is quite possible slack key may have disappeared completely.  In 2012, this anthology was deemed culturally and historically significant, and chosen for preservation and inclusion to the National Recording Registry Archives  collection of the Library of Congress created to guard America's sound recording heritage. A must-have CD for all lovers of finger-style acoustic guitar.

When the producers of The Descendants - starring George Clooney as an unsavory landowner trying to mend relationships with his children - wanted an authentic Hawaiian sound, they turned to the music of the late guitarist Gabby Pahinui, putting six of his songs on the soundtrack. Pahinui, known as Pops by Hawaiian musicians, was a master of the style known as slack-key. Unlike the slidey Hawaiian guitar of grass-skirt tourism ads, slack-key is played on a regular acoustic guitar retuned (by loosening or slacking the strings) to play open chords. The choice of tunings and fingering techniques is highly individual. Pahinui's Hula Medley, from 1947 (Gabby Pahinui's original Hula Medley is found on Hana Ola's The History of Slack Key Guitar HOCD 24000) helped introduce slack-key to the world, and it was chosen for the National Recording Registry as well as inclusion in the holdings of the National Archives audiovisual collection of the Library of Congress in 2012.

WNYC.ORG -  November 2012 by Ben Manilla

This compilation The History of Slack Key Guitar of the earliest slack-key recordings (1946-50) was assembled by producer George Winston from the catalogues of the defunct Bell, Aloha, and 49th State labels. Gabby Pahinui figures prominently, with his 1947 Hula Medley, Hi'ilawe, and an infectious trio performance of Wai O Ke Aniani. Less familiar to mainlanders, but just as appealing, are George Keoki Davis, Tommy Solomon, Mama Tina and George Kaapana (parents of Ledward), and five other classic players. Fine performances and excellent historical notes make this CD essential.

Acoustic Guitar -  December 1996 by Russell Letson


I love this album! Here we have all 20 of the first commercial recordings of ki ho'alu (slack key) guitar, pressed between 1946 and 1950 by small local Hawaiian labels-- Bell Records of Hawai'i, 49th State Hawai'i, and Aloha Records. Especially noteworthy is the 78 rpm record that started it all back in 1946 -- Gabby Pahinui's HI'ILAWE. Ray Kane, the late Sonny Chillingworth and many of the other older slack key masters point to this Bell Records release as the one that got them interested in seriously pursuing the ki ho'alu style. In fact, the C Wahine tuning that Gabby used for this piece has since become known in the slack key world as "Gabby's C" or "HI'ILAWE" tuning.

Prior to HI'ILAWE's release, ki ho'alu was considered home music. You heard it at family gatherings and neighborhood parties, but hardly ever in context of Hawaiian pop. Professional Hawaiian musicians, who played for the tourists at hotels and night clubs and recorded commercially, stuck to the more recognizable (and, therefore, marketable) sound of the steel guitar, ukulele and the standard-tuned, strummed guitar. Gabby's HI'ILAWE was a revelation to the young Hawaiian guitarists of the day; not only did it legitimate ki ho'alu but it also served as a model for the creative revitalization of this important element of Hawai'i's musical heritage.

The legendary HI'ILAWE aside, each cut on this album is a rare treasure-- from Gabby's 1947 HULA MEDLEY, the first commercial recording of a slack key guitar solo instrumental, to PUNALU'U, which features the lovely traditional singing of Mama Tina Kaapana, the mother of today's current slack-key great, Ledward Kaapana. Unfortunately, most of these 78's were originally recorded in small, poorly equipped studios and some of the master discs used here have suffered from the wear 'n' tear of age. Still, you can hear and appreciate the incredible care and skill that went into the near-impossible task of restoring and remastering these precious time capsules.

It's great that this album was the product of the combined efforts and resources of the leading labels documenting traditional Hawaiian music: Michael Cord's Hana Ola Records and George Winston's Dancing Cat Records. Mahalo to Jay Junker, Harry B. Soria and George Winston for the very informative liner notes, complete with the slack key tunings for each cut.

THE HISTORY OF SLACK KEY GUITAR is a keeper and must-have for every fan of ki ho'alu and Hawaiiana. Better yet, it belongs in the music library of all those who love finger-style acoustic guitar... regardless of musical persuasion.

Shlomo Pestcoe  September 2000

Roots Music of an Overlooked Genre. FIVE STARS.

This is roots music. Granted, the guitar is not native to Hawaii, and so the slack key genre had non-native influences at its very beginning (Mexican cowboys from the 1830's, to be exact.) But the guitar is also not native to, say, the Mississippi Delta, and I think few would say that the rich treasure trove of guitar music that came out of that region was not genuinely reflective of the culture that spawned it. This record, containing pieces recorded mostly in the 1940's and 1950's, showcases the Mississippi John Hurts, Blind Blakes and Robert Johnsons of the slack key tradition. These were the first artists of the genre to be recorded (this record contains the first ever recorded slack key piece, recorded by the legendary Gabby Pahinui), and the ones who later became the idols of a new generation of Hawaiians in the 1960's and 1970's wanting to discover their musical roots. Pahinui, Henry Kaalekaahi, Tina Kaapana, Tommy Blaisdell and many others, some of whom later recorded prolifically, but most of whom did not, are featured here.

Every tune on this record is a complete gem. If you have never heard slack key guitar, imagine stumbling for the first time on a compilation of Hurt, Blake, Johnson, and perhaps Lightnin' Hopkins, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell and others of that genre, and you may get the idea. The playing, all finger-picked on unique (slack key) open tunings whose mysterious fingerings and overtone qualities are still the closely-guarded secrets of the family musical dynasties that developed them, is every bit as virtuosic and thrilling as that of the Delta and country blues masters of the American South. And every bit as evocative of the culture it grew out of. It somehow embodies the slow rhythms of the ocean waves and a slower, more open and generous culture than the one in which we now find ourselves.
A must have for anyone who treasures pure, uncommercialized roots music that still allows us a glimpse of a vanishing culture.

David K. Bell   August 2000

Another great archival set in this outstanding series... this collection [ Vintage Hawaiian Treasures Volume 7: History of Slack Key Guitar ]purports to gather the first twenty commercially-released Hawaiian slack-key guitar recordings, seminal work from Gabby Pahinui, George Keoki Davis, Henry Kaalekaahi and others. These late-1940s singles originally came out on the Aloha, Bell and 49th State labels, and include Pahinui's first solo record, 1946's Hi'ilawe, which closes the album. Fans of the style will be fascinated to hear the comparative roughness of these recordings, as well as the contending influences on the artists, with hints of Spanish flamenco and Latin American music as well as mainland blues -- the formal stylization of the slack-key style hadn't yet been set in place, and the origins of the music are more plainly in sight. Plus, it's great music -- multi-textured and very mellow. Recommended!

SLIPCUE DJ Joe Sixpack

Wow! Five Stars

It's a good thing this is on CD; If it were vinyl I would wear it out! I've been buying recordings for over 40 years, and I haven't been this infatuated with a recording since I was a teen. Unlike the other reviewers, I'm not knowledgeable on slack key but have enjoyed listening to Hawaiian music of various kinds for many years without knowing what I was listening to. I have a couple of the modern Dancing Cat slack key albums and thought I'd give this one a try. I'm pretty much stunned -- to think that I could have been listening to this music for years! If you enjoy roots music of any kind, by all means try this!

Lawrence Cauble    February 2004

The History of Slack Key Guitar - Vintage Hawaiian Treasures Volume Seven  - ©Cord International 1995
Content  may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, copied, or re-distributed without the written consent of the owners ©Cord International

Hawaiian slack key is one of the world's truly great acoustic guitar traditions; an intimate, subtle voice ideally suited for the expression of the spirit of aloha. Like most folk cultures around the world, slack key perpetuates many traditional musical and social values even as it accommodates each generation's new innovations. Slack key emphasizes individualism, honesty, and emotion, and even the most technically accomplished players stress the importance of playing from the heart.

Closely tied to family life, slack key originated in the early 19th century, as Hawaiian musicians first began to adapt European string instruments to their own uses.  Like most folk practices, slack key is a largely oral tradition passed on from generation to generation.  The vast majority of performers have always learned, played, and taught by ear.  As such, numerous regional or family styles have emerged and written documentation has always been sparse.  Most scholars and performers point to the arrival of the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) in the 1830s as slack key's starting point.  Hired to teach the Hawaiians how to handle their cattle, some left their guitars and their inspiration to play the instruments behind.

The term slack key, as well as its Hawaiian equivalent ki ho'alu, refers to the practice of loosening the strings to create open tunings. Quite a few tunings are used. Many are given names based on the players most closely associated with them.  For example, you might hear players refer to Leonard's (Leonard Kwan), or Atta's (Atta Isaacs), or Gabby's (Gabby Pahinui) C.  Each represents a different tuning with its own mysterious finger positions and special secrets that the aspiring player must learn by playing.  Each also produces its own distinctive overtones, which cast a soft halo over the sound.  Three basic types of tuning have received more general names.  Major or Taro Patch tuning refers to tunings based on a major triad.  In Mauna Loa tunings, the two bottom (highest pitched) strings are tuned a fifth apart.  Wahine tunings have a major seventh note in them.  While some tunings enjoy widespread use, others are known only to a few players or a single family.

It is believed that slack key originally accompanied vocals; either the newly introduced Western singing or more traditional Hawaiian chant.  Many performers still tune their instrument to their voice, and all employ a wide variety of ornaments that create vocal-like effects.  Slides and slurs are the most obvious examples, but many others can be discovered by careful listening. Most likely influenced by the chant tradition, many early slack key players avoided long or complex melody lines.  Instead they played short melody fragments with improvised variations.  Chord changes were often suggested rather than fully articulated. In both the overall song structure and the picking patterns, players generally kept to the old, duple meter hula rhythms, carefully maintaining a very Hawaiian appreciation for contrast and flow.  Slack key guitarists still pluck rather than strum their instruments.  They sometimes still play short melody lines.  They usually accompany these with a fairly constant bass pattern.  Many guitarists create their own unique runs, slides, slurs, and other ornaments which become hallmarks of their style.

During the early 20th Century Hawaiian music craze, when traveling Hawaiian musicians spread the sound of steel guitar and the ukulele around the world, slack key stayed home.  People played it at parties or around the house but seldom took it into nightclubs and never on records.  In the early 1930s, pioneering figures such as Auntie Alice Namakelua began to teach slack key to the general public.  Most players however continued to insulate their craft from people outside of their own families.  Many old timers say that things began to change in the early 1940s and 1950s.  At this time, the generation of slack key players who grew up listening to hotel dance bands, records and radios, began to expand their techniques.  Often influenced by jazz as well as traditional music, they began to take more instrumental solos and create more complex fills behind singers.  Slowly these now legendary figures began to come out of the backyards and off of the front porches to play a more prominent role in commercial Hawaiian music, ultimately evolving it to a solo guitar art form.

This anthology brings together the first twenty commercial recordings of slack key guitar.  Produced for Bell Records of Hawaii, 49th State Hawaii Records, and the Aloha Records labels, they date from 1946 to 1950.  Most originally appeared as B sides (the non-plugged or non-promoted record side) on 78 and 45 rpm singles.  Radio and airplay was minimal and sales were small, but these and the twenty plus other early slack key releases from the Waikiki, Tradewinds, and Island Recording Sound labels helped spawn a grassroots revival that, more than forty years later [update: as of 2020, more than sixty-five years later], continues to grow.  Many younger players point to these original seminal recordings as major influences on both their playing and their willingness to play in public.  Several of the songs on this disc have assumed the status of standards.  While most of the artists featured here made only these few records, others, particularly Gabby Pahinui and Tina Kaapana, went on to record prolifically.  Documentation on these early slack key releases remains sparse, but the sounds of these wonderfully gifted and individualistic players survive for everyone to enjoy.  Each contributed immeasurably to the artistry and the evolution of modern slack key.

During the 1960s, as Bell, 49th State, and other early pioneers ceased operation, newer labels such as Hula, Mahalo, Makaha, Lehua, and Pumehana began recording slack key.  By the 1970s, many older masters such as Gabby Pahinui, Leonard Kwan [The Legendary Leonard Kwan: The Complete Early Recordings HOCD 55000], Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane [The Legendary Ray Kane: Old Slack Key HOCD 52000], and Atta Isaacs [The Legendary Atta Isaacs: Innovative Slack Key Master HOCD 2015] found themselves the idols of a younger generation anxious to seek out their roots.  At the same time, many younger players such as Keola Beamer [Hawaii's Keola & Kapono Beamer HOCD 84000], Led Kaapana, and Peter Moon began attracting audiences across the generations.  At this time, nearly every young band and most older ones featured at least a little of this distinctive, uniquely Hawaiian style.  Since then, slack key has continued to thrive both on the amateur and professional levels.  You hear it on television, on the radio, and at festivals, as well as in its traditional good old family setting.  Slack key has even begun to spread beyond Hawaii through the efforts of foreign musicians and an increasing number of Hawaiian performers who tour or record for the global market.

These historic early releases paved the way for much of what has since occurred.  They also continue to inspire younger players and touch the hearts of all lovers of slack key.  It is sometimes said that without early recordings  such as these, slack key may have disappeared.  Many people who play today say they remember a time not so long ago when it was almost gone.  In any case, it continues to live and to grow and all that needs to be added to this happy news is E Ola Mau Ki Ho'alu  which loosely translated means, Long Live Slack Key!   

HI'ILAWE    Philip Gabby Pahinui (Bell #505A)
This 1946 release appears to be the first commercial slack key recording ever made.  Appropriately, it features Philip "Pops" Gabby Pahinui (1921-1980), the talented and charismatic musician at the forefront of the popularization of slack key during the 1960s and 1970s.  Every art form has its icons - those figures who seem larger than life and transcend all boundaries.  In slack key. Gabby Pahinui continues to enjoy special status for both his remarkable musicality and his almost magical ability to communicate feeling.  It is abundantly clear from this debut recording what all the fuss is about.  The performance beautifully blends a deep rooted Hawaiian touch with an apparent affinity for swing music.  Indeed, Pahinui often cited Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, and Lionel Hampton as his early role models.  The brisk tempo expresses a lively, flowing confidence which is greatly enhanced by his vigorous singing.  In typically Hawaiian fashion, the vocals and the instrumental accompaniment follow slightly different rhythms and set up a slight polyphony (the simultaneous combination of two or more independent melodic parts). Playing in the C Wahine (C-G-E-G-B-E), now commonly referred to as Gabby's C, Pops showcases an already mature skill level and his always unfailing good taste.  Bass and ukulele backup are most likely provided by Joe Diamond and Ralph Alapai.  They were bandmates with Pops at the time, in the popular group Andy Cummings and His Hawaiian Serenaders [ Andy Cummings and His Hawaiian Serenaders HOCD 65000].  The traditional Hi'ilawe, written at or just before the turn of the 20th century by Mrs. Kuakini, tells the story of a love affair at the Hi'ilawe Waterfall in Waipi'o Valley on the Big Island that creates much gossip.  Gabby often featured it in his live performances and recorded it five more times during his long, productive career.

HULA MEDLEY    Philip Gabby Pahinui (Bell #LKS 506B)
The only purely solo recording Gabby ever made (and the first-ever recorded solo slack key track), this circa 1947 session showcases his mastery as a musician and as an arranger. Medleys form a major part of many slack key masters' repertoires.  This one, like the previous track, has become a slack key standard still played today by many other guitarists.  Such luminaries as Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan, and Ray Kane have each recorded their own versions.  Pops performs it in a fairly rare F Wahine tuning (F-C-E-G-C-E) that he went on to use for a number of his later recordings.  Like some Wahine tunings, it produces an open chord on the dominant V (C7th) chord.  The medley begins in a low, occasionally free rhythm with the traditional Nani Wale Lihue.  This love song is attributed to the composer known only as Mrs. Kamakau, and the highly prolific Prince William Leleiohoku (1855-1877), brother of King David Kalakaua, Queen Lili'uokalani, and Princess Likelike, all of whom were also excellent songwriters and musicians.  As he shifts to the once popular Hawaiian march tempo, Pahinui adds an interesting alternating bass that imitates a tuba.  He follows this with some deft thumb and first finger rolls and outstanding fills as he trades off between two waltzes dating back to the turn of the century.  The traditional Wai'alae, written by former Royal Hawaiian Band leader Mekia Kealakai (1867-1944), clearly reflects the Mexican legacy in Hawaiian music.  It is said to be derived from a melody that Kealakai heard a Mexican group perform. Traditional Halona, by J. Elia, praises the beauty of a mountainous region on Maui near the city of Lahaina.  It also bears traces of a possible Mexican source.  In interviews, Gabby sometimes said that listeners told him some of his music sounded Mexican. Interestingly, during the Hawaiian music craze of the early 20th Century, a number of Mexican musicians reportedly tried to pass as Hawaiians to find work on the vaudeville circuits.  The exchange between these two distant Pacific Ocean neighbors continues.  Today, Mexicans constitute the fastest growing ethnic group in Hawaii and in Mexico there are estimated to be over 500 hula troupes.

WAI O KE ANIANI    Gabby's Trio: Gabby Pahinui, Joe Diamond, & Ralph Alapai (Bell #LKS 510A)
Another influential release, this circa 1947 classic features a fine bouncy rhythm, strong alternating bass, and some beautiful high-sliding riffs in G Major Taro Patch tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D), tuned down a half step to the key of F#. The leo ki'eki'e or falsetto breaks in the chorus illustrate the ongoing importance in Hawaiian music of vocal manipulation.  The unison singing in the verses creates a sense of what the old Hawaiian glee clubs must have sounded like.  A reworking of the traditional Wai Hu'ihu'i O Ke Aniani, Wai O Ke Aniani substitutes the name of a different flower in each verse, and sports an inventive chorus that has become common when the song is performed by slack key artists.

KI HO'ALU    Gabby Pahinui with Joe Diamond & Ralph Alapai (Bell #509B)
Disregarding the original label's typographical error of Key Khoalu, this circa 1947 Pahinui recording represents the epitome of modern ki ho'alu or slack key.  It marvelously demonstrates Gabby's mastery of the C Mauna Loa tuning (C-G-E-G-A-E), tuned down to the key of B flat.  In Mauna Loa tunings, it is common to play 6th intervals on the two highest pitched strings.  This gives the tuning its characteristically sweet sound.  Also in Mauna Loa tunings, players often rapidly strum the two top strings with their index finger.  He begins with three verses of a well circulated traditional theme that goes by a variety of names.  Today it is perhaps best known as either Pau Pilikia, Leonard Kwan's title for it, or Popoki Slack Key, which is Ray Kane's title.  Gabby follows this with six verses of the melody most often identified as Ki Ho'alu.  Other versions of this charming piece have been recorded by many slack key masters, including Sonny Chillingworth, who credited Gabby with showing it to him.  Gabby ends the piece with a one-verse reprise of the first melody, which ends high and slows down at the finale in typical slack key fashion.  One can imagine other slack key guitarists being alternately astounded, confused, and inspired by these four Bell recordings by Gabby, each of which show his advanced playing ability in four different tunings.  Gabby went on to record different versions of these songs for the Waikiki and Hula labels.  His legacy continues to influence all slack key guitarists.

SLACK KEY HULA    George Keoki Davis & Willie Davis (Bell #LKS504B)
Like many small businesses, Bell Records of Hawai'i was largely a family affair.  Bill Fredlund started the tiny independent label during World War II.  Bill Fredlund had no experience in the music business world.  He was a dynamite expert for a dredging company in Honolulu.  His wife however, Alice Davis Fredlund, was a gifted singer, musician and composer, so he relied on her completely.  She helped assemble a magnificent roster of top local talent for the label.  Keeping it in the 'ohana or family, she and Bill hired her brother Willie as sales manager and her brother George as a slack key guitarist.  Here George displays his talents in the G Taro Patch tuning, pitched a half step higher to the key of A Flat.  He uses his thumb, as Gabby often did, to pick out the bass on the first and third beats and sound the chord on the second and fourth.  This is a classic slack key pattern.  Playing a short medley with variations is also very traditional, as are the various ornaments George interjects to create contrast and the highly desired vocal effect.  He ends the song with ho'opapa or chimes, made by lightly touching but not depressing the strings at points where harmonics naturally occur.  Keoki is accompanied by ukulele and a soft second guitar, also in the G Major tuning, one of which was played by his brother Willie for this traditional tune.  For a small label operating on a limited budget, Bell had good sound.  This was due largely to engineer genius Young O. Kang, a longtime veteran of the local recording industry.  Unlike most early engineers in Hawai'i, Kang enjoyed the luxury of two Altec 639 microphones and a fully baffled studio.  The studio was created out of an old military warehouse in what used to be called Base Yard 6, across the Ala Wai Canal from Waikiki.  Bell ceased producing new material in 1950 and many of their artists went on to other local labels.  Some of the better known performers such as Alfred Apaka [Alfred Aholo Apaka Hawaii's Golden Voice HOCD 32000], George Kainapau [George Kainapau Hawaii's Falsetto King HOCD 2030], and Andy Cummings [Andy Cummings and His Hawaiian Serenaders HOCD 65000], also signed recording deals with Mainland labels such as Decca.  Apparently George and Willie retired from the studio scene.  As part of the fabulous Halekulani Girls also known as The Alice Fredlund Serenaders [Twilight at Halekulani CD 1077], Alice went on to record for Tradewinds, often with Leonard Kwan[The Legendary Leonard Kwan: The Complete Early Recordings HOCD 55000] providing slack key accompaniment.  

WAHINE SLACK KEY   George Keoki Davis (Bell #502B)
This solo track recording apparently dates from around 1950.  Very rare, it showcases George Keoki Davis performing in a D Wahine tuning (D-A-D-F#-A-C#).  Wahine is, of course, the Hawaiian word for woman.  Some players explain that the term Wahine tuning dates back to the time when women slack key players favored these tunings.  Others suggest that the sweetness of the Wahine tunings gave them their name. They are characterized by hammering on the major seventh note to produce a major chord and an open sounding dominant, or V chord - here an A7.  In any case, George plays some nice variations in the first position on this very traditional sounding theme.  He accents the tonic through use of the hammer-on, an ornament produced by plucking a note, then immediately fretting above it so that the second tone seems to pop up out of the first.  Because slack key is such an individualistic art, each player tends to use their ornaments in a distinctive way.  For two other approaches to the Wahine tuning, listen to Midnight Hawaiian Serenade performed by Tommy Solomon, track #15 and also Rocking Chair Hula performed by Tommy Blaisdell, track #19, both on this album.

THE KANAKA HULA   George Keoki Davis & Willie Davis (Bell #LKS503B)
George beautifully evokes the horse and rider days with this jaunty performance in G Taro Patch tuned up to A flat.  For the recording, he strings together four traditional pieces.  His arrangement and playing style suggest more than a passing acquaintance with ragtime and other popular music forms of the early 20th Century.  Both George and the second guitarist, which may be his brother Willie, throw in some effective bass runs in the third theme.  Again, there is also ukulele accompaniment and the piece ends with ho'opapa or chimes.

HOLAU MEDLEY   Henry Kaalekaahi (49th State #89B)
The 49th State Hawai'i Records label commenced operations in late 1945, as the statehood movement gathered steam.  George K. Ching, a local record store owner, started the label largely to satisfy the always steady demand for recorded hula music.  In time, he expanded his formula to include instrumental mood music, particularly steel guitar solos, but also some fine slack key.  Both local and tourist audiences supported the company which prominently featured the Dean of Hawaiian Music Johnny Kameaaloha Almeida, and his remarkable young protégé Genoa Keawe.  Unlike the Fredlunds, Ching recorded with minimal retakes on low fidelity equipment.  The first recordings were made using an acetate record cutting machine in a make shift studio in Ching's own home.  When the technology became available a tape recorder was used, recording first on paper tapes, and then later on plastic.  He managed to continue producing new tracks until around 1958.  Reissue albums and singles poured out in the 1960's and continued to circulate in the old mom and pop record stores until the end of the vinyl era in the mid-1980s.  Performed in G Major Taro Patch tuning, tuned up to the key of A flat, this medley showcases Henry Kaalekaahi's dulcet or melodious single note work, strong thumb strokes, and distinctive bass runs.  It combines a traditional air with three then-current popular songs: Lena Machado's Holau, the Hawaiian standard written by Alice Johnson Ho'okipa Paka, and E Huli Ho'i Mai attributed to Maddy Lam.  On this and the next two songs, William Namahoe, another 49th State slack key artist (see track #14), provides the second guitar playing in standard tuning, in the key of A with the guitar slacked down a half step. 

THE STROLLING TROUBADOUR   Henry Kaalekaahi (49th State #HRC 134B)
Again played in G Taro Patch tuned up to the key of A flat, this traditional melody highlights another of Henry's extremely interesting bass runs.  It also points to yet another link between slack key and the Hawaiian vocal arts.  Hawaiian vocalists have always been trained to manipulate their breath when they perform.  Holding the breath is one of the most obvious manipulations, and singers like Genoa Keawe and the Ho'opi'i Brothers dazzle audiences by holding notes for as long as 90 seconds.  Slack key artists also sometimes stretch their runs as demonstrated here.  Henry extends a bass run on the D7 chord across four measures, or sixteen beats, rather than the regular three measures, or twelve beats, which are usual in bass runs.  He also interjects a beautiful D11th, voiced on the 5th fret.  This gives the song a particularly sweet and delicate sound, which the bass runs nicely counterbalance.  The title of the song comes from Henry's nickname at the time.  Henry says that that his chance to record came about when George Ching heard him and Tommy Solomon playing at  a bar in Waikiki.  Impressed, George took them to his house and recorded them on the spot.  Henry adds that for him it was an honor to record for such a well-known label.  From the 1950's on Henry has concentrated more on playing the steel guitar.  Today he teaches Hawaiian language and often uses ki ho'alu or slack key to illustrate his lessons.

 HO'OKIPA PAKA / MAUNAWILI MEDLEY   Henry Kaalekaahi (49th State #HRC 96B)
This circa 1949 recording again features Henry in G Taro Patch tuning turned up to the key of A flat.  Ho'okipa Paka, the traditional hula written by Alice Johnson celebrates the Maui beach park near Pa'ia, where ka lehulehu or many people go, as the lyrics say, to ho'onanea or relax.  The second melody, which appears briefly at the beginning and then returns for the second half is the traditional Maunawili. It dates back to the late 19th Century and is believed to be an adaptation of a Portuguese folk song.  While the Portuguese are best known for introducing the cavquinho, also known as the braguinha, or ukulele to Hawai'i, they are sometimes credited with also introducing the steel string guitar. 

HAWAIIAN MELODY   Abraham Kalauli Konanui (49th State #103B)
Abraham Konanui hails from the Big Island music dynasty that has also produced Uncle Fred Punahoa, Ledward Kaapana, and a host of other slack key masters.  As Led Kaapana recalls, all of his uncles on his mother's side of the family played slack key and each had their own distinctive style.  This melody, most likely recorded in the early 1950s, opens with a rollicking Hi'ilawe variant, then slows down for a sensitive yet powerful reading of Kukuna O Ka La.  This vintage composition's title translates as Rays of The Sun and is variously attributed to Emma Bush and Rosalie Flores, while Johnny Noble published the song.  In this version, Konanui displays great command of his instrument combined with tremendous feeling.  As he builds his performance with different phrasing for each verse, the second guitarist spins tasteful fills, switching to arpeggios when Konanui plays the melody.  He does so with artificial harmonics played by holding notes with the left hand and simultaneously touching the string 12 frets above with either the index finger or the side of the hand and picking with the thumb.  The second guitarist may be Fred Punahoa.  Whomever it is though, it is clear that these two players know each other's music very well.  On this and the next track, both guitarists are playing in the key of C probably in standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E - actually tuned down a half step to sound in the key of B), which is common in this big, talented musical family that has emigrated out of Kalapana, across the islands, and as far as California.  A string bass player provides backup on this and the next track.  As a postscript, Hawaiian Melody influenced the late Sonny Chillingworth's beautiful version of Kukuna O Ka La on his album, Sonny Solo, on the Dancing Cat label.

MAUI SERENADE   Abraham Kalauli Konanui (49th State #104A)
Another very powerful performance with great interplay between the two guitarists, this medley is from the same session as the previous track.  It combines five songs, each connected by a strong vamp and played for two verses with a steady bass on the first and third beats and a solid G note on the third string on the second and fourth beats.  It is a common occurrence in slack key to have the alternating bass note the same in both the C and the G chords.  The five songs consist of two different traditional slack key themes, Alice Johnson's Aloha Ia No Maui, the party favorite Salomila, and the traditional rascal hula classic Papalina Lahilahi.  Here, as on Hawaiian Melody, we receive a short but very sweet taste of what the old time parties in Kalapana must have been like.  The rapport between the artists, the high level of technical ability, the lively spirit, and the continually interesting improvisation, put Hawaiian Melody and Maui Serenade firmly into the slack key heaven.  Because of the great sound restoration done by John Golden, John Polito, and Howard Johnston, we can now hear everything these guitarists are playing that we were unable to hear in the original issue.  That such titans as Konanui and Punahoa recorded so little is truly unfortunate.

PUNALU'U   Mama Tina Kaapana w/ George Kaapana on Guitar (49th State #370)
George K. Iopa composed this traditional mele pana or song of place for a lovely beach on the dry, rocky southwest coastline of the Big Island.  The lyrics take us on a musical tour of Punalu'u in the spray of the swaying sea of Pu'umoa.  They acknowledge the plentiful po'opa'a fish as well as the famous bubbling waters of Ka'uwila.  This rare recording features the gorgeously homespun vocal styling of Mama Tina Kaapana, whose large musical family includes many slack key masters such as Abraham Konanui, Fred Punahoa, and of course, her son Ledward Kaapana.  According to Led, his father, George, played both slack key guitar and steel guitar so he could be featured here on either instrument, and Fred Punahoa, who also played both instruments, may be the steel guitarist.  While George turned his public music making duties over to his sin in the mid-1960s, Mama Tina went on to record a series of wonderful albums for the Lehua label in the 1970s.  They featured her with Hui 'Ohana (the well known trio composed of her twins, Nedward and Ledward, and a nephew, Dennis Pavao), and a looser collection of Kaapanas that also included some of her talented daughters.  

MUSIC FOR DREAMING   William Namahoe (49th State #121B)
A very appropriate title for this nahenahe or relaxing reverie recorded in the 1950s.  By this time, many slack key artists were using amplification to help emphasize the overtone series so highly appreciated in the style.  Playing in G Taro Patch tuned up to A or A flat, William Namahoe weaves together four themes.  The first recalls the well known mele inoa or name song for Lili'uokalani entitled E Lili'u E.  After three verses, this leads to three closely related slack key themes, each phrased with occasional extra beats.  Backup is provided by a string bassist and Henry Kaalekaahi contributes second guitar.  William recorded another track around the same time called Serenade of the Strings, 49th State #131, which is the only historical slack key track that we have been unable to find.  If anyone has knowledge of this 78-rmp recording, please contact Hana Ola or Dancing Cat Records.

MIDNIGHT HAWAIIAN SERENADE    Tommy Solomon (49th State #136B)
Another nahenahe or relaxing gem, this apparent original is played largely in the first position in old style D Wahine tuning (D-A-D-F#-A-C#).  Solomon achieves a very nice bass sound and emphasizes the hammer-on in his performance.  The second guitarist who provides a soft brushing percussive effect with his strumming, is playing in a Standard tuning in the key of D.  A musician, fisherman, ambulance driver, and Kahuna Iapa'au (traditional Hawaiian healer), Tommy Solomon lived in North Kohala on the Big Island.  His house was always a place of comfort for family and friends.  As a teenager, slack key guitarist Sonny Chillingworth lived with him briefly.  Slack key guitarist George Kuo, who visited with Uncle Tommy in the late 1980s, recalls him as a very sharing man who liked to help people through lomilomi or massage and traditional medicines.  In the old style, he would take no monetary offering for his services.  "He was always trying to pass along knowledge", George says, "He wanted to see people healthy.  He really showed me a whole new side of life about giving and trying to help others from the  inside out."  When George knew him, Uncle Tommy has a copy of Old Timer's Hula mounted on his wall, but he wasn't playing much ki ho'alu or slack key anymore.  " I guess slack key was just a phase in his musical life", George says, "At that time he was playing steel guitar and Lili'u (8 string) ukulele.  He performed a lot with Elmer and Mary Ann Lim and wrote some beautiful goodnight songs.  He lived right next to Kamehameha's rock and talked a lot about the Kamehameha legends and the folklore of the area.  He was very proud of Kohala."

OLD TIMER'S HULA   Tommy Solomon (49th State #90B)
Again reaching back to old-time style, Solomon plays here in G Taro Patch tuned up to the key of A flat.  He unleashes a host of very effective slack key ornaments while keeping a steady bass and occasionally adding a few extra beats to the short melody line.  The piece, while not a big seller in its day, has proven to be very durable and influential in certain slack key circles.  Like any great traditional folk music, it maintains its charm throughout the ages.  A second guitarist, playing in standard tuning key of A slacked down to A flat, provided backup.

HULA MEDLEY   Mike Ho'omanawanui  (49th State #HRC 61B)
This classic G Taro Patch performance, which contemporary slack key master George Kuo recorded under the title Ho'omanawanui, combines three familiar slack key themes.  An underrated performer who deserves wider recognition, Mike displays both smoothness and flow as well as mastery of many of the slack key basics.  Such basics include steady bass, bass runs, ho'opapa or chimes, variation, alternative chord voicing, extra beats, contrasts, and slides.  Perhaps most important from the slack key perspective, he displays great feeling and tremendous rhythm along with his technical ability.  The second verse features a C chord with a G bass, often used in slack key - in slack key, chords other than the tonic, or home key, are often used with the tonic bass (here, G) to keep the drone feeling going which creates a unique tension.  A ukulele player provides backup.

MOKIHANA SLACK KEY   Tommy Blaisdell  (49th State #192A)
A rock steady swing number that might remind some listeners of a barrelhouse stomp ala blues masters Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy.  Mokihana Slack Key features great flow and nice cartwheeling interplay between a lead player in standard tuning, key of G, and Tommy Blaisdell with his characteristic powerful rhythm who is in Open G major tuning.  Open G is sometimes known as Mokihana tuning which probably explains the title.  The three traditional melodic themes stretch out across ten short verses, leaving plenty of room for the musicians to strut their stuff.  Unlike the more nahenahe or relaxing style of Old Timer's Hula or Music For Dreaming, Mokihana Slack Key represents what results when slack key musicians decide to go for broke.    

THE ROCKING CHAIR HULA (NOHO PAIPAI)   Tommy Blaisdell  (49th State #193B)
Blaisdell stays largely in the first position but shows himself to be a slack key player of the first order in this rare recording of 49th State star Johnny K. Almeida's classic, chant-like mele hula about the joys of rocking in a rocking chair.  Music theorists often speak of the connection between a culture's machines and the rhythms in its music.  Here, with a hypnotically steady bass and tempo, Blaisdell makes it easy for us to picture a rocking chair swaying back and forth.  Playing in D Wahine tuning, he also subtly reinforces the deeper message in the lyrics - if you were here with me, we could rock together on a rocking chair - with a flirtatious volley of hammer-ons and pull-offs fired off at regular intervals.  It's no small feat to play slack key like this and sing lead at the same time.  The second guitarist as on the previous track provides subtle lead guitar, playing in the standard tuning in the key of D.

HI'ILAWE   Philip Gabby Pahinui  (Aloha #AR 810)
We end this anthology of ki ho'alu or slack key appropriately with a very rare recording of Hi'ilawe that Gabby made around 1947 for the tiny and short-lived Aloha label.  The Panini label used the first few seconds of a very scratchy copy of this actual recording to open up their 1972 release officially titled GABBY, but better known as "The Brown Album".  The tempo here is slower than the earlier Bell version and the tuning, again in C Wahine (C-G-E-C-B-E), is tuned lower.  Both help to create a deep, introspective mood.  In later recordings and live performances, Gabby tended to stay with the slow tempos for Hi'ilawe, often stretching the song with long breaks and emphasizing its chant-like qualities by tapping on his guitar percussively or getting the other players to vocalize the gentle swishing of a bamboo pu'ili or rattle.  Mahalo Gabby.

The History of Slack Key Guitar - Vintage Hawaiian Treasures Volume Seven  - ©Cord International 1995
Content  may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, copied, or re-distributed without the written consent of the owners ©Cord International


The History of Slack Key Guitar,  Vintage Hawaiian Treasures Series: Volume Seven   HOCD 24000

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