Slack Key Guitar: Sweet Hawaiian Soul Music

Posted by mcorcoran on August 1, 2011

Gabby Pahinui, the humble king of Hawaiian music.

It was the longest, scariest night of my life, the time my son Jack came home from the hospital after being born. His mother and I had several people over to share in our joy, but when the baby started crying, then didn’t stop, our friends wisely said goodnight and left us with our cluelessness.

Childbirth classes had prepared us for this moment like a stewardess’ preflight aisle demonstration does passengers for a plane crash. When you’re flopping amid a twisted metal explosion, do you really remember that your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device? The kid started sobbing uncontrollably and our minds went blank. Eventually he stopped crying, but that proved to be just a rest. We were in for a long night. I had the first shift, and when our little bundle started airing out those hacky-sack-sized lungs again, I held him and rocked him and tried to feed him, but he wouldn’t stop crying. He felt a little warm, but I was too nervous to even consider a rectal thermometer. “Soothing music,” I remembered. “That will help him sleep.” But I didn’t own any New Age CDs. Probably the softest thing I had was the Velvet Underground, but I was afraid if I played that, my child might grow up to be a junkie, or a tugboat captain. If he lived through the night, that is. Then I remembered receiving some Hawaiian slack key guitar records from George Winston’s Dancing Cat label in the mail a few days earlier. Since my son was conceived on a previous trip to Maui (don’t ask why I’m so sure), I thought there might be some sort of spiritual bond. Even after living in Hawaii for 15 years (or maybe because of it), I had never really liked Hawaiian music, but the time was right for tolerance, so I put on “Sonny Solo” by Sonny Chillingworth and felt the anxiety lift with the first track, “Moe Uhane,” which Chillingworth subtitled “Dream Slack Key.” Slack key or “ki ho’alu” is a finger-picking style of guitar playing that produces a lingering sound behind the melody. Similar to the playing of Chet Atkins, the slack key technique picks the rhythm, melody and bass, but the strings are loosened to create many indigenous tunings, which often mimic the yodels and guttural falsettos of Hawaiian singing. It is the rolling oceans, green forests and sudden mountains of Hawaii that seem to provide the deepest source of inspiration to the musicians, however. Listening to Chillingworth or other solo albums in the Dancing Cat series by the likes of Ozzie Kotani, Ray Kane, Ledward Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui and Leonard Kwan is the musical counterpart to watching a travelogue about Hawaii. Jack was soon sleeping, and I kept the music playing because I was afraid that when it stopped he’d wake up or I’d once again feel pink and helpless. Sitting there in the dark, listening to Chillingworth sing “Hi’ilawe,” (the 1955 Gabby Pahinui hit that’s to Hawaii what “Jole Blon” is to Louisiana or what “Rocky Top” is to Tennessee) while my little boy slept in my arms, is perhaps the most beautiful memory of that crazy and invigorating first leg of the parenthood journey.

Sonny Chillingworth, the singing paniolo, helped soothe a howling newborn. Mine.

Slack key was invented in the 1830s on guitars left behind by Spanish and Portuguese cowboys hired by King Kamehameha III to teach Hawaiians how to handle the Islands’ growing cattle population. It was a self-taught style influenced by flamenco colorings and

native Hawaiian chants. Tunings, with names such as “Taro Patch,” “Wahine” and “Mauna Loa,” were often closely guarded family secrets, and those who wanted to learn slack key had to earn the trust of a master before they could intern. In the early ’70s, a slack key renaissance was sparked by a growing Hawaiian sovereignty movement and the rediscovery of Gabby “Pops” Pahinui, whom George Winston calls “the vortex of Hawaiian slack key guitar.” Pahinui is to Hawaiian music what Bob Marley is to reggae. You could also compare Pahinui, who died 15 years ago, to Willie Nelson, in that Gabby was an adored man of the people, who could play a state dinner for a visiting prime minister then walk across the street to jam with the blalahs at the Alakea Grill. Both folk heroes were also heavily influenced by jazz, especially Django Reinhardt’s gypsy guitar playing, and they infused elements of the improvisational style into their otherwise traditional music.As a boy, Gabby Pahinui didn’t really like Hawaiian music. “(My parents) would bring out some old Hawaiian music, and I’d turn it off,” he said in a 1977 interview. “To me Hawaiian music all sounded the same.”When our military family moved to Hawaii in 1971, I felt the same way. Even worse than the traditional Island music, which I once compared in print to the sound of a dozen choking Chihuahuas, were the wildly popular mid-70s Hawaiian pop groups like Cecilio and Kapono and Country Comfort who incorporated slack key guitar playing into their update of Seals and Croft. These groups used to sell out the Waikiki Shell (capacity 10,000) three nights in a row. Meanwhile, when the Talking Heads played Honolulu in 1978, it was at the Little Orphan Annie’s nightclub, where a crowd of about 300 paid $1.50 to get in. When I tell people that I lived in Honolulu for 14 years, they invariably say, “That must’ve been nice.” But it wasn’t, really. The things I remember most about living in the Aloha State were poverty, sunburn, racism and cover bands.

One of my earliest mentors, Bill Mann, (now a TV critic for one of the dailies in San Francisco) used to call Hawaii “the world’s most highly technologized banana republic,” and it sure felt that way when even the people at the bank spoke pidgin English. “We no can cash dees check wit’out one drivah’s license.” Whatever rebellious streak I was born with was intensified by spending vital years, from 10th grade to age 28, in a city, a state, a culture, where I didn’t fit. My old stomping grounds were covered with sand. But in recent years, beginning with that experience with the Sonny Chillingworth record on April 28, 1994, I’ve grown into affinity for Hawaiian music, especially slack key guitar. I’ve also taken to speaking in pidgin to my three sisters who still live on Oahu. Sometimes you need to get away from a place to really appreciate it, and maybe I can get a witness from someone from Lubbock. Why is it that when you’re lying together with someone in the dark you can see them much clearer? The same thing applies to former hometowns.

<strong>Return of the non-native</strong>

Jack Corcoran age 3

It was the longest, scariest afternoon of my life — the 9-hour flight to Hawaii that Jack and I took a couple of weeks ago. He’s a good kid, but he’s 3 years old and I was ready for the requisite one meltdown per three hours quota. To keep fellow passengers from hating me when the inevitable “I want my MOMMY!” shrieks rang through the cabin, I had planned to say, “Remember what I told you, Jack? Mommy’s in heaven with the angels. Let’s look out at the clouds and see if we can find her.”Luckily, it never came to that. He had a couple of outbursts, but in terms of keeping Jack occupied, the bag of plastic dinosaurs I bought the night before proved to be the best $4 I’ve ever spent. Once the pain in my side (from turning toward Jack and reading book after book) subsided, it was a piece of cake.Having a child turns you into a tourist of the world. You end up going to all the places you’ve been driving past for years, like Schlitterbahn and Chuck E. Cheese and that place past New Braunfels where you feed the animals out of your car. Taking Jack to Hawaii meant first-time visits for both of us to Sea Life Park and Waimea Falls and photo ops with hula dancers and parrots. But the main reason why we made the trip was because Jack hadn’t yet met his aunts, cousins or grandfather who live in Hawaii.I scheduled our father-son sojourn to coincide with the 15th annual Ki Ho’alu (Slack Key) Festival, every year on the third Sunday of August. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity of slackers: Gabby Pahinui, Atta Isaacs and Sonny Chillingworth (who died of cancer soon after the release of “Sonny Solo”), the all-day fest attracted many contemporary greats, ranging in age from 14-year-old Inaika Brown to the legendary Ray Kane (who was a World War II hero when he swam a mile off the coast of Nanakuli to rescue an American pilot who’d been shot down). Also on the bill were Gabby’s sons Cyril and Bla, the duo of Dennis Kamakahi, George Kuo, Ozzie Kotani, Brother Noland, Nedward Kaapana and more.I was excited for the chance to see the type of show I had passed on for years. The reason baseball is better in person than on TV is because you don’t have the constant close-ups of players spitting. I felt the same way about slack key music. One thing I don’t like about the Dancing Cat solo records is the squeaking of fingers as they slide between frets. In a live setting, with backing musicians, that irritating sound would be buried in the mix.On paper, the whole thing looked promising, but the show ultimately proved to be a dumb thing to

Turtle Island, the view from 'nalo beach.

plan a trip around. In previous years, the festival was on the beach in Waimanalo, where Gabby, Atta and their bassist Joe Gang had spent countless hours through the years picking and singing and drinking Olympia beer, or at the McCoy Pavilion in Ala Moana Beach Park. This year it was on the grounds of the Bishop Museum, in conjunction with family-oriented “Fun Day” festivities. Presenting such soulful indigenenous in an ossified museum setting is akin to holding a blues festival in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel. With kids running around everywhere, or waiting in the lengthy shave ice line, the music seemed to take on a secondary role. E. coli bacteria couldn’t survive that stage, and sitting in about the fifth row, I could feel the oppressive heat. The performers all looked so uncomfortable and the hoped-for magic didn’t materialize. That is, except during one glorious and scintillating 15-minute set pairing 19-year-old Matthew Swalinkavich and local hitmaker John Cruz. The recipient of a State Foundation on Culture and the Arts apprenticeship grant that enabled him to spend a year under the tutelage of his Pearl City neighbor Chillingworth, Swalinkavich is well-versed in the classic slack key numbers. But he’s flashier than his mentors, as proven by the adrenalized instrumental that closed his segment, when he played the guitar with various parts of his arm, including his elbow. Slack key guitarists have been known to lay a needle on their strings, as it dangled from thread held in their teeth, and to play guitar behind the back, but Swalinkavich’s re-energization of the genre had more to do with his blazing fingerwork than any gimmickry. Respectful, even when he’s ripping, the Portuguese-Hawaiian “Ki Ho’alu Kid” could end up doing for slack key what Stevie Ray Vaughan did for the electric blues.I tried to talk to the kid after the set, and thanks to the legendarily lax Hawaiian security I was able to stroll backstage unquestioned. But Matt just fixed himself a plate lunch, covered it with foil and drove away, even as another teacher, Ray Kane, was set to take the stage. It was that kind of show, with little of the reckless joviality and camaraderie that you can be sure was present at the festivals held in Waimanalo. Cruz, who’s all over Hawaii radio with “Island Style,” did stick around for a little while, so I was able to get the info on his 19-year-old partner. I wondered if he wasn’t a little surprised there weren’t more people onhand for a free show featuring such a tremendous lineup, to which Cruz replied, “People here are used to it. Slack key’s been around forever and will always be part of Hawaiian music, so there’s no real rush. They know if they miss this year, they can always catch it next year.”

But you wonder how many people thought the same thing in August ’93, when Chillingworth played his last Slack Key Festival before succumbing to cancer the next year. I consider myself lucky because I was able to tell Sonny Chillingworth about how his music soothed a nerve-wracking situation. He was pretty sick and weak, so he let me go on and on, and when I was done talking he just said, softy, that hearing stories like mine meant so much to him. “It’s not the way the guitar is tuned. It’s not the movement of the fingers. It’s the soul,” he said. “That’s where it comes from.”That’s it. Slack key is sweet Hawaiian soul music, calling an adopted son back home.
This article was written in 1997. About 10 years later, I picked up Jack from middle school and happened to have a copy of the Chillingworth CD on me, so I popped it in. After a couple minutes later I looked back and Jack was conked out, sound asleep in the back seat.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: