Slack Key Guitar / Kī Hō‘alu: A Listening Guide

Kī hō‘alu literally means “loosen the key.” It characterizes the Hawaiian playing style, in which the standard guitar tuning is altered by slackening the strings.  The playing style, executed by a single player, combines plucking a bass line on the lower-pitched strings while picking one or more melodic lines on the higher pitched strings.

Click here to read more introductory historical comments, in my 2009 post “Slack Key Guitar ʻ Ki Ho’alu CD Anthologies & Compilations.”

Kī hō‘alu enjoys tremendous popularity in the present. This means that there are many resources for a newbie to kī hō‘alu in particular, or to Hawaiian music in general, to listen and learn about this uniquely Hawaiian tradition. So here is a kind of road map to a selection of useful resources.

1. The Starting Line

Kī hō’alu slack key music was used exclusively to score the entire soundtrack of the 2011 feature film The Descendants, starring George Clooney. Most of the tracks were licensed from record labels, and include “Hiʻilawe” by both Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth. Among the other guitarists are Keola Beamer, Dennis Kamakahi, and Jeff Peterson. The soundtrack CD, therefore, is a gateway into this musical tradition.

The soundtrack contains selections by lionized master artists from the 1960s and 1970s, like Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth, to contemporary masters like Keola Beamer and Dennis Kamakahi. For adventurous listeners who want to explore slack key recordings, why not begin with master artists who have garnered national recognition?

2. Slack Key Artists recognized as National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts

Ray Kane–designated a National Heritage Fellow in 1987. Reissue of early recordings on the Tradewind Records label are on The Legendary Ray Kane–Old Style Slack Key (HanaOla HOCD 52000, p2003). Ray was one of the featured performers in the 1987 documentary film Hawaiian Rainbow, and enjoyed a followup LP Master of the Slack Key Guitar (Rounder 6020, p1988; not reissued on CD). Dancing Cat released two collections, Punahele (Dancing Cat 38001, p1994) and Wa’ahila (Dancing Cat 38002, p1998), and Ray has also recorded with his Japanese protege, Yuki “Alani” Yamauchi, on the Respect label.

My recommendation:  I have always been partial to Ray Kaneʻs 1994 album Punahele, which launched the Dancing Cat Records series of slack key albums. Producer George Winstonʻs objective was to document living masters. These are pristine studio recordings, and many  focus on the guitarist as soloist. Punahele contained songs that had been in Ray Kaneʻs repertoire for decades.

Ledward Ka‘apana–designated a National Heritage Fellow in 2011. An exponent of big island traditions, a master of kī hō’alu (slack key), ‘ukulele and leo ki’iki’e (falsetto) singing, and a longtime entertainer and recording artist, Led was a member of the leading “Hawaiian renaissance” trio Hui ʻOhana, then leader of the trio I Kona, and has since established himself as the most prolific leading kī hōʻalu artist of his generation, rooted in tradition while simultaneously bringing inventive new sounds and techniques to his playing. Three of Ledʻs solo albums, and a duo album with Mike Ka’awa, have received GRAMMY Award nominations:

  • 2005:  Ki Hoalu Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (Rhythm & Roots RR-0307)
  • 2006:  Grandmaster Slack Key Guitar (Rhythm & Roots RR-0309)
  • 2010:  The Legend (Rhythm & Roots RR-0318)
  • 2008: with Mike Ka’awa, Force of Nature

My recommendation:  Led Kaapanaʻs 2010 album, The Legend, contains new recordings of many of Ledʻs signature songs. The handful of vocal tracks showcase Ledʻs falsetto singing. Enjoy the following clip posted on Ledward Kaapanaʻs YouTube channel.


3. Recordings: Anthology and Compilation Recordings

An overview on compilation recordings was posted on October 24, 2009, and this list still stands. Four record labels have been active in producing multiple compilations that  brought together distinct constellations of artists. These compilations allow listeners to hear the stylings of a spectrum of musicians.

  • Dancing Cat Records dedicated itself to documenting master artists. The roster includes Ray Kane, Sonny Chillingworth, Keola Beamer, George Kahumoku Jr., Moses Kahumoku, Ledward Kaapana, Dennis Kamakahi, Cyril Pahinui, Martin Pahinui, George Kuo, Ozzie Kotani, Cindy Combs.
  • Palm Records brought together artists active especially on the Big Island. Their roster includes Charles Michael Brotman (producer), Charles Recaido, Sonny Lim, Jeff Peterson, Randy Lorenzo.
  •  The GRAMMY Award-winning and nominated compilations originally produced by Daniel Ho Creations from the “Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar” concert series on Maui are now available directly from George Kahumoku Jr.’s Slack Key Show “Masters of Hawaiian Music”  The artists include George Kahumoku, Jr., Keoki Kahumoku, Ledward Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui, Owana Salazar, Richard Hoopii.
  • Rhythm & Roots Records compilations focused on younger up-and-coming artists. The roster includes Dennis & David Kamakahi, Paul Togioka, Kawika Kahiapo, Donald Kaulia, Dwight Kanae, Florent Atem, Albert Kaai, Kevin & Ikaika Brown, Stephen Inglis, Makana

4. Recordings: GRAMMY-nominated albums by individual performers

  • 2005:  Kapono Beamer, Slack Key Dreams of the Ponomoe
  • 2005:  Sonny Lim, Slack Key Guitar: The Artistry of Sonny Lim
  • 2007:  Keola Beamer, Ka Hikina O Ka Hau (The Coming of the Snow) [Note: Keola Beamer withdrew after the nominations were announced, saying that the contents of the CD were not Hawaiian repertoire.]
  • 2007:  Cyril Paninui, He’eia
  • 2010:  Jeff Peterson, Maui on My Mind 
  • 2011:  George Kahumoku, Jr. Wao Akua

5. Individual Performers: A Selection

  • Alice Namakelua
  • Danny Carvalho
  • Sonny Chillingworth
  • Cindy Combs
  • Stephen Inglis
  • Atta Isaacs
  • Ozzie Kotani
  • George Kuo
  • Leonard Kwan
  • Patrick Landeza
  • Doug & Sandy McMaster
  • Owana Salazar
  • Ray Sowder
  • Jim “Kimo” West

6. Festivals

Hawaiian Slack Key Festival. Begun in Honolulu in 1984, and subsequently established on Maui, Hawai’i and Kaua’i islands.

Southern California Hawaiian Slack Key Festival begun in 2008

George Kahumoku Jr.ʻs Slack Key Show–Masters of Hawaiian Music

Gabby Pahinui Waimanalo Kanikapila, established 2008 by Cyril Pahinui

7. Playlists

On Facebook, the page “Auntie Wandaʻs Mele Monday” presents weekly compilations of new finds on YouTube. The page is interactive, with musicians visiting and commenting, and producers, musicians and fans alike sharing YouTube links to videotaped concerts and performances.

Once on YouTube, of course, searching on any artistsʻ names will often yield footage.

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This entry was posted in recommendations, recordings, resources, Songbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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