Hawaii’s Guitar master Knows All the Right Notes

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Back in 1792, King Kamehameha of Hawaii was given a gift of some cattle. Not knowing how to look after them the king allowed them to roam free as royal pets which they did for many years It was not until Kamehameha’s grandson was on the throne that a problem became apparent the cattle had bred during the years and become a nuisance.

To deal with the problem, the king enlisted some Mexican vaqueros to come over and train the Hawaiians in cattle ranching. As well as ranching skills, the Mexicans introduced the guitar to Hawaii. Unfortunately, when they left they hadn’t taught any one how to play or even tune a guitar.

Undaunted, the Hawaiians improvised First of all they loosened the strings so that their inexperienced fingers wouldn’t hurt pressing them down. Then they tuned the strings of the guitar to an open chord to match the pitch of their individual singing voices.

In this way, the musical style known as Hawaiian slack key guitar (Ki Ho’alu) was born. Today there are said to be more than 100 recognized slack key tunings in existence.

George Kahumoku Ir. is a master slack key guitarist and has been described as “Hawaii’s Renaissance man.” Quite rightly so, as in addition to being an internationally-touring musician, he is a special education teacher, artist, sculptor, farmer and speaker at agricultural conferences. It is for his playing and songwriting, however, that he is best known, and this weekend you have two chances to see him play locally.

Kahumoku got his first guitar when he was 10 years old. Encouraged by his family’s love of music (many of his relatives were musicians), he practiced until his fingers were sore. His live debut came two years later. The young Kahumoku was working in the evenings washing cars in a parking lot for 10 cents per car.

One night, he wandered into a nearby bar and played a couple of songs. Within 10 minutes, he had made $27.12 in tips and decided that a career in music might be more profitable than one washing cars.

Since those early years, Kahumoku has played on every continent and in almost every U.S. state, and has entertained many of the world’s leaders, including Queen Elizabeth and the premier of China. He has released more than 10 CDs and has produced instructional videos for slack key guitar players. Each year, he runs workshops in Hawaii that are attended by guitarists from all over the World.

Kahumoku’s guitar playing and singing are exquisite and may be one of the finest examples of the slack key genre you could hear. His music carries echoes of the many years of Hawaii’s musical tradition. He says: “When I’m playing, I often imagine in my mind’s eye all of the people in my family who have had a greatinfluence on my music… that they’re all playing or singing along with me. I hope that my grandchildren will one day come to understand and play this music.” .

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, January 16, 2003

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