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Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festivals

By Caroline Wright

It’s the sort of music you could fall in love with — the music that’s made when human hands and steel and rare wood come together to form the warm, intricate sound pioneered by the paniolo of old Hawaii.

The roots of ki hoalu, Hawaiian slack key guitar, can be found in the vast expanses of open ranch land on the Big Island of Hawaii, where Mexican and Spanish cowboys were brought in the 1830s by King Kamehameha III to help with an overpopulation of cattle. The cowboys brought their guitars and played for the Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, who absorbed the music and later adopted the guitar as an instrument for their own ancient chants and songs.

The Hawaiians developed a technique through which they could get an astonishingly full sound on a single guitar by playing bass and rhythm chords on the lower strings with a thumb, while playing melodies and harmonies on the upper strings. They called it ki hoalu, which means “loosen the key.” Over time it has become a beloved music form, pioneered by old guard players like Ray Kane, Sonny Chillingworth and Gabby Pahinui; perfected by new masters like Ledward Kaapana, and taken in exciting new directions by young lions like Makana and Danny Carvalho.

Launched in 1982 as a tribute to Gabby Pahinui, arguably the best ki hoalu player who ever lived, the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festivals are held each year on various dates on Oahu, the Big Island of Hawaii, Maui and Kauai. The event has featured some of the genre’s finest artists, and has given rise to slack key festivals over the world, in places like San Francisco, Boston, New York, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Germany and the U.K.

“Our main focus for doing these festivals is to perpetuate and preserve an indigenous art form that’s about 170 years old, started on the Big Island by the paniolos,” said Milton Lau, festival director, in a video interview. “And we’re continuing that tradition in the modern way. We wanted to showcase that people could come to this festival free and share in the music of Hawaii … it’s magic.”

Aug. 21, 2011    Kapiolani Park, Oahu
Sept. 4, 2011    Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, Big Island
Nov. 20, 2011    Kauai Beach Resort & Convention Center, Kauai
June 2012         (date TBA) Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Maui

Cost: Admission is free for all festivals

Noteworthy: Some events are held outdoors; bring a hat and sunscreen or an umbrella. No outside food or beverages are allowed.

Sampler video of the Maui festival

Jeff Peterson at the Oahu festival

Makana at the Big Island festival

Danny Carvalho at the Kauai festival

Barry Flanagan of Hapa with Nathan Aweau and Eric Gilliom at the Maui Festival

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