The Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar
Concert Series

Live in Manhattan Beach, Calif. - February 7, 2009

A concert review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker (

The day before attending the Grammy awards ceremonies in Hollywood, hopeful of a fourth such award for their ongoing marvelous CD releases, the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters decided to give a concert at a community church in Manhattan Beach, California, not long after a similar presentation at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center about a mile away. The gig drew a capacity crowd, attesting to the popularity of the genre, and especially of this vanguard assemblage.

Slack key is so called because certain strings of the guitar are detuned downwards, making for the distinctive sound of the genre, which includes a thumb-picked walking bass line amid fingerpicking and improvisation. George Kahumoku Jr, served as MC for the first half of the concert, and the guy's not only a fine player but finds himself wrapped in civic service and environmental awards for a long history of scholastic and other efforts. He headed up a roster of luminaries that numbered as many as eight musicians at one time, making for a full sonic atmosphere somewhat dampened by the mediocre acoustics of the venue (churches were never intended as concert halls…and I'll refrain from comment on what they are intended for).

Appropriately, a gorgeous version of Amazing Grace, sung in Hawaiian and English, opened the gratifyingly lengthy concert with solos from most everyone on stage, including a name that should be very familiar to readers here: Norton Buffalo, a great harmonica player who has numbered Steve Miller, the Doobies, Kenny Loggins, Johnny Cash, and others as patrons of his talent. By the second song, a hula dancer was brought in, a woman expert in her art, all sinuous flowing grace in native garb and barefoot, as tradition demands, harking back to pre-Capt. Cook days. A lean young muscular ukelele player stripped down to his levis, to the immense delight of the ladies in the audience, and joined her for a duet, himself quite skillful.

The third selection became a boogie in slack key wherein the bass player broke a string, accidentally bringing an even more human element in, grinning while quickly restringing and tuning back up as the song kept on. I didn't catch the title but the song carried an intriguing These Boots Were Made for Walking element that came and went. As the session progressed, though there was a nice percentage of soloing, the real emphasis was on melodics and harmony...and that was when the highlight of the show occurred: Rchard Ho'opi'i.

Ho'opi'i is a legend in Hawaii and, good God, well he should be! Not only does the man strum and pick a great ukelele but more importantly possesses a magnificent singing voice, an absolute master of falsetto, what Hawaiians term as "leo ki'eki'e". He proceeded to offer two numbers that just blew the audience away, the second receiving the greatest applause of the entire concert, in a display of bird-on-the-wire singing offset by yodelling. I could have ecstatically listened to an entire concert of this guy's incredible pipes—Genoa Keawe herself would have been delighted—but that wasn't the intent of the gig. Nonetheless, Bill Ho'opi'i is a world, not just Hawaiian, master vocalist and I hope to God he does a solo tour of the States at some point.

Steel guitar player Bobby Ingano is a mainstay of the ensemble and gave the expected Sleepwalk recital, perfectly rendered and sensitive, reminding me of long gone days with the King Family TV show and the featured Alvino Rey, master of the talking guitar. The more I listened to the performance, however, the more it struck me that the song might very well have been the inspiration for Peter Green's Albatross.

Owana Salazar is the only recognized female slack key steel guitar master in Hawaii, and she came on during the second half of the concert with an acoustic six-string, proving to be the most dextrous picker, ripping out Kottke-esque picked chordal runs and complex strums while Elmer "Sonny" Lim, a member of the illustrious Lim family, played lead beside her. She had a surprise in store for the audience, though. During the recitation of a song I'm not familiar with, she stuck in a mellow version of Jimi Hendrix's Waterfall "May This be Love from the mono version of Axis: Bold as Love). Too cool.

Late in the show came a traintime boogie with Daniel Ho on uke starting off another series of rotating solos, much to the delight of the listeners, and, by the time everything wound down, the happy mass of attendees exited the gig to storm clouds gathering for more of the SoCal rains that have been passing through lately, but with the light of a Hawaiian sun clearly reflected on each beaming face.

Edited by: David N. Pyles

Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society. This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.