Dancing Cat Records
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
It has been only over the last half century that Hawaiian slack key guitar playing has emerged from the shadows. Rather like Irish harp, its role had been that of accompaniment. Yet with its slides, strong bass lines, delicate finger movements and harmonics, all mimicking the singing and chanting of Hawaii, it has evolved into a fascinating, evocative individual style worthy of a greater audience. |
Led Kaapana is a leader of the slack key renaissance, breathing great life into the music, adept at all elements of the style, as is perhaps shown best on Ninipo Ho'onipo. This is a slow rolling tune with an insistent bass on first and third beats, leaving the melody to fill the spaces in between, typical elements in traditional playing. At times, Kaapana plucks the strings close to the bridge, bringing out a metallic sound, which contrasts well with the warmth of the more frequent picking over the sound hole. He hammers on and pulls off, creating a falsetto effect until a final flourish on harmonics sweetly draws the tune to a conclusion. This track is then followed by a song on which his strummed accompaniment creates similar effects, though now in a subsidiary role.
This album mainly presents solo pieces with Kaapana making full use of the guitar to create his aural images. Hawaii is volcanoes and fields, ocean and shoreline, a lush and tropical as well as harsh and dry land; the spirit of aloha and of the family and community are strong in the daily life of the people - the music reflects all these things. (The title track refers to a beach formed from lava near Kalapana, his home village on the Big Island of Hawaii, a village which was mostly wiped out in a lava flow 10 years ago.)
Many of the tunes are older Hawaiian melodies, though Kaapana adds a couple of Tahitian tunes as well as a medley of hymns and a piece which grew out of his improvisations. Slack key playing revolves around alternative tunings, all of which are noted in the excellent accompanying sleeve notes; he features six different tunings on this album.
He is also adept on a number of other instruments and includes a six minute track on autoharp, an instrument probably introduced by German immigrants to the island 150 years ago. For me, this is the weakest track. Much as I can appreciate his skill and inventiveness, eventually the sweetness inherent in the instrument grates.
He is joined on two tracks by other musicians. Producer George Winston sits in on one, playing piano, echoing Kaapana's cascades with a slow, near barroom bravado. There is a question-and-answer effect, as Winston takes the melody and Kaapana creates a warm undercurrent, only for the roles to reverse on the next verse as each instrument adopts the character of the other.
Salomila/New 'Opihi Moemoe is an inspiring duet - two tunes played simultaneously, the former by Led and the latter by slack key legend Leonard Kwan. The focus ebbs and flows between the two players. The even balance between the two instruments allows the shared bass line to anchor the melodies which beautifully complement each other in their harmony and counterpoint.
Much as I love Kaapana's playing, it's a disappointment to find only one song on the album. Rippling waves of notes open Ninipo Ho'onipo and then turn into a strum which incorporates the bass, rhythm and melody as a setting for his gentle approach to this love song. Just as with his instrumental work, Kaapana has an affinity with the songs of his Hawaiian homeland.