Various Artists -  Hawiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection Vol. 2

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection,
Volume 2

Various Artists


Dancing Cat Records
P. O. Box 639
Santa Cruz CA 95061

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Lindsay Cobb

So I said, "Sure Dave, I'll review one of these little Hawaiian cds." I thought it might be mildly entertaining, maybe even amusing. All the usual (grossly ignorant white man's) caricatures came to mind: smiling islanders in a pre-industrial paradise, dancing the hula in grass skirts and drinking coconut milk straight from the husk. Given that my entire knowledge of Hawaiian music previously consisted of Don Ho's rendition of Tiny Bubbles, or the jingle from the old Kellogg's Puffa-Puffa Rice cereal commercial, I really had no idea what to expect, and if I can say anything in my defense, at least I knew I didn't know what to expect.

Therefore, I confess with utmost humility and delight that I have listened to this cd, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection Volume 2, almost every day since I received it. It is filled with the most genuinely gentle, soulful music you are ever likely to hear. And this is volume 2! How did I miss volume 1?

Hawaiian slack key guitar (or "ki ho'alu," which means "loosen the key") has enjoyed a long, rich history, perhaps dating back to the early 1800s when European sailors introduced the guitar to the islands. This music was preserved and promoted first during the reign of King David Kalakaua, in the late 17th century, and after that by his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani, both of whom were composers whose music is often still performed, still beloved down the centuries.

Slack key embraces four distinct styles, each employing different techniques in tuning and picking, including "hammer-ons," "pull-offs," and an intriguing gimmick in which the musician holds a piece of thread between his teeth, at the end of which is a needle that dangles against the strings as he plays. These styles all revolve around the signature technique of loosening or "slacking" the strings to produce the style's characteristic resonance. (For a more detailed history and technical explication, you can click go to

And it sounds like-well, it sounds like what you might imagine when you think "Hawaiian music;" and yet, it's not at all what you'd expect. Yes, the twangy, jangly guitars are present, and the lazy picking style, and the slowly-enunciated vocals in a language that sounds like it's practically all vowels. What's added: sincerity, an achingly gentle and resilient sincerity, and a love for the soul of the music, and the land from which it gushes forth like spring water, a love which transcends any Hollywood or Madison Avenue co-optation. This is not the music they play for the tourists: it's the music they play for one another, late at night when they're relaxed; or it's the music someone plays by herself when she's all alone and needs a little comfort. Like the blues, Hawaiian slack key is versatile, ever-evolving, and emotionally deep; and also like the blues, when it's played by someone who really feels it, it blows away all your expectations.

The sixteen tracks in this collection come from fourteen different albums, plus two bonus tracks previously unreleased. The artists include elder statesmen as well as relative new-comers. Some are fathers and sons, some are brothers whose father taught them what they know. (Interestingly, only one woman performs on the entire cd.) You get a sense of traditions passed along, and innovations charted by the next generation. The lyrics often describe the various beauties of the islands: it's mountains, mists, waterfalls, even a tattler bird running along the shore, or a coconut tree weathered by storms but still standing. You would almost think some of the lyrics were corny, but for the genuine tenderness that the vocalists bring to their renditions.

Each track sparkles, each one is unique, each one will take you far away from whatever snowy city-scape is outside your window. Highlights include:

  • the emotive, sassy vocals of Kekuhi Kanahele on The Crooked Coconut Tree;
  • the laconic yet playful improvisation of Bob Brozman and Led Kaapana on Yellow Ginger Lei;
  • the spirited picking of Cyril Pahinui on Hurrah Lani Ha'a Ha'a";
  • Keola Beamer's melody, 'Imi Au Ia 'Oe, which sounds every bit as reverent as the traditional hymn after which it is patterned;
  • 'Ulili E, performed by Dennis Kamakahi and David Kamakahi, which at mid-tempo is the fastest song on the cd.

What Ry Cooder and his recording Buena Vista Social Club did for "son de Cuba," George Winston and his Hawaiian slack key guitar series will do for this hitherto underappreciated music. Crank up the wood stove, unbutton your flannel shirt, and turn on Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection Volume 2. Then go get volume 1, and all the individual recordings by the artists featured here.

Never again will you think, "Book 'im, Dano" - unless you want to book these recording artists at your local music venue.

(title and performer)

  • Pokoki Slack Key (Ray Kane)
  • 'Ulili E (Dennis Kamakahi & David Kamakahi)
  • Hilo E / E lili'u E (Cyril Pahinui & Bob Brozman)
  • Liloa's Mele (Sonny Chillingworth)
  • Radio Hula (Led Kaapana & Friends)
  • 'Imi Au Ia 'Oe (Keola Beamer)
  • Pu'u Anahula (Kamakahi / Kuo / Pahinui Hawaiian Slack Key Band)
  • Hurrah Lani Ha'a Ha'a (Cyril Pahinui)
  • Maori Brown Eyes (James "Bla" Pahinui)
  • Wahine 'Ilikea (Dennis Kamakahi)
  • Lei 'Awapuhi (Yellow Ginger Lei) (Bob Brozman & Led Kaapana)
  • The Beauty of Mauna Kea (Keola Beamer & George Winston)
  • Mai Poina 'Oe Ia'u (Not To Be Forgotten) (Sonny Chillingworth)
  • Aloha 'Oe (George Kahumoku)
      (Bonus tracks, previously unreleased):
  • Ulu Niu Ke'eke'e (The Crooked Coconut Tree) (George Kahumoku & Kekuhi Kanahele)
  • Slack Key Serenade (Leonard Kwan & Ozzie Kotani)

Edited by David N. Pyles (

Copyright 2002, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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