Ozzie Kotanl - To Honor a Queen)

To Honor A Queen
(E Ho'ohiwahiwa I Ka Mo'l Wahine)

Ozzie Kotani

(Dancing Cat 08022-38018-2)

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

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Rich Heckman

Rarely does a whole become greater than the sum of its parts, however, that may be what has occurred in the creation of the recent Dancing Cat CD titled To Honor a Queen (E Ho'ohiwahiwa I Ka Mo'l Wahine)." The "parts," in this case, are the songs of Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani, the tradition of ki ho'alu (Hawaiian slack key guitar), and guitarist Ozzie Kotani.

Born in 1838 to parents of royal lineage, Lydia Lili'u Loloku Walania Kamaka'eha grew up close to the ruling family of Hawaii. At an early age, she began to absorb the influences of a 19th century court life filled with music, and by the time she acceded to the throne in 1891, Queen Lili'uokalani was an accomplished musician and composer. It was her misfortune that the beginning of her reign was a time of political turmoil in Hawaii, as the descendents of foreign missionaries and the powerful Dole pineapple empire agitated for more control in Hawaiian government. Ultimately, the Queen was deposed by a rebel coalition in 1892. While first opposing the Queen's overthrow, the United States government eventually annexed The Republic of Hawaii as a territory, for use as a strategic refueling station for its ships fighting in the Philippines, thereby ending the Hawaiian monarchy. Throughout the period of unrest, and until her death in 1917, Lili'uokalani continued to write music, and she is famed as the composer of many, well-known Hawaiian songs, including what is perhaps the most famous of all, "Aloha 'Oe." Today, the music created by the Last Queen of Hawaii is deeply ingrained in Hawaiian culture, and she is loved and revered by the people of the islands.

Although the Queen's songs were generally not written specifically with ki ho'alu in mind, they are ideally suited. The origin of ki ho'alu, the Hawaiian slack key guitar tradition, is not completely clear, but it was probably born in the 1830s when Spanish and Mexican vaqueros were invited to the big island of Hawaii to gain control of a cattle over-population. Whether the guitar was brought to the islands by the vaqueros or arrived earlier aboard one of the many trading vessels, it was quickly embraced by the Hawaiians, who soon began to develop their own playing styles. Ki ho'alu, literally translated as "loosen the key," is the Hawaiian-language name for the unique finger-picked method that evolved. In slack key, the guitar strings (keys) are "slacked," or re-tuned from standard tunings, often to match a player's vocal range.

Even though the art and tradition of slack key was well established by the early 20th century, it is probably the 1970s that is considered the golden age of ki ho'alu. At the time, many young guitarists began to seek inspiration and guidance from the elders of the tradition, and slack key legends from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, like Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, and Atta Isaacs, were still playing. The timing was perfect for Ozzie Kotani, a third generation American of Asian ancestry, who was born in 1956, and started playing ukulele in the fourth grade, while growing up in Honolulu. In high school, after hearing Keola Beamer's landmark album Hawaiian Slack Key In The Real Old Style, Ozzie was inspired to take up the guitar, and by 1976, he was a student of slack key master, Sonny Chillingworth. In 1986, Ozzie took over the slack key program at the University of Hawaii and began developing teaching materials and original compositions, which were showcased on his landmark 1988 album, "Classical Slack." The album brought him to the attention of George Winston, who asked Ozzie to record for his Dancing Cat label. After releasing Ozzie's recording, "Kani Ki ho'alu," in 1995, Mr. Winston suggested an album devoted to the songs of Queen Lili'uokalani. Having always been captivated by the Queen's music, Ozzie was honored by the suggestion, and his CD To Honor A Queen/" is the result of a five-year labor of love.

All selections on the CD are, of course, the compositions of Lili'uokalani, however, Ozzie has added introductory and/or bridge material to a number of the songs, and improvised on many, in keeping with slack key tradition. His unique style and distinctive four-finger picking has created a fresh interpretation of the beautiful melodies and complex harmonies originally written for vocal performance. Relative to an instrumental performance of a song that has lyrics, Ozzie says, "the elements of [the words] must be kept in the music...so I try to phrase it in the manner that words would be sung." To Honor A Queen includes thirteen instrumental arrangements of the Queen's most beautiful melodies, ranging from standards like Pauahi 'O Kalani, Aloha 'Oe, and The Queen's Prayer, to rarities like Moanalua, recorded for only the second time.

For those interested in the technical aspects of the guitar playing, the majority of the songs were recorded using the "Taro Patch" tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D), although tuned down to F# on two of the songs. Most tracks were played on steel-string guitar, with the exceptions being Paoakalani Medley and Puna Paia 'A'ala, which were recorded using the more traditional nylon-strings.

The overall effect represents the best of slack key - played from the heart and soul through the fingers, flowing with vivid, warm tropical images that transcend the islands to express universal feelings. Tropical surroundings, oral histories and anecdotes, and island aloha are all recurrent themes in Hawaiian songs, and slack key guitar pieces in particular. Hawaiian songwriter, Dennis Kamakahi, has said of Queen Lili'uokalani, "[she] and I have one passion, that is, the passion to write what we see and hear around us and transform these images into music." Whether relating events in royal family life (He'Ai Na Kalani), describing the beauty of the rainforest (Liliko'i), or exhibiting the Hawaiian love for poetic ambiguity (Ka 'Oiwi Nani), the queen's songs, the evocative nature of slack key, and Ozzie Kotani's interpretations create that transformation.

Track List:

  • He 'Ai Na Kalani
  • Pauahi 'O Kalani
  • Ka 'Oiwi Nani
  • Penei No (Keolaokalani)
  • Liliko'I
  • Moanalua
  • Medley: Paoakalani/Ku'u Pua I Paoakalani
    • Puna paia 'A'ala
    • Ka Hanu O Evalina
    • Ahe Lau Makani
    • Ka Wai 'Apo Lani
    • Aloha 'Oe
    • The Queen's Prayer (Ke Aloha O Ka Haku)

    (all songs by Queen Lili'uokalani)

    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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