It might seem strange, but listening to this album starts not with music, as such, but with the liner notes. J.W. Junker has written (and won many awards) for his album notes on Hawaiian music, and when it comes to understanding the slack key (ki ho alu) guitar tradition, there is no one better at explaining it. With assistance from Noelani Mahoe and Chris Orrall and with technical guitar notes from George Winston, he provides a highly readable companion to this classic recording. Biographical information on Raymond Kane (pronounced: KAH-neh), the history of the songs and tunes, as well as information on Kane's approach to playing are all given. This background takes the appreciation of the recording to another level - not only is it tremendous entertainment, it is also an insight into the history and development of Hawaiian music. (And for guitarists and other musicians, the tunings and breakdown in Kane's approach to playing are invaluable). But now, for the music.
This album was originally released on the legendary Tradewinds label as Nanakuli's Raymond Kane - this is slack key in 1975 when Kane was about 50 years old. Many of the tracks feature Harold Haku'ole on rhythm guitar and Brother Hohu on bass. Al Ka'ailau, Jr. adds a second slack key guitar on two tracks. The album ends with eight bonus tracks, but more about them later.
Opening with Na Hoa He'e Nanu, Kane instantly introduces his classic old style playing: the insistent fifth then sixth strings providing a bass line, with the middle strings of the instrument adding accompaniment, while the melody is played mostly on the higher strings. Rhythm guitar and bass fill out the sound as Ka'ailau harmonizes during the latter part of the tune. This is nahenahe playing at its best: sweet without being saccharine, with a soft but substantial touch.
Although mainly an instrumental album, there are three songs (with a fourth among the extra tracks). The gentle rolling guitar playing continues on the song "Wai O Ke Aniani". Kane's vocal approach is also traditional; the style is known as 'i'i, where the vocals are almost pushed out with an unusual throaty sound, an effect which is emphasized here by the softer harmony vocal on the choruses.
Many of the tunes and songs are standards in Kane's repertoire and have been recorded elsewhere, including on his two Dancing Cat albums. However, although it may sound like a cliché, he never plays a piece the same way twice. The music reflects his mood and is influenced by life. He learnt in the traditional way, by listening to others and then imitating their way of playing. His philosophy is simple: "Slack key is very personal, so do it your own way, from the heart".
He came from a musical family, and at the age of 9 heard the playing of Albert Kawelo who, in typical old style, immediately stopped playing when he was aware of an 'outsider' listening to him - the secrets of ki ho'alu were to be kept in the family. Needless to say, the style nearly died out, but musicians like Kane have kept the torch burning and allowed (encouraged, even) others to learn from them, thereby creating the healthy vibrant scene of today.
Through the years, Kane has remained faithful to his old time approach to playing, though that doesn't mean he hasn't been open to innovations. His version of the classic song Hi'ilawe begins with a series of delightful jazz chords and a swing to his voice, before the traditional style of his playing takes over. (This version also includes two harmony voices on the repeated verses which only enhance the charm and appeal). His ornamentation on this track (the triplets, the hammering on and pulling off, the harmonics) is particularly effective, set on the steady accompaniment.
He selects a wide range of tunes - some well known in slack key circles, others distinctly associated with his playing and a few which are rarely heard - but each is given his inimitable touch, making this a long-overdue and highly-welcome re-release.
Maui Chimes is a yardstick for many slack key players and Kane excels on his version here. Played with a guitar flat on his lap rather like a Hawaiian steel guitar, he creates harmonic chimes throughout on this classic melody, while two guitars providing jazz progressions and a steady bass maintain the rhythm. The result is not only a fascinating interpretation, it's also an example of the fun these musicians have when playing together.
The final eight tracks make a fine contrast to the remainder of the album. Recorded in the early 1960s, there is a very 'electric' sound to the instruments rather than the acoustic approach on the other tracks. The initial jarring created by this difference soon passes as you realize that his style is still there, no matter what recording techniques and arrangements are used. Two tracks from earlier in the album are reinterpreted, but each version is unique in itself. (In fact, they also appear on later Dancing Cat Records releases, Punahele and Wa'ahila; but this just goes to show his versatility and to illustrate the basic point about slack key, that it is music from deep within and can be reinterpreted countless ways).
Hawaiian Reverie is a real highlight of the second half of the album as he accompanies singer and ukulele player Noelani Mahoe. His crystal clear playing pairs perfectly with her clear, angelic voice. And his inventiveness (especially where he switches unexpectedly to minor) only enhances the overall sound.
Without doubt, this is an album of two parts: the earlier 1960s approach of the bonus tracks, and the more sophisticated recordings of the main album. But every track demonstrates the ability and soul of Raymond Kane, one of the most important ki ho'alu players of all time. Tradewinds in its heyday was one of the most important record companies for Hawaiian music. And today, Cord International/Hana Ola Records are a leading light,having taken on the task making many older recordings available on CD.
And credit must also be given to George Winston and Howard Johnston, who produced and restored the audio respectively, of this re-issue. Slack key, one of the oldest traditional styles of playing guitar, still exists because of the music of musicians such as Ray Kane and also because of the dedication of others determined to document its history. The result is an album such as this, which manages to be a historical document and an entertaining recording at the same time.
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