Every style has its originators, its trailblazers, its innovators ... its gods. Hawaiian ki ho'alu or slack key guitar music is no exception and picking on high are such legendary exponents as Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth and Leonard Kwan.
Leonard Kwan has the distinction of having released what is regarded as the first album in Hawaiian recording history devoted exclusively to slack key instrumental playing: the Red Album (properly known as "Slack Key"), now a collectors item. It was first released on vinyl in 1960 and is the stuff of which legends are made. Consisting of a dozen tracks, including six Kwan originals which have now become standards in the repertoire, the album is a classic example of his influential style.
For many years it was unavailable; indeed, few of his recordings were. But now, thanks to this CD release, not only will a new generation be exposed to his playing, but also many who have treasured his Red Album will be able to listen to it in all its pristine glory. More than that, this compilation expands it by 18 more tracks from the '50s, '60s and '70s.
The album opens with his debut release, Hawaiian Chimes, a single from 1957. A steady acoustic bass, bubbling ukulele and sympathetic second guitar provide a strong accompaniment for Kwan's slack key picking; the track reaches the heights during the final measures when he plays harmonics to the accompaniment of stressed first and third beats. Already, Kwan's distinctive style is apparent.
He was invited to record at the Tradewinds recording studios in the late 1950s on the recommendation of his uncle and guitar teacher, Joseph "Pete" Hau'oli. Hau'oli also lent him the Gibson F-hole electric guitar which helped provide his signature sound. After recording a number of tracks, the record company set about releasing them as the Red Album, which featured a small ensemble playing ukulele, bass and rhythm guitar, led by Kwan and his slack key guitar.
The following 10 tracks are from that album and ably demonstrate his innovative technical approach: Opihi Moemoe is the first time modulating between two keys was recorded in Hawaiian music; My Yellow Ginger Lei presents his electric guitar with tremolo; ornamentation, a variety of tunings (each with its own character) and picking idiosyncrasies all stand out to make this a momentous album.
In 1975, he recorded another album for Tradewinds, The Old Way, and 11 tracks from that album are included here.
There is some repetition in material, but such is the nature of slack key that it is rare to hear a tune played the same way twice. A different instrument, a switch in tuning, a change of key, an alternative tempo and a tune takes on a new lease in life. Time, too, can make a difference and this is especially true with New 'Opihi Moemoe which provides an opportunity to compare how his playing developed over the years. The solid earlier version (track 2) jogs along at an even pace and has an acoustic appeal; the newer interpretation has a Latin feel to the rhythm and a whole new atmosphere with more emphasis on the chiming electric guitar. A verse played using harmonics before he returns to standard playing is also startling.
Background vocals appear for the first time on the track Mi Nei, as two angelic voices add more depth to the sound. A jazz and ragtime influence appears on Palolo. Kwan also plays a solo guitar piece, a rare event back then as slack key tended to be played in a group setting rather than alone. Ukulele player and singer Noelani Mahoe adds 'ohe hano ihu (traditional Hawaiian nose flute) which creates a breathy, eerie effect.
The Legendary Leonard Kwan ends with three bonus tracks: he accompanies the Kamaha'os Trio on the Charles King classic Po Mahina and on Noho Paipai (attributed to John Almeida); he also plays Hawaiian Love in a very rare tuning (Gabby's F Wahine, favored by Gabby Pahinui) accompanied by a second guitar. These three tracks were previously available on vinyl albums, but have now found a home rounding out this classic collection.
While the music of the other Hawaiian slack key Legends has long been available on CD, it is only now that Kwan's work is becoming more widely available. Kwan passed away in 2000 leaving behind just one album still available, his 1995 third and final release, Ke'ala's Mele (Dancing Cat). He has a distinctive style which has influenced and affected many who have followed him. The Legendary Leonard Kwan provides an entertaining exposure to his earlier days.
The transfer from vinyl recordings has been done with great care and attention. George Winston has done an amazing job producing and Howard Johnston deserves much credit for the audio restoration. Between them, they have created a classic album by a legendary performer. And as Winston promises in the excellent liner notes (written by J.W. Junker), another solo album should be forthcoming from Dancing Cat in the not-too-distant future.
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