1. Similar to Ukulele, the Hawaiian slack guitar is often identified with commercial Hawaiian Music. Both instruments, however, are western. Traditional Hawaiian instruments were generally percussion type instruments: the drums (pahu), sticks (kala’au) gourds (ipu), and rocks (pohaku.) Other instruments were the split bamboo shake sticks (pu’ili), nose flute, and the of course, the voice.

    Slack key guitar music, Ki ho alu, literally translates to “loosen the key.” It’s music played from an ordinary guitar that is unconventionally tuned, or on a guitar where some or all strings are slacked beyond the conventional standard so as to produce tone and resonance.  Mexican cowboys, vaqueros, introduced the guitar to Hawaii.

    George Vancouver, a British seaman, was an ensign in Captain Cook’s third and last voyage that discovered the Hawaiian Islands during 1778-1779. He survived the journey and later became a ship captain. Vancouver befriended King Kamehameha I, the Great, the high chief who conquered all his rivals and created a single ancient Hawaiian nation in 1795. In 1793, the Captain gave the High Chief five long horn cattle (male and female.)  Kamehameha at once put a kapu, or a strict Hawaiian law, violation of which was punishable by death, against killing the cattle. The five cattle subsequently roamed freely and reproduced on the Big Island of Hawaii (4,028 sq miles) for about 20 years. During that time, the feral cattle consumed a lot of the vegetation on the island. In 1815, John Palmer Parker, an American was commissioned by Kamehameha to hunt the cattle and process them into salted beef for whalers and later miners during the California Gold Rush, 1848-1855. Parker later domesticated the cattle and started what is now one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States, the Parker Ranch.

    Prior to 1832, King Kamehameha III visited California and was impressed with the grand display of horsemanship of the Mexican cowboys, vaqueros, rounding up cattle. In 1832, he recruited vaqueros to teach Hawaiians the skills of a cowboy. Hawaiian cowboys are called paniolos. The vaqueros brought their Spanish guitars to play around the campfires. The Hawaiians took a liking to the instrument. When the Hawaiians were trained, some vaqueros left and some married and remained. The instrument, however, stayed on and continued to serve Hawaiian music as a form of expression.

    Ancient Hawaiians, like all cultures that evolved independently, developed their own sense of rhythm and music. The Hawaiian beat is partly derived from the ancient Hawaiian chant, a singsong way of memorizing the unwritten past. As a side note, the missionaries arrived in 1820 and gave the Hawaiian their written language based on the English phonetics. Another influence to the Hawaiian sound was nature. Unlike western cultures that had the science to “manufacture” their environment, the primitive Hawaiians depended on the sun, rain, soil, wind, and animals for products and food. In other words, they had no choice but to co-exist with nature. As a result, they became very much in tune with the environment’s sounds and aura. This feeling expressed through the music of the slack key invokes to the listener a description of the sounds, spirit and ambiance found only in nature. One reason for the unconventional tuning of the slack key guitar was so the guitar could perform a one-man guitar emsemble, the player could mix bass, rhythm and lead all into one. Western instruments, like guitars, were rare back in 1800 Hawaii so one had to be resourceful. Originally slack key was an informal get-together, backyard, potluck music performed by family members. As a result of being a inner-circle form of entertainment, the songs, and techniques to play those songs was a closely guarded secret. In the 1970’s, slack key music made a larger appearance on the commercial venue and has and continues to be a real treasure from the islands.

    My favorite slack key guitarist is Keola Beamer. Having grown up on Oahu, I can visually connect with his music and compositions. One song that invokes images of bays, overcasts, the clouds, birds perched on tree limbs that gently rock them to sleep etc. is the track “Imi Au Ia Oe” on the Mauna Kea, White Mountain Journal. Named by Beamer Journal instead of Album for the following reason.

    “I keep a journal of all things that happen in my life…I found it hard to hunt for words…I discovered that words placed limitation on the depth of my experiences. I came to believe that words were rather crude implements…That is why I turned to music. I longed for a better way to convey what was in my heart. Music has since become my way of communicating these feelings.” Keola Beamer.

    Beamer’s explanation says it all when it comes to the slack key genre. If you’ve had a chance to visit the Hawaiian Islands, you’ll connect immediately with what is describe in the slack key sound. If not, you’ll still connect to the universal sounds, and spirit that is nature.

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