Jenni Passaro

Master Hawaiian guitarist Dennis Kamakahi plays Slack Key Festival

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Dennis Kamakahi. Photo by Oceanfront Photography

Dennis Kamakahi. Photo by Oceanfront Photography

Some people are gifted. Musical prodigies. Scholars. Artists. Some people are teachers. Graced with patience, charisma, and a capable energy to guide others to fully realize their own gifts. And some people are both of these things. Dennis Kamakahi is one of those people.

A slack key guitarist, recording artist, music composer, teacher, historian, Christian minister, multiple Grammy award winner, multiple Ha Hoku Hanohano (Hawaiian Grammy) winner, member of the Screen Actors Guild, and inductee in the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, Kamakahi is foremost a storyteller. He was raised in Hawaii, in a family of musicians. He will be playing this Sunday at the 6th annual Southern California Slack Key Festival in Redondo Beach, in the company of the most respected names in Hawaiian guitar music today, including Cyril Pahinui, Leward Kaapana, Jeff Peterson, Jim “Kimo” West, and Ken Emerson.

The festival, founded by Mitch Chang, is the most prestigious of its kind on the mainland and brings together ki ho’alu (slack key guitar) players for an afternoon of song, hula, and traditional food at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

Slack Key story

In the 1830’s, Mexican cowboys brought the guitar to Hawaii. In the 1860’s Portuguese sailors brought steel strings for this guitar and a new sound was borne across the Pacific Islands. Like most Hawaiian music, the slack key guitar is a genius of synthesis between traditional chants and foreign influence. It is an open, airy music, predominately plucked, and easily recognizable by the slacked strings that give the guitar its open tuning.

There is a saying in the Hawaiian guitar world that a musician has “steel in his blood.” Kamakahi is such a musician. His grandfather taught slack key guitar, his father was a serious musician, and he picked up the ukulele at the age of three. He says you have to find your time of creativity – that each person has a period of the day or night when they are most creative. Kamakahi often works from midnight to 4 a.m.

“The approach is a personal thing, but it has a lot to do with inspiration, with the people you are with…” he says. “My body is set to that time to find musical vibrations.”

Kamakahi has written over 700 songs in the Hawaiian language. Mitch Chang, founder of the Southern California Slack Key Guitar Festival, said he cannot think of anyone whose songs are played and covered more than Kamakahi’s. His is “a melody that falls easily under the fingers, a real classic Hawaiian voice,” Chang says.

But just because Kamakahi is a musician of Hawaii certainly does not mean Hawaii is his only inspiration.

“If you limit yourself to where you live, you’re never going to write,” Kamakahi says. “You have to experience what other people find beautiful.”

Kamakahi has traveled and toured extensively on the mainland, in Canada, and Japan. He loves the forest, the mountain streams, the fields way up in the mountains. He is drawn to Alaska and Appalachia and the company of natural musicians. His pet name for slack key guitar is pili-grass. Pili is the grass used in building Hawaiian shacks and he praises the similarities between the two styles of country music.

“In bluegrass,” he says, “you can feel the roots.”


Kamakahi’s Canoe

“On the Navajo reservation there is a canoe made of Koa wood,” Kamakahi says. “Koa is a tree found only in Hawaii…when the sea was higher, the Navajo were a coastal people.” In this story, he says, we can estimate that the Hawaiian and Native American peoples have been in contact for thousands of years.

For the last forty years Kamakahi has been researching Hawaiian influence on mainland Native American tribes. He has performed blessings on tribal landmarks, poured over lithographs with elders, and tried with great attention to imagine the huge exchange that took place between these ancient peoples. “The migrations of Hawaiians,” Kamakahi says, “is a history waiting to be written.”

In March, Kamakahi will be 60. He is excited to start a new decade, to continue his passion, his teaching, which falls in hand with his own learning. “It is exciting,” Kamakahi says. “It keeps me alive.”

The Marquesans, later called the Menehune, were the first Hawaiians. They were a strong, war-like people who did not want to intermingle with the second wave of Hawaiian migrants, the Tahitians. Thus, according to myth, the Menehune moved west through the Hawaiian chain, finally disappearing in the land of the floating cloud. Over the course of centuries a lot of people came and went from Hawaii, propelled by warfare and by famine. The last major migration left Ka Lae, the southern most point of the Big Island, to settle in New Zealand.

“There is a song about that migration,” Kamakahi says after finishing this brief history of the islands. “A song of seven canoes for the seven generations.” It is in this song that the Hawaiian genealogical lines open. “If you don’t know why the song was written then you miss its purpose.”

A song’s story, much like a canoe, carries the weight of the melody. And in the voyage that is music, the story allows the song to transport knowledge between generations, islands, and cultures.

Kamakahi’s generation of musicians, including many of the artists playing at this weekend’s festival, learned their slack key from the masters, a handful of guitarists that kept their tunings as closely guarded secrets.

As these masters aged, they entrusted another generation with their music.

“The tunings could no longer be kept a secret if they wanted slack key to live,” Kamakahi says. “And so my generation opened the secret.”

And with that secret came the ancient stories within slack key music. Today the telling continues. “Kids today are really searching,” Kamakahi says. “They want a true translation of the Hawaiian music, they want to understand.”

Recently Kamakahi was sitting with a Haida chief of coastal British Columbia at a conference. The chief pulled out two lithographs from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. They depicted ancient Haida canoes. The chief pulled out a third lithograph, also showing a canoe and asked Kamakahi to study it closely. “What does it show?” the man asked. “Another Haida canoe,” Kamakahi replied. “No,” the chief continued, “this is a Hawaiian canoe.”


Mele Pana, the song of place

Several times in our interview Kamakahi compared both the musical world and the world of the human brain to a field. Not as if these things were a field, but the texture of their complexity was understandable in relation to a simple field. In college Kamakahi abandoned his Hawaiian folk music and detoured into a study of classical music. He wanted to conduct orchestras, it was his goal until graduation, when talking with one of his professors, the man leaned down to him and said, “Go back to folk music.”

“No,” Kamakahi said, “It is too simple.”

“That’s what I mean,” the professor said, “the simplest is the hardest to write.”

“The human brain is complex, when you go into a simple field, that is when you really understand what is happening in your mind…” Kamakahi says. “Hawaiian music is four chords, sometimes you really have to rack your brain to find variations.”

Kamakahi’s latest album is a joint project with accomplished slack key guitarist Stephen Inglis (who also is playing at Sunday’s festival). A student of Kamakahi’s, Inglis called one day. “Uncle will you come in and do a few numbers on my new CD?” he asked. Most of Ingles’ songs were about Kalaupapa, the leper colony on Moloka’i, where Queen Liliuokalani sent a slack key guitar as a gift to the suffering Hawaiians in 1891. “This was right around the time that Father Damien, Kalaupapa’s missionary, was being canonized,” Kamakahi says.

Kamakahi and Inglis asked themselves “How are we going to plan this so we can tell this story?” They wanted the music “to honor the people, the composers from Kalaupapa.” So they created a full length album, entitled Waimaka Helelei, songs that sway in a rich tribute to the sorrow of Moloka’i.

But Kamakahi’s work is expansive and vast.

Kamakahi and his son, David, have produced multiple albums together, including songs for Disney’s Lilo and Stitch 2 and The Gift of Music – from Father to Son, a fascinating album that pairs each song with an introductory narrative, and several full length albums that feature Kamakahi’s guitar and David’s ukulele.

David has been on the road with Kamakahi since he was fifteen, when his father gave him a quick chord tutorial on the ukulele and invited the boy up on stage for his birthday. Kamakahi really got into the playing and forgetting who he was playing with, hollered, “go ahead and take it,” inviting the boy to solo. David “starting ripping on that ukulele,” Kamakahi recalls. Until that moment he had no idea his son could play. He cried “Wait, hold it!” With the audience laughing, he asked his son, “Where did you learn to play?” David replied, “In school, with friends.” They then embarked on a summer tour across the states, playing eighteen cities. “David blossomed,” Kamakahi recalls, his laughter bubbling beneath the story.

As we spoke on the telephone, Kamakahi at home in Honolulu and me on Kauai’s north shore, the late winter rain was relentless. The ocean was the rich navy we tend to associate with the eastern seaboard, its shallows broken by the frequent breech of returning humpbacks, its sky littered with the long swoop of laysan albatross. I could hear in Kamakahi’s voice the sort of patience that plays in the fields of these Hawaiian islands, the most isolated islands in the world. A sound that is not only pleasant, but promises some sort of weather and some sort of assurance that the vegetation will continue to be fruitful, that we, whether Hawaiians or visitors, wanderers or locals, will continue to find meaning here if we pay attention to that polyphonous melody, the guitar and the singer, the landscape and the history.

The Southern California Slack Key Festival is Jan. 20 beginning at 2 p.m. See for tickets and more information or call 800-59504849. 

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