The Southern California Slack Key Festival brings Hawaii’s backyard music tradition to Redondo
by Jennifer Passaro
The 7th Annual Southern California Slack Key Festival arrives Sunday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center with kani kapila. Think Arcade Fire at Sasquatch meets steel guitar meets the unhampered soul of Patsy Cline’s high notes meets the windward side of Oahu. A full stage where each musician feeds off one another and leads in turn.
For the first half of the show, every musician present will play together in the old style, or “the backyard style,” as slack key master Jeff Peterson likes to describes it.
It is a style Peterson knows well. A kind, thoughtful, and energetic musician, Peterson grew up on the slopes of Maui’s Haleakala. His father, a paniolo, a Hawaiian cowboy, and a musician, by pastime not profession, would gather up his local friends and his son and walk up through the pasture land and the eucalyptus trees to the peanut house, as he liked to call it. A small cabin without electricity, high up the mountain where friends gathered. They would start a fire and then they would start the music. The ocean full below them, the ridge line of Iao Valley behind.
“Those expanses still shape my music,” Peterson says.
He moves easily between slack key, classical, and jazz music.
“Lines are blurred,” he says. “I like one style to influence another. I like to use phasing. I like a great adventure.”
Peterson just released a solo album Slack Key Travels. It is composed of songs of deep gratitude for the islands and people of Hawai’i. And is also about the ways in which Hawai’ian music can captivate you, thousands of miles away from Hawai’ian shores.
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, predominantly plucked, and easily recognizable by the slacked strings that give the guitar its open tuning.
The inspiration for this year’s festival came to founder Mitch Chang from an old tradition of the paniolos.
“They say paniolos would ride around from house to house playing slack key, violin, mandolin, ukulele and ‘sing for their supper,’” Chang says.
“I wanted to recreate that vibe of sitting in the same backyard, soaking it all up…I think it allows each artist’s personality to shine through when they’re interacting with and feeding off one another. This is a very special thing for the audience to get to witness and be a part of too.” Chang says.
Oli, Mele, and Ki ho’alu
The festival will open with an oli, a chant, from special guest, Kaumakiwa Kanaka’ole. Often described as the voice of Hawai’i’s new generation, Kanaka’ole is a five-time Nā Hōkū Hanohano award winner who bridges the gap between the ancient and the present, between hula, oli, and mele or song.
“He is very powerful to see perform,” Peterson says.
The stage will then be filled to the brim by ki ho’alu, slack key guitar masters Cyril Pahinui, Kawika Kahiapo, Jeff Peterson, Jim “Kimo” West, Jerry Santos, Sonny and Lorna Lim, Kamuela Kimokeo, and Patrick Landeza.
Cyril Pahinui grew up on the windward side of Oahu, where his father, the musical legend Gabby Pahinui, always encouraged him to play music. Pahinui says that he thinks of his father every single time he performs.
“I am so proud,” Pahinui said. “My father is probably looking down on us and saying, ‘Aw, thanks…” It’s a tribute to see my Dad’s songs still being played. I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me and they think my father is still living. We are just continuing his legacy. There is no end.”
He will bring his perfect ear and well-known voice to this year’s festival as he has done for many years.
Kawika Kahiapo came to music at an early age too, from the lush, windward side of Oahu. Kahiapo is a musician, an ordained minister, a father and a grandfather, and on the board of several non-profits including Kokua Hawai’i Foundation and PBS Hawai’i.
Jim “Kimo” West plays slack key in the nahe nahe style, the soft, soothing slack key that is so prominent around the world. He has toured with Weird Al Yankovic and performs often in the Los Angeles area where he writes and produces music for film and television.
Jerry Santos, best known for his talent in the musical group Olomana, grew up on the windward side of Oahu. (Anyone else noticing a trend here?) He has won numerous music awards, most notably Moe Keale Aloha is Award, for his contributions to his community.
Sonny and his sister Lorna Lim grew up in a musical household in the North Kohala district on the big island. A slack key master, Sonny has been nominated for a grammy and Lorna has traveled the world sharing her voice and her deep knowledge of hula.
Kamuela Kimokeo is a member of the Na Hoku Hanohano award winning group Hi’ikua. A scholar and a musician, he has shared his knowledge in both national and international venues.
Patrick Landeza established the Institute of Hawaiian Music and Culture, a traveling classroom that teaches Hawaiian language, culture, slack key, and ukulele.
“I believe a second Hawaiian renaissance is taking place, however it is taking place here on the mainland,” Landeza writes on his website.
This weekend it is taking place at the Redondo Center for the Arts. An afternoon of hula, song, workshops, and traditional food await.
The Southern California Slack Key Festival begins at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 19, at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Call 800-595-4849 or see slackkeyfest.com for tickets and more information.