Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Growing Up Hawaiian - Part 3 - Ki Ho'Alu Feb 2010

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar

In March of 1820 the first boatload of Christian missionaries
arrived in the Hawai'ian Islands from Boston.
They brought with them an appetite for beef.
Were it not for their culinary preferences, 
we would not have Hawai'ian Slack Key Guitar.

As the story goes, cows were brought by ship to the islands
but neither the Hawai'ians nor the missionaries
knew how to ranch, so vaqueros (Spanish cowboys)  were imported 
from Spain to manage the ranches and teach the 
Hawai'ians to be cowboys. 
Hawai'ian cowboys are called paniolos.

The vaqueros brought Spanish acoustic guitars with them
and the Hawai'ians were enchanted by their music.

When the vaquero's were no longer needed they returned to Spain,
leaving their guitars behind with their Hawai'ian counterparts.

Again, as the story goes, the Hawai'ians had never really learned
how to tune the guitars so they tuned them to what sounded good to them.  
Which ended up being an 'open' harmonious sound when strummed 
without fingering.  

They managed this by 'slacking' the strings down from E tuning
until they liked the way it sounded.

Musicians devised their own tunings and named them things 
like "Taro Patch" (DGDGBD) and "Wahine".  
These tunings became closely guarded secrets
and part of the  Ki Ho'Alu (slack key) history and folklore.

Ki Ho 'Alu is written in tablature form and played with a rolling base
accompanied by picking the melody at the same time.  

My most most most all-time favorite slack key guitarist and just all-around 
great talented guy is Keola Beamer.

There are many slack key artists in the islands, and around the world,
and much information on the subject is on the web.
Google and You Tube are loaded with it!
Some Slack Key Video Samples:

Non-traditional slack key, sort of Rock and Roll Slack Key

Ledward Ka'apana
More traditional, an absolute slack key master!  

Keali'i Reichel
Wonderful Hawai'ian musician and entertainer.

Isreal Kamakawiwo'ole
The all-time god of Hawaiian music.  
Sadly, he died of morbid obesity (not uncommon with native Hawai'ians)
at an early age a few years ago.
That is his funeral towards the end of the video and
those are his ashes being scattered from the urn.
I hope I've given you a little taste for the music of my homeland.
If you are interested in slack key guitar music, 
Dancing Cat Music has an incredible catalog of CDs.



  1. Thanks Trailrunner. You taught me something interesting that I didn't know about. I listened to the music and I really like it. I will be a fan from now on. Aloha :)

  2. It's beautiful music especially when you are there in the islands and the sun is setting and the trade winds blowing the fragrance of the flowers - oh crap I could go on and on.
    Thanks for pointing out some of my favorite musicians for others to discover.
    I love Mexico for some of the same reasons but Hawaii has its own special magic.

  3. I'm SOOO homesick!!! sniff snuffle. Can't watch IZ's funeral without choking up.

    Bob- good, so glad you're a fan now. It is amazing music and I never get tired of it.

    Rick- you hit it right on the head. sniff I love Mexico too and it really is so much like Hawaii but you're right Hawaii really does have a certain magic found no where else.
    Hawaii No Ka Oe Hawaii is the best!

  4. I'm so glad you wrote about this, and reminded me of the cool way this music started. And it is as others said, SO evocative of the land and the people.....I think of the Kona shore...