Celebrating slack key guitar’s history with the community
The origins of the Kahilu Theatre’s annual ‘ukulele and slack key guitar festival can be traced back to 1832, when King Kamehameha III recruited Mexican vaqueros to Waimea to control an overabundance of cattle. Besides their riding and roping skills, the vaqueros shared their Spanish guitar playing style with the paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys). Appreciated but not embraced, it was modified and called ki hoalu, or “Slack Key,” which translates as “loosen the [tuning] key.”
Fast forward to the late 1990s when Maui musician Richard Ho’opi’i and talent coordinator/UH professor Jay Junker acquired funds for an island-hopping tour. The Kahilu Theatre was one of the stops. The traveling revue featured a small group of traditional Hawaiian artists and local musicians who performed at schools, care homes, public concerts and offered one-of-a-kind workshops.
Kahilu’s yearly festival began in 2002, when Janet Coburn, then-Managing Director, expanded the show to a five-day event in mid-November and called it the Waimea ‘Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Institute. “At this point, we cooked up the idea of inviting top musicians to come to Waimea, housing them at the Kamuela Inn where they could jam, and giving the artists opportunities they didn’t often get: a chance to relax, mix and mingle with artists they either already knew or would enjoy getting to know, and playing what they wanted with whomever they wanted,” festival co-producer Jay Junker recalled. “It was critical to the success of the project to choose musicians who recognized that it was ‘not just another gig,’ and who were on the same wavelength.”
For many years, the local festival concluded on Sundays with a short free concert, which allowed the featured artists to say their goodbyes and offer a kanikapila session in which the public could participate. The Sunday performances, and others, usually ended with “Hawai’i Aloha,” a song dedicated to the ‘Imiola Church down the street from the Kahilu. The institute part of the festival’s name was omitted in 2016.
This year’s festival featured the usual suspects, slack key masters Sonny Lim, Jeff Peterson, Brother Noland, and John Keawe. They were joined by bassist Nathan Aweau, ‘ukulele virtuoso Brittni Paiva, and young guns Ho’opono Wong and Sean Parks. Two shows were offered: a livestream concert for 30 local classrooms, as well as a Saturday in-person matinée for 240 attendees.
Saturday’s show ran two hours, and each musician gave solo performances before everyone came out for the final songs.
There were many notable moments like Jeff Peterson’s “Halema’uma’u,” a tune from his new album Mele Nahenahe, Soothing Sounds of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. “I wrote this song about the caldera here on the island with its incredible red glow that you can see on a clear night,” Peterson said. The tuning for this intense instrumental was based on the late Gabby Pahinui’s C Mauna Loa, and Peterson gave the song a classical feel.
“When COVID hit, we learned how to be as creative as possible, and for musicians, that was difficult, but it helped us realize that’s what we’re put on Earth to do,” Brother Noland profoundly noted, as he played a new song called “Dreamwave,” a soothing instrumental that will appear on Jake Shimabukuro’s next album. Peterson and Paiva accompanied Noland.
Paiva energized the crowd with a cover of Ellie Goulding’s hit song, “Lights.” With the assistance of a looping pedal, Paiva played rhythm, lead, and percussion parts. Then, stepping out over audio cables and mic stands, the ‘ukulele wizard took center stage for a blistering solo. Maybe next year we’ll see a few more talented female performers on stage.
Keeping the tradition alive, everyone stood for the hana hou, a touching rendition of “Hawai’i Aloha,” with the audience joining in.
Despite the challenge of being closed for 14 months and currently dealing with the pandemic, there was never a gap in the Kahilu’s annual music festival. That says a lot about their commitment to the community and preserving this historical genre of Hawaiian music.
Notes & Links
Nathan Aweau: The Place of My Birth | Kipona Aloha |
Jeff Peterson: Malasadas/Whee Ha Swing | Halema’uma’u |
Sean Parks and Ho’opono Wong: Hawaiʻi Loa Kūlike Kākou | Ho’olana |
Brother Noland: Lainani | Hawaiian Man | Dreamwave (w/Jeff Peterson and Brittni Paiva) |
Brittni Paiva: From The Heart | Lights |
John Keawe: We Are Ohana | Kohala I Love You (w/ Sonny Lim) |
Sonny Lim: Somewhere Over The Rainbow | Opihi Moe Moe (w/Sean Parks) |
All: Noho Pai Pai
Hana Hou: Hawai’i Aloha
Concert Date: 20/NOV/2021
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, bestselling author, and editor of Big Island Music.
Photos: Steve Roby
In 2012, the Kahilu’s music annual festival was held in February (17-18) and not November. “The reason we changed it was because the 20th Annual Slack Key Festival [an alternate event] was happening around that time in Kona. People said that it was just too much, so we gave February a try. We later felt that February didn’t work well for us, so we moved it back to November the following year.” – Lisa Shattuck, Education Coordinator for the Kahilu Theatre.
- Richard Ho’opi’i and Jay Junker’s music tours in the 1990s were called Legends of Hawaiian Music & Dance, The Art of Solo ‘Ukulele, and Slack Key & ‘Ukulele Masters. Before that, there was the one-time Waimea Music Festival, which took place on May 14, 1974, at Paniolo Park in Waimea. A double album of the concert was released on Pannini Records.