George Kahumoku Jr. and the Island Roots of Slack Key Guitar
While Hawaiian music has become mostly overlooked in Americana-roots music culture, it has influenced much of popular mainland music including rock, blues, jazz, folk and country music on the over the last century with its emphasis on instruments like the lap steel, electric pedal steel guitars and ukuleles. Today, some Hawai’ian pop artists have crossed over to mainstream success like Jack Johnson and Bruno Mars. But, the music of the Hawai’ian Islands is truly rooted in the history and utlimately in the land itself. For the music that grows like so much fruit of the islands, the concept of roots music is a particularly apt metaphor.
Today, native Hawaiian, George Kahumoku Jr is the embodiment of Hawaiian cultural history and its awakening over the last century. He has lived through the re-birth of the essence of his home and family. He is a master slack key musician with a voice as pure as a Pacific wind, a songwriter, a poet, a farmer, a sculptor, a teacher, a self-styled philosopher and a published author. On Wednesday and Thursday nights he presents the Masters of Slack Key series at Napili Kai Beach Resort in Maui bringing Slack Key greats like Jeff Peterson, Ken Emerson and Led Kaapana to the concert stage.
He is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign producing a documentary film series titled The Masters of Hawaiian Music. It’s a campaign that ends on March 31st. Much of the information garnered for this brief glance into Hawai’ian music is the result of interviews with him, attendance to Masters of Slack Key Series at Napili KaiBeach Resort and a tour of Kahumoku Farms in the mountains of Maui.
THE CULTURE OF THE CANOE
George Kahumoku Jr. describes Hawai’i as a ‘canoe’ culture. The people of Hawai’i came to the island by great
canoes, bringing their culture with them. Most believed they came from exiled tribes of Polynesia. That canoe has traveled along a river of music. It’s one that began so long ago there is no recorded history of its origin. We do know, like all people of great civilizations, there was a longing in the people to create and celebrate. This gave birth to the art that became the life-blood of Hawaiian culture.
Their first instruments were their native voices speaking their history called mele-clothed chants to their ancient gods, to their families, past and future- they told the stories of their ancestors. The monarchy was the foundation of their history and their culture. They were their connection to their gods. Their King or Queen were the embodiment of the spirit of the history of the people. They kept their legacy alive and vital through the story chant and more. The stories became were embraced carried on through the sacred dance of the hula accompanied by the rhythm of the pahu, a sheep skinned covered drum. This they framed all of their passages of life in ceremony and celebration. It was their connection to the a’ina(land) and their history.
THE ORIGINS OF SLACK KEY
In the late 18th century when the American and European missionaries arrived, the Hawaiians brought melodies and harmonies into the canoe. Their voices danced with joy, through the high falsetto vibration that came deep within their hearts. Melody may have been introduced to them by missionaries, but what they created by joining the melody with the mele-chant, belonged to the islands. The music brought peace and comfort to the people of Hawaii even through oppression and suffering. By the late 19th century, the music also attracted the outside world beyond the whalers and missionaries who had been fixtures the previous hundred years.
As foreign settlers in the 18th century moved to the islands, the banks of the river of music were broadened. The canoe gathered more treasures as the culture changed with outside influence. With the help of the Spanish and Mexican cowboys, known as Paniolos who came in the late 19th century to teach ranching skills, they learned stringed instruments and romantic ballads. Mainland Slack Key artist, Jim “Kimo” West says the music was so gentle and soothing, it was used in the evenings to calm the cattle. This was when the Hawaiians learned unique tunings which came to be known as slack key. Today it is known as a fingerstyle genre which uses open tunings. In Hawaiian it is called kī hōʻalu, which is translated “loosen the tuning key.” As the ranches around the countryside of the islands grew, each family developed their own unique and secret tunings. If the foreign cowboys brought the instrument and technique the Hawaiian musicians gave the music its own unique sound. Slack key guitar was then brought into the sacred circle of the mele-chant, the hula-dance and the pahu-drum. These traditions were handed down from generation to generation. More stringed instruments came through other cultures most notably the ukulele which was imported thanks to Portuguese immigrants who came to work the sugar plantations.
THE ANNEXATION AND SUPPRESSION
Even as the flow of the canoe along this harmonic musical river created peace, the political and economic rumblings of the late the 19th century served to nearly destroy all that had grown over the centuries within the Hawaiian culture. The power and commerce hungry business class,mostly white and bent on ownership and a connection with the United States, made a grab for change, overthrowing the Hawai’ian monarchy.
With the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1897 came the suppression of native Hawaiian culture including the language and ancient traditions like the music, mele and dance and most significantly the monarchy landing Hawaii’s last Queen in under house arrest in the palace in Honolulu.
Although their history was founded in controvisial and condemable practice like human sacrfice, by the 20th century, the native Hawaiians had spent over a century creating peace and harmony with those who came to settle on their shores. They were added to the canoe culture with a sense of aloha(welcome and love). When the Hawaiians were turned on by the politically powerful, they didn’t know how to effectively wage war. A rebellion to reinstate the monarchy would fail. Most of the heart of Hawaiian culture and hertiage would fall silent under the oppression.
For 70 years the canoe was slowed down and sometimes stalled as the native people were enculturated into North American ways in education, politics, government and religion. But, the canoe still moved and gathered treasures. In the early 20th century, ragtime music fused with Hawaiian culture to create music which became phenomenally popular on the mainland. It came to be known as hapa haole or ‘half white’ music. Artists like Rudy Valle and Bing Crosby would serve to create an illusion of Hawaii that boosted tourism. The earliest hapa haolie hit song is documented as “My Waikiki Mermaid” written by Albert “Sonny” Cunha in 1903. All the while, Hawaiian musicians were learning-instruments in hand and adding to the canoe as it continued down the river unphased even by cultural suppression.
THE HAWAI’IAN RENAISSANCE: A NEW KIND OF REVOLUTION
Then, something unusual happened. A peaceful revolution began to grow. It was bloodless because it came about through the music, the dance, the mele and the undying spirit of the people of the canoe. With the emerging Civil Rights Movement on the mainland in the 1960’s came an interest in the renewed identity of the original Hawaiian culture. This became known as the Hawaiian Renaissance, which was a peaceful internal revolution that brought back to life the suppressed culture that had been lost with the annexation. As Hawaiian music historian George S. Kahahele wrote in 1979:
“It has reversed years of cultural decline; it has created a new kind of Hawaiian consciousness; it has inspired greater pride in being Hawaiian; it has led to bold and imaginative ways of reasserting our identity; it has led to a new political awareness; and it has had and will continue to have a positive impact on the economic and social uplifting of the Hawaiian community.”
The primary pathway for this cultural overthrow was an impassioned renewal of the Hawai’ian language and the re-emergence of Slack Key Guitar, the songs drawn from the ancient chants and the re-institution of Hula as an important part of family, community and continuity of the history of Hawaii. It seemed to be most clearly defined in the now internationally famous Merrie Monarch Festival of Hula.
But, for a cultural movement to grow, it needs it’s champions, its heroes, its icons. If the folk music revival the 60’s had Bob Dylan and jazz had Miles Davis, then the Hawai’ian Renaissance had Slack Key legend, Gabby Pahinui. While he rose to international importance in during the 1970’s, Gabby was a local celebrity and a well-kept secret for many years before. Born and raised in the impoverished Kaka’ako area of Honolulu, he became proficient on the Hawaiian steel guitar before mastering Slack Key. He was musically active when the steel guitar was invented in Hawaii. He was also there when amplifying the instrument had a key influence on the invention of the electric guitar. Gabby’s earliest recording are said to be in the late 1930’s to mid-40’s. However, by 1970, he easily became one of the fathers of the Hawaiian Renaissance with a legacy of music to draw from. In the early 70’s he was respected in the world of roots music with even boasting a young Ry Cooder in his Gabby Band. He was revered like few others in Hawaii. But, his life was end tragically short at the age of 59 of a heart attack.
Later, he would immortalized on one a legendary recording Hawaiian artist, Isreal Kamakawiwo’ole’ when at the beginning of his blockbuster hit, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/A Wonderful World” he is heard to say, “This one’s for Gabby!”
GEORGE KAHUMOKU JR-A MAN OF THE RENAISSANCE
Among the younger performers who woke up to their culture during the late 60’s was George Kahumoku Jr. When he was studying for his business and art degrees in Berkley, California during these years, he began to read history of the Hawaiian monarchy and the annexation in the late 60’s. He wept as he read the autobiography of Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Queen of Hawaii, and Princess Kai’ulani late at night by firelight.
During his life time he has survived near death as an infant, shark attacks and cancer. However, it has all served to strengthen his resolve to live a full life energized through his love of music, his people and the land. He is a walking history of the spiritual awakening of Hawaii. He is one of the artists and key figures in his homeland who can faithfully steer the canoe, through rough waters sometimes, but always into the light of the love that only good music can bring to the world.
Today, he runs his own 3 acre self-sustaining farm with his wife, Nancy. He grows fruit, vegetables, taro. He also peacefully tends goats, chickens, ducks and miniature horses. He has been a principal at local alterantive schools and has taught generations of Hawai’ian music to at-risk studient in high schools. Today he teaches guitar at the local community college.
If you pay a visit to George Kahumoku at the Masters of Slack Key series at Napili Kai Beach Resort in Maui, you will receive an invitation to help on his farm for a morning. This writer took him up on his offer arriving to the farm at 7 AM. We spent the morning feeding goats and chickens, taking them out to pasture and watering his garden. He then made a homemade Hawai’ian breakfast. The farm is self-sustaining and can feed up to 100 people.
After a short time, it becomes clear, ‘Uncle’ George was demonstrating a way of life that is purely Hawai’ian as he first offered his aloha through music, then showed his example of his connection with the land-the a’ina-and then graced us with the riches of his life, feeding us. He spoke of his many studnets and how when he first started teaching high school, he threw out the tradtional mainland curriculum and instead taught hunting, fishing and surfing.
With all of this, he has managed over the last decade to win three Grammys for regional roots music with a multiple volume slack key anthology album series.
The canoe that is Hawaiian music now continues to flow with the integration today of hip-hop, (J-Boog), contemporary music (Jake Shimibukuro) and Jamaican music (Brother Noland). With many of the artists who came of age during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970’s growing older, the natural desire to pass the legacy along has grown. George Kahumoku has his eye toward the passing of the torch with his developing film series funded through Kickstarter. With director David Barry, he has completed two films in the series; Seeds of Aloha, Richard Ho’opi’i: The Timeless Voice and Dennis Kamakahi:The Legend of Grey Wolf. The current fundraising campaign is intended to complete two more chapters in the series featuring artists Martin Pahinui-Gabby’s son, and the Father of Jawaiian, Brother Noland, who is also a naturalist and a fine slack key guitarist.
With completion of these films and wider exposure of the roots of Hawaiian music, the legacy that has been handed down now for countless generations will continue. It’s easy to imagine the passion of the earliest Hawaiian ancestors and hear the soulful song in the wind that has been handed down listening to the songs of George Kahumoku and Gabby Pahiuni. It’s the hearing that brings about the knowing that the canoe will continue to flow down this gentle river of music.