Jim “Kimo” West: A Gentle Journey from “Weird Al” to Slack Key Guitar
Music always has a story to tell. In whatever form it takes, the history and the present moment merge into something vital that calls out to us to engage. In Hawai’i the music runs as strong as the taro with the same life-giving energy. For multi-instrumentalist and slack key master, Jim “Kimo” West, the roots are bone and soul deep.
Although his ‘day job’ is one of the key players in musical satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic’s band-where he has played lead guitar for over the last 20 years-his personal calling belongs to the breezy, relaxed sound of Hawaiian slack key guitar.
The love of this music and the skill it has taken to develop his voice for it, has taken time for West. Ironically, while he has established a solid following at island and mainland festivals over the last two decades, his current project with Weird Al, Mandatory Fun, has him at the top of the national pop charts with the #1 album on Billboard last week.
However, it is his acoustic guitar tuned slack key style, which is where his true passion resides.
The native of Toronto, Canada who was raised in Tampa, Florida, managed to find the luckiest gig of his professional career when he was introduced to “Weird Al” in 1985. After a successful national tour, he was invited by a friend on a vacation to Maui.
“That was really on the beginning. During that trip, stayed with a local family and they played slack key music every night. I understood. I didn’t try playing it right then.” He said.
It took a bit of deeper journey for West to take his full drink of ki ho’alu or slack key guitar.
“In 1993 I had a friend who was a chef in New York City who had stayed with me in Hawaii. Later, after, when I returned to the mainland, I found he had passed away.” West explained. ” I was in shock, so I started playing guitar just to console myself. I wrote a slack key song for him. I recorded it and then started really studying the form. I just started writing my own slack key songs.”
With encouragement from island friends, West released Coconut Hat 1n 1999. The result is an album that demonstrates what happens when a talented and skilled veteran artist changes musical forms out of pure love and a deep spirit of connection. All of West’s own power as a guitarist shines through the gentle songs that reflect both the island culture and the artist’s own rich musical landscape. Releases since Coconut Hat include Slack Key West and Maui Skies. Most recently he has released, Ki Ho’ Alu Christmas in 2013.
As West put it, in his own understated way, “Coconut Hat came out good. I was invited to play at slack key festivals on the islands. I was the only haole (white guy) there. But there was so much Aloha for what I was doing. The Hawaiian musicians were completely supportive. I was immersed in Hawaiian culture.” He said.
Slack key guitar, according to West, is deeply embedded and rooted in Hawaiian culture. The term ‘slack key’ is most literally translated ‘loosen the key’ from the Hawaiian ki ho’alu , It’s accomplished by loosening the strings of the guitar to gain a new sound, a different tuning that usually becomes a major chord. What resonates from the distinct open tuning becomes inventive and imaginative in a similar way that ragtime became for piano players early in the 20th century. The resulting sound is near trance like as it weaves melody and rhythm into a seamless and soothing whole. It is not music for artists who want the audience revel in their speed and mastery. In fact, the showiness that goes along with instrumental music is discourage replaced by a humble, sweet and melodic sound that invites all to enjoy the music on its own terms. It is deeply spiritual, soulful and at times meditative.
Slack key guitar was born in the virgin and cloistered family traditions of Hawai’i first appearing on the Big Island and Maui. Its origins were as organic as the tropical fruit that was born there. Although the guitar was first introduced to Hawaiian culture in the early 19th century by European sailors and whalers, it was the Mexican and Spanish vaqueros, imported by King Kamehameha in 1832, to teach ranching skills to Hawaiians, who taught them to play. According to West, lore has it that they would gather around the campfire in the evening and play music with the intention of calming the cattle. The music engaged the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys), who then, over the years, adapted the instruments and the sound uniquely to their own musical landscape combing it with their chants and hymns handed down over the years.
After the vaqueros left, the paniolo brought their instruments and their music home. As each family developed their own special slack key tuning, the music became a part of the legacy of individual families and friends, played in the evening at home for rest, inspiration and a unique form of musical storytelling about family, ancestors and cultural legends.
Slack key playing did not open up in Hawaiian culture and come to the mainland until the early 20th century under the reign of King David Kalakaua when it became a part of the territories own national pride. It was then used to help create hula dances.
Founding fathers and key artists grew from the exposure. Names like Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingsworth and Raymond Kane became household names around the islands and soon would attract mainland fans as well.
Gabby Pahinui recorded the first sessions featuring slack key guitar in 1946. Even then, the music is so unassuming and calls so little attention to itself, its growth was slow. However, when the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the ’70’s occurred slack key’s trajectory changed considerably.
Along with Gabby Pahinui younger players emerged including Keola Beamer, Peter Moon and Haunani Apoliona.
Today the key figures still active and vital are Cindy Combs, George Kahumoku Jr and Dennis Kamakahi. Also, the sons of the late Gabby Pahinui Bla, Cyril and Martin are influential.
At first, when Jim “Kimo” West played live gigs he was apprehensive.
“I was used to playing with other musicians on stage. Playing alone and a completely different form of music made me initially nervous.” He explained.
But, the music, calling up its unique form of storytelling, its rich tradition, resonated through West and he became an instrument allowing his audience to peer through a unique musical window into a land as beautiful and inviting as the islands themselves. It is also his personal story of discovery and rebirth. Inspired by the death of a friend, his musicianship was reborn in the sun light of this unique, organic island music. Through his recordings and live performance, we’re like his own ‘ohana'(Hawai’ian for family) hearing those vaquero guitars through the evening trade winds.
As he continues his career with Weird Al, which has hit an unexpected peak, his lifeblood remains in the music of the islands that have renewed and inspired this new stream of American music.
On Sunday August 3rd, West will be appearing at The Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, California with guitar session great, Marty Rifkin, Diana Tanaka on vocals and Amanda Taketa dancing hula. Call 626-798-6236 ( between 10AM and 10PM) to reserve.