Interview With Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Master Keoki Kahumoku

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Keoki Kahumoku

Interview by Todd Lee

In February, I had the pleasure of attending the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival, a concert at the Somerville Theater near Boston, Mass.  Two of the Hawaiian slack key artists from that great concert,  Keoki Kahumoku and Sonny Lim, were gracious enough to be interviewed for the Azine.  Both Sonny and Keoki are award-winning artists, including being part of the first CD to win the Grammy for Hawaiian Music, Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2., on Palm Records.

George Winston’s Dancing Cat Records website has one of the best  concise descriptions of Hawaiian slack guitar music:

Hawaiian slack key guitar (ki ho`alu) is one of the world’s great acoustic guitar traditions. However, due to Hawai`i’s isolation (the islands lie furthest in the world from any major land masses), ki ho`alu remains one of the least known traditions. Ki ho`alu, which literally means “loosen the key,” is the Hawaiian-language name for this unique finger-picked style.

Before the February concert, I had a little exposure to the music through CD’s, but I had not heard the music and the musicians live.   The concert gave me a much better appreciation of the rich history and variety of the music, and its diverse and unique mix of musical influences.  I was also impressed by the artistry and dedication of the musicians, and the way slack key guitar celebrates and honors the Hawaiian people and the beauty and rich culture of the islands.

This interview with Keoki Kahumoku is the first of what are hopefully two interviews.  The Azine is trying to catch up with Sonny to interview him, but he has been busy touring.

Azine: In your own words, how would you define or describe what ki ho’alu or slack key guitar music is?

Keoki: Basically it’s a finger style playing guitar.  It’s a style developed in Hawaii after the instruments were left behind by the Mexican and Spanish cowboys.

Azine:  I thought the fact that Mexican and Spanish vaqueros helped introduce the guitar to the islands was fascinating.  How is the music part of ranch life in Hawaii?

Keoki: It’s very much a part of it.  It’s usually the last thing they do after the day is ended.  After the day is done, they have a meal and sit around and play songs. 

Azine:  How did you get started playing slack key?

Keoki:  I was forced to learn slack key because this is what my family does and has done for at least 5 generations. I now, looking back, understand the importance of music in our lives and want to continue to share it as it has been shared with me

Azine:  In your concert in Boston, there was a great sense from all of the musicians of really respecting and honoring the great ki ho’alu masters of the past and the roots of the music.  Why is knowing and telling people about the history of the music so important?

Keoki: It’s important because it talks about families and their lifestyles.  A lot of families, that’s how they live every day.  People are intrigued by how we live such simple lives.  But that’s how we get through the day.  It’s not fancy, but that’s how we live.  That’s the importance of the music … to live as simply as possible.

Azine:  One thing that really impressed me about your performance was how much you guys love the islands, the natural beauty of Hawaii, and missed everything about being home – from the food to the flowers to the deep blue of the water.  The respect and reverence for the music and for home seemed to be linked.  What does ki ho’alu mean to Hawaiian culture?

Keoki:  Ki ho’alu means a connection between families.  The tuning themselves, yeah, are very unique to Hawaii.  You can tell who you know and who you’re related to by how you tune your guitar.  A lot of the songs that people wrote were done by their families.  You only share tunings with your family.  It’s like old family recipes.  It’s come to the point if we don’t share them now, it will probably be dead.  The importance has come full circle, yeah?  The idea of needing to share.  It’s come full circle that people are now realizing it’s becoming lost.  When the family dies, the tuning dies.  The only time we play the music is after the work is done.  We’re usually working – you work hard, and when you play music, you play hard, too. 

Azine: The concert here really inspired me to buy more of the music and learn more about the history of it.  It seems like there have been a few different kinds of slack key traditions.  How would you define some of the past trends in the music?

Keoki: The funny thing about slack key is it’s an open tuning.  So the way you define the music has defined the past trends.  Some people play rock music in slack key.  Some people play jazz in slack key.  Some people play Jawaiian music which is like jamming Hawaiian music - really a fusion between reggae and Hawaiian.  Music is usually defined by generations.  Every generation has their own kind of music that turns them on.  Slack key is coming back because people are interested in their roots.  Slack key is one of the oldest played musics.  Before that there was chanting and stuff like that. 

Azine:  Where do you see the music going today and in the future?

Keoki:  That depends on the person.  My son doesn’t listen to the kind of music I listen to, and my dad didn’t listen to the music I did.  It’s up to every individual.  For myself, the generalized idea is music should bring people together, but not tear people apart.  The first thing when you meet Hawaiian people is Aloha – love.  The last thing when you see someone is Aloha – love.  Hawaiians are a loving people.  Young people are realizing that we have been taken advantage of.  I think 90% of Hawaiians live outside of Hawaii because they cannot afford to live here anymore. Whether it’s job situation or family life or what they want to pursue.  The future of slack key depends on what people want to play.

Azine:  What new projects are you both involved in?  Where are you going to be touring next? 

Keoki:  There are many different slack key artists.  There’s a huge number of slack key artists.  There’s always something happening.

I have a new CD out called “Rise and Shine” on Daniel Ho Creations.  I recently cut my finger, but we were able to produce it before it happen. 

We all do different things besides playing.  I also farm, I teach.  So if anything happens to us, we can share the music.  That’s the bigger picture, sharing, yeah?  We do it for the love and the respect and reverence for the life before this.  We’re giving reference to the people that came before us.  Hawaiian culture is about sharing the intimate history of the past.  We review the history so we don’t make the same mistake. 

A good website to check out for more information on Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar is, George Kahumoku, Keoki’s Dad’s website. Keoki’s own website, is