Interview With Hawaiian Slack Key Master Sonny Lim

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Interview by Todd Lee

This is the second of two Azine interviews with two of the great contemporary Hawaiian Slack Key Masters.  The first was with Keoki Kahumoku. This interview is with Sonny Lim, who, like Keoki, comes from a rich family tradition of Hawaiian musicians and was one of the featured artists on Slack Key, Volume 2, which won the first Grammy awarded for Hawaiian music. 

Elmer Lim Jr., better known as “Sonny” was born and raised in Kohala.  Music was a part of his life from a young age. It came to him naturally as a gift - the playing of the Ukulele, Guitar, Upright Bass and later the Vibraphone and Steel Guitar.  Highly influenced by Fred Punahoa and Gabby Pahinui, Sonny really enjoys playing Slack Key Guitar. Among his many awards and award nominations, he released a new solo CD entitled “Slack Key Guitar: the Artistry of Sonny Lim” which was nominated for the 2006 Grammy Awards.

A big “Mahalo” to both Sonny and Keoki for taking the time out of their busy schedules to share their thoughts on ki ho`alu: Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar music.

Azine:     Sonny, I understand that in Hawaiian slack key music, the tunings and the style are passed on within each family.  You come from a famous Hawaiian musical family; what influence has your family had on your music?

Sonny:  As far as the tunings, what I first learned was passed to me by my first slack key teacher Fred Punahoa and through the years I have learned many different tunings.  The influence from my Parents, Elmer Sr. and Mary Ann, started when I was young and they instilled in me and my sisters traditional Hawaiian music.  It led us to record albums and garner the Hoku Awards (Hawaiian Grammy's) for Traditional Hawaiian Music Award in 1981 & 1982 and Group of the Year in 2002. 

Azine:      How did you first get involved in playing slack key? 

Sonny: When I was 10 yrs. old I went to a party and I saw 2 guys playing guitars.  The sound I heard coming from them really intrigued me and I sat and watched them the rest of the night.  I later found out that I was listening to Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs.  That started me on my journey of slack key.

Azine: As far as past slack key masters, who were the biggest influences on you?  What did they teach you?

Sonny: Fred Punahoa was my first teacher and he taught me that if I wanted to play slack key, I would have to learn how to play standard guitar.  In his words "you have to learn to play da two ways".  Gabby Pahinui influenced me to be creative and play the way you feel.

Azine:  I remember in the concert in Boston, you talked about working and living on a ranch as a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy).  Could you talk a little bit about how ranch life and slack key are connected?

Sonny: It started when the Vaqueros came to Hawaii to teach the Hawaiians to be cowboys and left a guitar behind.  The Hawaiians couldn't figure out how to tune it and created their own tunings.  I grew up on Parker Ranch and enjoyed the ranch lifestyle which led me to work for the ranch for 23 yrs.

Azine:  At the concert, you and the other musicians seemed to have a real reverence both for Hawaii and all its natural beauty and for the Hawaiian culture.  How do you think the revival of slack key music relates to preserving and protecting Hawaii's history and culture? 

Sonny: Well, if you really look at Hawaii's history Slack Key is the first music of Hawaii.  Before the guitar and ukulele came to Hawaii it was all drum and chants.  It is really great for me to be a part of the resurgence of Slack Key.  I feel that I am a product of the great Slack Key Masters that came before me and I honor them by continuing to play and teach to keep the circle going.

Azine: What direction do you see your music, and the music of other slack key artists, going into in the future?

Sonny: As for me, I will continue playing traditional Slack Key and do some contemporary styles also.  I see Slack Key heading in many different directions, I think the art can be applied to all styles of music and is being used by artists in Hawaii for Jazz, Reggae etc.

Azine: Do you have any new CD’s or projects you want people to know about? 

 I am working on projects for other people right now and doing a recording of my Mom (Mary Ann) - she’s doing a solo project of her favorite songs and maybe after that I will start on a new Slack Key project of my own and a new Lim Family project.