give us some slack • ki ho‘alu hawaiian slack key guitar festival

Who knew that wild cattle roaming on the Big Island would lead to one of Hawai‘i’s most beloved musical genre? When England gifted King Kamehameha III with a herd of cattle, a kapu was placed by the King to protect them. The cows eventually became a nuisance and, in 1832, the king brought vaqueros or cowboys from Mexico and Spain to help teach the Hawaiians how to herd the overpopulated livestock.

At night, the vaqueros and paniolos, Hawaiian cowboys, would gather around the campfire and play their guitars, singing songs about the day’s hard work and the beauty of their surroundings. It was said that when the vaqueros returned to the mainland a few years later, they left their guitars with their newfound paniolo friends. The paniolos remembered some basics but developed a style of their own, and ki ho‘alu or slack key guitar music was born.

On June 27, thousands will gather at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s events lawn to celebrate this Hawaiian tradition. Milton Lau, the founder and producer of the Ki Ho‘alu Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival created the event in 1982 as a tribute to Gabby “Pops” Pahinui, the father of modern slack key. Rising from a humble and impoverished childhood and into an international musical success, Pahinui is credited for taking slack key music worldwide, particularly during the Hawaiian cultural renaissance in the 1960’s. When he passed away in 1980 from a heart attack, Lau felt the need to commemorate not only his contributions to the music but also the cultural pride that he instilled among the younger generations.

“When we started, it was a one-time thing to honor him and the great guys who have passed on at the time,” said Lau. “When it was done, we couldn’t let it go. We thought, okay, we’ll try again. We’d just go year to year. So many people supported the festival.” Bank of Hawaii came on board on its third year as a major sponsor and stayed on for 18 years. When the sponsorship ended, the festival was in danger of not existing anymore. Other community groups stepped in and stepped up with the needed resources, one of which is the MACC.

“We decided the festival was too important for it not to happen,” said Art Vento, executive vice president of operations for the MACC. “…that we will find a way to make sure it happens on Maui through sponsorships, and that we will be the ones to present it. We’ve gotten support from The Maui News, Hawaii Tourism Authority, and other community brokers.”

“As a cultural event, it’s important for us to embrace this festival so much so that it’s one of our signature events. It’s a unique and special way to highlight the incredible talent that we have here.” Other signature events include the ‘Ukulele Festival and the Hawaiian Storytelling Festival. Despite the recent challenges from the economy’s downturn, the festival has remained free for all attendees. “We don’t charge any money and everyone thought we were nuts but that’s not the spirit that the festival was based on,” Lau said. “Gabby always said he would rather give music away, and because of that spirit, it exposed the genre all over the country.”

The first event was in Waimanalo, Oahu, Pahinui’s hometown, then moved to Honolulu. After its 10th year, the festival traveled to the other islands, so 2010 marks its 19th year on Maui. The festival has also spread its wings to the mainland having graced stages in Seattle, California, Portland, Las Vegas and more. And although his energy is presently focused on the local events, Lau plans to re-establish the mainland festivals in 2012 after its 30th year. The events have also reached international status, having traveled to Japan, Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Each festival attracts about 3,000 to 5,000 guests, and more than 1,500 annual visitors plan their vacations around it. “It proves that the arts can be an economic engine and a positive element to the visitor industry as well,” said Vento. “We try to track folks from the raffle drawings. We are able to see who are coming to the festival and it’s a nice blend of locals and visitors.”

“Attendance continues to increase over the years. They stay all day or a few hours. The lawn is consistently full but not overly full. So as the festival continues to grow, there’s always a spot on the lawn and people scoot in their blankets to make room for the neighbors. It’s all laid-back and wonderful, sharing space rather than staking their claim. The busier it gets, the more people make room.”

So far, fifteen artists are confirmed to fill the beautiful day with six hours of sweet, soulful sounds of slack key guitar. From Grammy winner and another slack key pioneer, George Kahumoku Jr., to the new wave of slack key guitarists, Makana and Walter Keale, guests will enjoy the music in all its colorful styles and evolutions.

“You get everything in between because all the players bring a different twist,” shared Vento. “You have George Kahumoku who brings a traditional style and has brought slack key music to the masses through his compilations albums. Then, there’s Makana, who started playing very young. The guitar was bigger than him, and he was known as the ki ho‘alu kid, a protégé of Sonny Chillingworth. He would be part of these festivals. And as he had matured both as a person and artist, he took the tuning and the knowledge to develop a whole style and does contemporary rock and funk. He used the intricate sound to evolve into other genres.”

In addition to the music, there are local crafters, ‘ono grinds, a raffle, and various giveaways in between performances. Mayor Charmaine Tavares has declared the week leading to the festival as Slack Key Guitar Week. Every year, George Kahumoku Jr. puts together slack key guitar workshops for the youth. They get to learn from some amazing teachers who will likely perform at the festival, and best of all, the students are part of the program. “They become ambassadors for the art, putting what they have learned immediately on stage, a wonderful culmination for the week,” Vento added.

“For everybody that is visiting Maui, the event and the art form are very accessible,” said Vento. “The MACC is easy to get to and the music is very accessible to those who might or might not know what the slack key guitar is. It’s a homerun of a recommendation and it gives visitors a glimpse of the culture of the place they’re visiting, something deeper than the beauty of the place. Come for the music and get the complete experience.”

19th Annual Ki Ho‘alu Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival Artist Line-up:
George Kahumoku, Stephen Inglis, Makana, Kevin and Ikaika Brown, Dennis Kamakahi, Jeff Peterson, Bobby Moderow, Paul Togioka, David Kahiapo, LT Smooth, Donald Kaulia, Brother Noland, Dwight Kanae, Patrick Ladeza, Walter Keale.

— eliza escano

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