george kahumoku jr.’s slack-key show: masters of hawaiian music

GeorgeKahumokuSlack-key guitar is nearly as iconic to the Hawaiian Islands as hula, although it’s a much more recent form of expression. No matter where you are, when you hear the dulcet tones of the slack-key guitar you’re instantly transported back to Hawai‘i. Called ki ho‘alu in Hawaiian (“loosen the [tuning] key”), the style originated from Mexican cowboys in the late 19th century. These paniolo taught the Hawaiians the rudiments of playing, and then left, allowing the Hawaiians to develop the style on their own.

Since 2003, George Kahumoku Jr. has been presenting the great slack-key performers of the day in a relaxed venue at the Napili Kai Beach Resort. Dubbed “Masters of Hawaiian Music,” the weekly show has showcased more than 40 different artists since its inception. The kanikapila-style show is hosted by George himself, along with his hanai sons Peter deAquino, Garrett Probst, and Sterling Seaton. Guests can enjoy the show all by itself ($37.99) or combine it with a pre-show dinner at Napili Kai’s Sea House Restaurant ($78.35).

This evening Janet and I are going for the gusto—the dinner/show package. We arrive at the Sea House Restaurant just in time to watch the sun retire for the night behind the calm waters of Napili Bay. To our right, beyond the tiki torches, is an exquisite view of Lana‘i; the golden sand beach to our left lined with low-key condos is reminiscent of days gone by. Abundant ceiling fans create a welcome breeze.

The dinner portion of our package consists of an Island Salad (fresh Upcountry greens, topped with tropical salsa and lilikoi vinaigrette), choice of entrée (from a selection of three), and Pineapple Tiramisu for dessert. Janet is having the Macadamia Nut Fresh Catch (mahi mahi); while I’m going for the Sea House Mixed Grill.

Our salads are indeed fresh, and the tropical salsa provides a nice complement to the greens and veggies. Both of our entrées are generously sized. Janet’s mahi mahi is served atop rice and a sautéed vegetable medley—it’s nicely crusted and moist. My mixed grill is composed of mahi mahi topped with shrimp scampi, herb marinated sirloin steak, mashed red potatoes, and the vegetable medley. The pineapple tiramisu is a nice finish to our meal: pineapple layered cake is garnished with pineapple mascarpone cream, fruit relish, and a guava and mango purée.

Afterwards, we make our way to the Aloha Pavilion for the slack-key show. George welcomes us, and explains that Da Ukulele Boyz (Peter and Garrett) will be unable to make it tonight due to an accident that has closed the highway. Known as Hawai‘i’s Renaissance Man, George is a farmer, author, visual artist, and bronze sculptor, as well as a Grammy Award-winning slack-key guitar master. He opens the show with a lovely rendition of “Aloha ‘Oe,” by Queen Lili‘uokalani, which showcases his impressive guitar skills and mellifluous voice.

On his next number, George wows us with his acoustical guitar version of “Maori Brown Eyes.” His humorous, mostly spoken song “36-Mile Marker,” pays homage to his first home on Maui, where he landed after spending six months at the Westin. It speaks of landmarks encountered on the drive north from Ka‘anapali like the sugar cane train, the “fragrance” from the sewage plant, and McDonald’s, before arriving at Honokohau Valley: “Finally, I’m home at the 36-mile marker.” George closes his set with “Ka Makani Ka‘ili Aloha” by Gabby Pahinui, written about Waipi‘o Valley, and featured in the soundtrack from the movie “The Descendants.” For this song, George is joined on stage by a hula dancer in a purple dress with gold lei who mesmerizes us with her grace and elegance.

Tonight’s featured performer is Grand Master of Slack Key Ledward Kaapana. Janet and I are “Led Heads,” and we picked this evening to attend the show specifically to see him perform. He’s a substantial man dressed in a turquoise and white aloha shirt, black pants, startling red cowboy boots, and his trademark straw hat with brown band. His boyish grin lights up the pavilion.

Led has been a professional musician for over 40 years. His mastery of stringed instruments, and extraordinary baritone and leo ki‘eki‘e (falsetto) voice, have made him a musical legend. His easy-going style and charm make him a favorite of audiences around the world. Led grew up in a musical family living the small village of Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawai‘i where he says there were few distractions. “We didn’t have electricity, television, or even much radio, so we entertained ourselves,” he says. “You could go to any house and everybody was playing music.”

Led opens his set with a lovely rendition of “Hi‘ilawe.” His powerful baritone fills the pavilion during the verses, while he demonstrates his impressive falsetto skills on the chorus. Next he performs a tribute to the island of Kaua‘i with the song “Koke‘e,” written by the Reverend Dennis Kamakahi. It’s amazing how Led can play a complicated guitar riff while singing, and the chorus of this song has a curious yodeling quality to it (it’s thought that yodeling was introduced to Hawaiians by 19th century immigrants, much like slack-key guitar).

Staying with the Kaua‘i theme, Led next performs “Hanalei Moon” by Robert Nelson. Assisted by the lovely hula dancer with the radiant smile, Led croons, “When you see Hanalei by moonlight, you will be in heaven by the sea.” Yes, it’s heaven indeed.

Before wowing the crowd with his closing number, an instrumental entitled “Whee Ha Swing,” Led spends some time adjusting his tunings. “Sometimes you tune for ten minutes and you only play for two minutes,” he jokes. It’s easy to see why he’s chosen this piece to showcase his guitar prowess: “hecklers” in the audience egg him on after each chorus by shouting “faster!” And faster he goes each time, until he nearly brings down the house! Whee ha!

After a short intermission, we’re back inside the pavilion for more music. Had Da Ukulele Boyz been able to make it, they most likely would have entertained us with songs like the catchy “G Minor Fleas” from their CD recorded live at the Slack-Key Show. George’s hanai sons Garrett and Peter have been performing together for 14 years since they were children who won the Maui ‘Ukulele Contest year after year. “Musicians like Uncle George and Uncle Led have been playing this kind of music since before I was brought into this world,” says Garrett. “To be playing with them regularly is mind-blowing.” Adds Peter: “Uncle George has so much knowledge that he’s willing to share. And patience…you have to be patient with Garrett and me.”

The thoroughly enjoyable evening closes with Sterling Seaton, George’s other hanai son. Sterling is the sound engineer for the show, but he has some mean guitar skills himself, which he demonstrates with “Da One with Da Minor.” “I feel so lucky to play with all these heavy hitters,” he says.

And we’re lucky to have all of this remarkable talent converging upon Maui every week at the Slack-Key Show.

It’s positively not to be missed.

–heidi pool

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