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No Slack of Paradise

Dennis Kamakahi
Slack Key-er Than Thou: Singer, songwriter and slack key master Rev. Dennis Kamakahi brings a sunny style of island music to Palookaville on Friday.

Smack in the middle of the wettest Santa Cruz winter in decades, slack key legends George Kuo and Rev. Dennis Kamakahi bring the real spirit of Hawai'i to Palookaville's door

By Traci Hukill

HAWAIIAN CHEESE IS legendary. Screaming aloha shirts and matching mu'umu'us, tins of mac nuts sold for their weight in gold, the same syrupy-sweet strains of steel guitar dripping from the PA system in every airport, restaurant and store--all bespeak the tourist industry's unswerving devotion to schlock.

But they're not fooling the Hawaiians. From Ka'u in the south of the Big Island to Ha'ena in the north of Kaua'i, folks still come home from work, plop down on the couch with their guitars, tune them ki ho'alu style--Hawaiian for "slack the key"--and settle in for an evening of playing music and talking story. A lilting, relaxing style that fuses elements from folk, country, 'ukulele and good ol' campfire music, slack key has been around for 150 years and just keeps gaining popularity.

Slack key owes its existence to a few quirky circumstances. In 1832, King Kamehameha III hired Spanish and Mexican cowboys to control a cattle population run amok on the Big Island. The paniolos, as the Hawaiians called them (from español), brought guitars and played them around campfires at night. After they'd taught the Hawaiians the best of their cowboyish arts in the way of cattle damage control, they returned home, some generous souls leaving their guitars behind with the Hawaiians. The official word is that the islanders adapted the tunings to their own music. In the un-PC and more entertaining version, however, no one remembered to show the Hawaiians how to tune their new instruments, and so sprang up a number of creative region-specific tunings that eventually assumed such whimsical names as "Wahine," "Taro Patch" and "Mauna Loa."

Until the '70s ushered in a resurgence in cultural pride and encouraged the slack key masters like Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs to go public with their considerable knowledge, slack key was steeped in secrecy. Families so jealously guarded tunings and techniques that performers used to turn their backs to tune their guitars. Today the tunings for each song are listed in the CD jewel case jacket, and would-be slack key players can take university classes or learn from how-to videos and books.

George Kuo has been playing slack key since the '70s, the height of the so-called Hawaiian Renaissance. Picking up tips from buddies and later from masters like Ray Kane and Pahinui, Kuo developed a silvery, precise, almost cerebral style of playing that nods to the old school of the '30s and '40s even as it flirts with jazz and improv, especially when he's playing with his part-time band, the Sons of Hawaii. "But we don't go overboard," insists the soft-spoken Kuo. "We try to keep it the old style."

Rev. Dennis Kamakahi, who really is an ordained Episcopalian minister, although he only presides "when they need the help," enjoys the distinction of being one of Hawaii's most popular songwriters. His song "Wahine 'Ilikea" splashed across the islands when the now-defunct Hawaiian Style Band recorded a pop version of the song in the early '90s. Like Kuo, Kamakahi started young, practicing his first chops on a 'ukulele as a tyke of 3 and moving on to slack key in high school. Kamakahi's style of playing is warm and vibrant, each song a soulful consideration, but it's perhaps as a vocalist that he's best loved.

Both performers play with Eddie Kamae's Sons of Hawaii and have toured the West Coast several times in the past seven years. And, of course, possessing impeccable taste, they agree that Santa Cruz is a great place to play.

"Santa Cruz is one of my favorites," reflects Kuo in a mellifluous voice so languid I can feel the Polynesian paralysis setting in just listening. "People there have a real appreciation for slack key."

Kamakahi puts it a different way. "Every time I go to Santa Cruz it's like I was here in another life. Must be that ocean air."

The Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival begins with a Hawaiian feast at 7:30pm and music at 9pm on Friday at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., SC (454-0600). Tickets cost $14 at the door and $12.50 in advance.

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From the January 30-February 5, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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