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He Needs to Get Lei'd: Kahumoku has become an ambassador of the Hawaiian sound.

Mahalo, Amigos!

In concert and in the classroom, George Kahumoku Jr. is schooling slack-key fans about the twisted Spanish roots of Hawaiian music

By Jeff Kaliss

Santa Cruz is known for attracting more than its fair share of visiting Hawaiian musicians. Many of them travel hundreds of miles across the Pacific just to come to this town, because they know the longtime presence of local label Dancing Cat made this area a safe haven for slack-key guitar.

But when noted guitarist George Kahumoku Jr. plays the Mello Center Feb. 8, he'll travel about 50 feet. That's because Kahumoku is currently serving as artist-in-residence at Watsonville High School, home of the Mello. A native of Honolulu who learned guitar, traditional music and the Hawaiian language within his much-extended ohana (the native word for family) on the islands of Oahu and Hawaii, Kahumoku is known not only for his virtuoso musicianship, but for his skill as a classroom teacher.

In fact, students from across the globe will flock to Maui in mid-June for Kahumoku's Sixth Annual Slack Key Workshop, where Nancy Seeney, his girlfriend and the sister of George Winston, will perform both administrative services and hula. They'll be joined by Dennis Kamakahi, Cyril Pahinui and Kahumoku's own son Keoki, a representative of the next generation of masters of the slack-key style.

Strumming his sonorous 12-string, Kahumoku translates the phrase "Ha ia mai ana kapu ana," which blooms in the last verse of most Hawaiian lyrics.

"Ha means breath," says Kahumoku, "so it's 'Tell the story, let the kapu--or the sacredness of the song--be released, so that it can be passed from generation to generation."

Kahumoku is doing his part, despite an extended absence from his homeland. After his Dancing Cat debut in 1997, Kahumoku saw his mainland notoriety and income expand to the point that it made good sense to take up several years' residence in Santa Cruz. From here, he's been concertizing across the United States while furthering his own education by pursuing a graduate degree in education. And he's missing home, but he's also helping spread the Spirit of Aloha.

Guitar Banditos

At his Mello Center show, he'll perform with William Faulkner, a maestro of the Mexican arpa jalisciense (Jalisco harp), whom he met through Auntie Nora Galiza, who hosts Hawaiian music on KHDC out of Salinas. When Faulkner and Kahumoku share each other's repertoires, they'll be completing a cycle of sorts, for it was from this part of Mexican California in the 1830s that the first cowboys, called vaqueros, set sail for Hawaii to help King Kamehameha III deal with herds of English cattle who'd begun to overpopulate the islands.

The vaqueros were dubbed paniolos by the Hawaiians, who became enamored of the visitors' guitars, some of which they left behind when they returned to the mainland a few years later. The Hawaiians retuned the instruments so that, when struck, they'd sound in dulcet "open" chords suited to accompany the ancient style of island vocalization. This involved loosening, or slacking, some of the strings, which they called kis. The term "slack key" came to refer not only to the special open tunings, but also to a highly decorative style of plucking and fretting the guitar.

Kahumoku includes in his repertoire the songs of one of the earliest and most famous exponents of slack key, Queen Lili'uokalani, who continued to compose such famous melodies as "Aloha Oe" after she was deprived of her monarchy and put under house arrest by the U.S. government in 1893.

It wasn't until the middle of the next century that any effort was made to record songs in the special tunings, slack-key style, or the Hawaiian language, which had been guarded as family secrets by the Kahumokus and other natives, to be shared at pa'inas (rites of passage parties) and at back porch gatherings. Gabby Pahinui, the harbinger and mentor for modern slack key, began moving the guitar from the supportive role of voice and hula accompaniment to a virtuoso showcase of its own.

In the mid-1980s, Dancing Cat founder George Winston discovered that the sound of slack key vibed with the feeling of his own blithe piano musings, which had helped establish the Windham Hill label and the associate

George Kahumoku Jr. appears with Jalisco harpist William Faulkner and ukulele player Michelle Kiba at the Mello Center at Watsonville High School at 7pm on Feb. 8. Call 831.763.4047 for tickets.

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From the February 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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