Known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance Man,” slack key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr. is the driving force behind the celebrated Slack Key Show and its touring counterpart The Masters of Hawaiian Music. George caught up with us via email to discuss the history of the slack key guitar tradition and how it continues to influence new music.
See the Masters of Hawaiian Music: George Kahumoku Jr, Led Kaapana and Jeff Peterson on Saturday, February 20 in Daniels Hall.
How would you describe slack key guitar to a novice?
George: Slack key guitar came to Hawaii in 1830 via the Spanish speaking vaquero who came to help manage the wild herds of cattle by day on the big island of Hawaii, where I was born and raised.
At night the vaquero shared their music. They brought three different guitars with them. They brought the guitarro or four string bass, a six string cat gut for playing rhythm, and a four string tenor guitar for playing lead. In 1832 their contract ended and they left behind a few guitars and they left the islands. My great grandfather was one of the few who ended up with the Spanish guitars. My grandfather and other Native Hawaiians combined three guitars into one and slackened the strings to open tunings to match their voices playing bass, rhythm and lead all on one guitar. What makes Hawaiian slack key solo guitar unique is playing bass, rhythm and lead. Many others play guitars with open or slacked tunings playing rhythm or lead but not all three, bass, rhythm and lead.
How did you come to embrace slack key guitar playing? Did you encounter it when you were young? Were you influenced by family or a local community, or were there popular entertainers who influenced you?
George: I was born into Hawaiian family who were paniolo – cowboys, fishermen and farmers. Our family played music and prepared and shared food at all our family celebrations and gatherings. I grew up in a house hold with 26 cousins, aunties, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents living together in a close-knit family village and compound with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.
Is there a particular slack key tuning you prefer? If so, why do you like that tuning?
George: I tune to my voice usually to an Eb tuning and occasionally use my great grandfather’s D Wahine tuning tuned to C. Because I have a weekly show and play with other artists who play guitar as well as ukulele, I now Play a CFCFAC taro patch F tuning that I can play in any key. Ukulele layers and guitar players have a hard time plying in Eb.
How has slack key guitar influenced non-Hawaiian forms of music? Have you found the music or its influence turn up in any places that surprised you?
George: I’ve played with and listened to many other artists who play open tunings such as Jerry Garcia, Jesse Collin Young, Elvin Bishop, B.B. King, Bob Brozeman music from South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, blues and country western guitarists. Again what makes slack key music unique is the thumb picking bass, and other fingers playing rhythm and lead. Other genres play lead or rhythm, but lack the steady thumb bass.
Finally, as creative forces behind The Slack Key Show: Masters of Hawaiian Music, how do you see the music evolving, and what does that direction mean for the future of Hawaiian music at large?
George: I teach and mentor young kids and adults all the time. I see slack key as a foundation for the next generation of artists. I have a student Russell Steinberg, for example, who comes from a classical guitar tradition who lives in LA. As a composer, songwriter, I hear him incorporating bass rhythm and Hawaiian turn-arounds in his own music, using Hawaiian Wahi Pana or place names for his songs.
I also have been mentoring a 15-year-old vocalist singer-songwriter Anthony Pfluke on Maui with slack key guitar and 18-year-old Shem Kahawai. Again we use a bridge to learn our traditional Hawaiian Masters of Hawaiian music songs, then let loose on creativity by letting new songs be born out of our various tunings and traditions.
This interview was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.