Honolulu Advertiser News

Sharp and major — that’s slack key

The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 19, 2001

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

KEHENA, Hawai’i — Hamden, Conn., is a long way from the shores of Hawai’i, and Sarah Whitaker was feeling a bit isolated because there wasn’t another soul nearby who shared her passion for slack-key guitar.

Hawaiian Music New York

From left, George Kahu-moku Jr., Ozzie Kotani and Keola Beamer are slack key masters.Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

In fact, the only other person she could find who played the uniquely Hawaiian music form was two states away in New Jersey.
That’s why Whitaker, 45, a medical computer graphic illustrator at Yale University, was elated to be at Keola Beamer’s first-ever Aloha Music Camp last week on the Big Island.

“There’re so many things going on, you wish you didn’t have to sleep,” she said. “For us, living so far away in Connecticut, it’s wonderful to be in a group of people where everybody knows what you are talking about.”

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Slack Key Guitar New York

What Is Slack Key Guitar?

Kī hōʻalu, which literally means “loosen the key,” is a uniquely Hawaiian folk tradition born in the 1800s. Slack key guitar is often confused with and actually pre-dates the more well known Hawaiian lap steel that developed in the late 1880s or 1890s. Slack key was developed by Hawaiian cowboys who “slacked” the strings of guitars brought by Mexican and Spanish cowboys hired by King Kamehameha III to teach Hawaiians better ranching methods. Slack key may be played on any type of guitar but most often an acoustic guitar is used. The strings or “keys” are slacked to produce many beautiful tunings. In 2005, the slack key guitar tradition received national exposure when the compilation Slack Key Guitar Vol. 2 won Best Hawaiian Music Album at the 47th Annual GRAMMY Awards. For more information on Hawaiian slack key guitar, read Dancing Cat Production’s Slack Key Information Booklet.

slack key guitar

Slack Key Guitar Tunings

Once closely guarded family secrets, slack key guitar tunings fall into five basic categories: Major, Wahine, Mauna Loa, Niʻihau/Old Mauna Loa and miscellaneous. Tunings were often passed down within a family and unique styles developed within a region of an island. Even today, slack key artists are likely to draw from the traditions of the area where they grew up and from the music of their ʻohana (family.)

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