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.
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.”
Whitaker and other enthusiasts from as far away as Boston, Alaska and Indiana, and as close as Hana, Maui, paid $1,200 apiece, airfare not included, to spend a week at the Kalani Honua Eco-Resort on the Kalapana coast with Beamer and fellow slack-key masters George Kahumoku Jr. and Ozzie Kotani.
And because Hawaiian slack key emerged from Island culture, Beamer brought along others to share their knowledge of hula, the native language, lei-making and storytelling. They included his wife, Moanalani; his mother, famed dancer, singer, composer and Hawaiiana expert Nona Beamer, who celebrated her 78th birthday at the camp; and hanai brother Kaliko Beamer Trapp.
The Aloha Music Camp was organized by Keola Beamer and Mark Nelson, who had collaborated on the first instructional books ever published for slack-key guitar. Nelson said he planned an advertising campaign for the camp, but didn’t need it. The 60 slots were quickly sold out after fliers were sent to those on mailing lists from Beamer’s concerts and from his online instruction program.
The Waimea-born Beamer said workshops he has done on the Mainland left him unfulfilled. “You have three hours and just when you’re making a connection with people and getting some place, it’s over,” he said.
Beamer said that with the Aloha Music Camp, he wanted to provide an “immersion” experience in a retreat-like setting where participants would be exposed to the music’s spiritual and cultural soul.
The slack-key acoustic guitar tradition, with its fingerpick style, is believed to have evolved from the music of Mexican and Spanish cowboys brought to the Islands in the early 1830s by Kamehameha III to teach Hawaiians cattle ranching skills.
The Hawaiian name for slack key is ki ho ‘alu, which literally means “loosen the key.” The strings (or keys) on the guitar are “slacked” to produce different tunings.
Those who signed up for the Aloha Music Camp took different paths to slack key. Many, like Andy Wang, an investment manager in New Jersey, discovered the music while visiting the Islands. For Honolulu-born Rick Wirtz, 62, who now lives in Wailuku, it was a way “to recapture my roots.”
For others, it was pure serendipity.
Atlanta chef Adam Zavodny, 26, said he was browsing the CD racks at a bookstore when he spied a photo of a sweeping sunset on the cover of Beamer’s album “Kolonahe — From the Gentle Wind” and decided to buy it.
Zavodny had never heard of Beamer or Hawaiian slack-key guitar, but was a quick convert. “It was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard,” he said. “The slack-key melodies are so deep.”
Whitaker’s husband, Reid Kaplan, 62, a retired software systems manager at Yale, took up slack key a couple years ago to share his wife’s interest. The couple had visited Hawai’i several times but got their first real dose of slack key at a 1997 lecture by Uncle Sol Kawaihoa at the Bailey House Museum on Maui.
“The music brought tears to my eyes,” said Whitaker, who was moved to pick up a guitar for the first time and seek out instructional materials. She said she came to the Aloha Music Camp to enrich her knowledge of the Hawaiian musical tradition.
“I loved the songs, but I wanted to know what they were saying so I could sing them. Music is only half of the story,” she said.
Kaplan called the camp a “once in a lifetime” experience. “It’s as much emotional and spiritual as it is technical and musical,” he said.
During the weeklong camp, Kaplan attended daily beginner workshops with Beamer, who had only words of encouragement for the novices as they fumbled with intricate finger positions.
“Music is a huge world with infinite possibilities. We’re on the ground floor,” Beamer told the group. “Eventually it will become a house, but now we’re essentially clearing the land, learning what tools to use.”
While stressing the importance of discipline and practice, Beamer indulged the group with heart-felt stories of growing up in his illustrious ‘ohana of music makers, his struggles to learn the slack-key style, and the musicians who guided him, known to even the campers by their first names: Auntie Alice (Namakelua), Ray (Kane), Sonny (Chillingworth), Leonard (Kwan) and Gabby (Pahinui).
Beamer told the story of going to a family party in Nu’uanu when he was 9 and hearing strains of beautiful music — “silk in the air,” he called it — coming from a neighbor’s house.
“I had never heard one guy playing by himself. I was used to hearing music by a whole bunch of people together in a celebration of life and love,” he said.
The young Beamer followed the soulful tune down the street, where he found a shirtless man sitting on a Wesson oil can playing a beat-up, old guitar. The boy was overwhelmed by the music, but when he came out of the bushes and sat down on the ground beside the man to listen some more, the man stopped playing and turned his back on the child, signaling that the music was pau, not to be shared.
“It broke my heart,” Beamer recalled. “I wasn’t asking him for anything. I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Beamer, 50, used the story as an example of how musicians of his generation and before had to fight to gain knowledge of slack key, before there was written music and other aids.
“You had to find a mentor, a kumu who felt you were worthy of passing stuff along to … ,” he said. “It was a true apprenticeship.”
He also tried to convey to his students the “mystical” nature of slack-key guitar.
Along with the physical reality of trees, rocks and the ocean, he said, is an ” ‘aumakua level of existence” comprising the spirits of ancestors.
“This is where our inspiration comes from,” he said. “It’s something bigger than yourself. The music doesn’t come from you, but through you …
“If you’re lucky, the guitar begins to disappear and pretty soon it’s you and the music.”
The sessions with Kotani and Kahumoku were much the same: half music instruction, half talk-story.
Responding to questions from his group, Kahumoku described how his family gathered food for parties from the land and the sea, how to eat ‘opihi, what it was like to fish from canoes, and whether you could get really drunk on ‘okolehao, a liquor distilled from the ti root.
Invariably, the stories rambled back to the music. Kahumoku, whose father was noted slack-key musician George Kahumoku Sr., said he and the other youngsters were forbidden to touch the adults’ guitars and ‘ukulele, but they would bide their time when ‘okolehao was being served.
“The old folks would suck ’em up and pass out,” he said. “That’s when we grab the instruments and go play.”
Kotani said the Aloha Music Camp took him “full circle.” It was Beamer’s music that first inspired him to pick up a guitar soon after graduating from Roosevelt High School in 1974. Now, he is returning the favor by teaching slack key through a number of venues.
Beamer said he is comfortable with his transition to the role of kumu and enjoyed the camp more than he expected. “When people have a sincere thirst for understanding of this thing, it reminds you so much of your own quest. That’s why we get a bit sentimental,” he said.
Next summer’s Aloha Music Camp is planned for Aug. 12-18, with an Aloha Music Weekend on April 18-21, also at Kalani Honua.
Reach Christie Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (808) 244-4880.
Corrections: A previous version of this story misnamed Aloha Music Camp organizer Mark Nelson. Also, Sarah Whitaker’s name was misspelled.