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slack key

Willie K. at The Triple Door in Seattle

There is no doubt in my mind that Hawaiian music is best served live. Sure, there are some swell CDs out there, and no, I really can’t name any of them (except for that one Iz CD; do NOT get the orchestra remix, it is not good) even though I have a passing beginner’s vocabulary with the pantheon of slack key and ukulele greats. Here is the thing about seeing Hawaiian music live: it is about so much more than the music.

Willie K. is kind of an amazing guitarist and he plays a mean ukulele too. And while at one point, I stood on the rail of my bar stool just so I could be sure it was still one guy up there, and at another, I closed my eyes so I could just kind of wrap all that sound around me, it was the funny story telling and the history and hey, there are about 97 different musicians inside that big Hawaiian guy up there!

I loved hearing Willie K talk about the history of ukulele music, how the uke came from the Portuguese and the Hawaiians couldn’t wait for them to leave so they could steal that sound. And how Hawaiian music is so much more than the uke, it’s the church choir and the sound of hapa haole music written in New York and oh, those Spanish rhythms and so much more. And I loved how he passed along his gratitude for Bruddah Iz’s world famous version of Over the Rainbow because now, he doesn’t have to play Tiny Bubbles anymore. I loved hearing Willie K talk about country music and the first time he met Willie Nelson and I laughed through his version of Crazy as done by Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson at karaoke.

There was a lot more, of course, a song called Molokai Woman, and a version of Dennis Kamakahi’s Pua Hone, and a lot of tunes I can’t name because I know maybe three Hawaiian songs by name, and maybe a dozen by melody and then, there are just hundreds upon hundreds that I don’t know, of course. But I love the sound of a Hawaiian guitar and my affection for the uke runs deep. And I liked the sort of craziness Willie K brings to the stage, a staggering array of style and voice. It’s almost a kind of mania — wait, is that Led Zeppelin, I know that riff! — but it’s wildly entertaining, a complicated I can do anything approach to Hawaiian music that makes your ears wonder what just happened and wow, what else is in there?

I can’t imagine getting this kind of vibe from a CD, and while not all the Hawaiian shows I’ve seen are busting with this kind of energy, they are all full of that great story telling and humor. I think that’s a huge part of what’s entertaining about Hawaiian music, it’s the back story, the time my uncle and once I was in Israel and hey, this is totally showoffy but check in out, all the local girls… it’s the space between the tracks and that stuff isn’t on the CD, you have to go see the shows live.

There are a series of Hawaiian shows coming up at The Triple Door. The calendar page includes an option to search for Hawaiian music shows. Go check one out. And Willie K’s website, which includes some videos that do no justice to his live show, is here.

Iz, Gabby, and the Sounds of Hawaii

Big Iz’s “Over the Rainbow” is an iconic ukulele track –it’s often the first thing folks ask me to play when they learn I have a uke. If you’ve heard the full track — it slid into U.S. consciousness a few years back via a toy store advertisement — then you’ve heard the bit at the beginning where Iz says, in his perfect, soft voice, “K, this one’s for Gabby.”

Iz is referring to Gabby Pahinui. Even though Gabby died in 1980,he’s credited with being the master of slack key. You can take his title as the father of Hawaiian music more literally, too: three of his sons, Cyril, Martin, and Bla are recording artists. For me, Cyril’s sweet falsetto and the sound of slack key guitar evoke the islands like nothing else. I’ve had the good fortune to see Cyril Pahinui on the mainland and in the islands — he’s often on tour with Led Kaapana, another slack key super genius.

If you want the academic take, Dancing Cat records has A Brief History of Slack Key that includes a lot of arcane information about tunings and the harmonics and why it’s called slack key. But I’d skip all that and go straight for the the sound of the rain on Maui, the surf, the wind, and Hi’ilawe.