Slack Is Back 

A bit of Hawaii is arriving in Tucson, thanks to George Kahumoku Jr. and friends

George Kahumoku Jr. lives on his sprawling ranch in Maui, surrounded by goats and chickens and family. The place is shaded by green mountains and is only a short drive away from the beach--so you might wonder why in the world he would want to leave paradise to tour the mainland playing Hawaiian slack-key guitar.

But he does so often. Kahumoku estimates he has done about 20 concert tours over the last 35 years. For many years, he toured at the whims of other promoters. But several years ago, he and a few partners started a company to release albums and coordinate tours.

"At most places in Hawaii, if you play slack-key guitar, you perform in a bar or at a buffet. We wanted to expand and start playing arts centers. This is our sixth year of doing this deal."

"This deal" is the Hawaiian Treasures Celebration Tour, which will visit Tucson for a concert Saturday, March 28, at the Rialto Theatre. On the bill will be Kahumoku, Dennis Kamakahi and Richard Ho'opi'i.

Kahumoku said taking the reins of his music career was a defining moment. Not only has it led to the Hawaiian Treasures tour, but it's given birth to four best-selling albums, some of which won Grammy Awards.

"We first recorded the show we did on the Big Island and in Maui, mostly to archive it, you know, but a friend of ours said, 'This stuff is really good stuff, and you should put an album out,'" Kahumoku said over the phone from his Maui ranch. "And our first one was nominated for a Grammy and won. There are four albums so far in the series."

The slack-key guitar style was developed in the Hawaiian Islands long before they became a state. The style evolved over a couple of hundred years, thanks to the influences of European sailors, as well as Mexican and Argentine cowboys who were brought to the islands to control an overpopulation of cattle in the 1830s, said Kahumoku.

"When the Latin-American cowboys came over, they brought the traditional instruments (like) the guitarrón, the six-string cat-gut guitar; the thinner guitar with steel strings played the lead. They took the steel strings and put them on the cat-gut guitar, and started the country-Western sound in Hawaii first."

The musical style is called "slack-key," because players loosen the strings on their instruments to create open chords.

"So that way, without even fretting your guitar, you are in a chord already. You don't have to press anything, just strum," Kahumoku said.

The slack-key sound filtered back to the American mainland, following the migrations of the cowboys, eventually influencing the lap-steel guitar of country music.

"It went both ways, really, and you can find it everywhere," he said. "The tunings were the same on the lap steel, and that led eventually to open tunings. I found these same tunings in Argentina. And South Africa has the same bass rhythm and lead patterns, but it's mostly rhythm."

Raised on the big island of Hawaii, Kahumoku comes from a long line of ranchers and musicians. He started playing the ukulele at 3 years old, switching at 8 or 9 to the guitar when his hands grew large enough, he said.

"Between everyone in my family, we played every instrument, including accordions and pianos. My great-grandfather was one of the original (slack-key) guys, and we've all been cowboys or ranchers."

The pioneers of slack-key guitar also include Gabby Pahinui and his clan, Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan and Ray Kane. A new generation of slack-key players has come to prominence since the 1970s, including Keola Beamer, Led Kaapana and Peter Moon.

Also significant in the contemporary slack-key movement are Kahumoku's partners on the current concert tour.

Of Dennis Kamakahi, he said, "He is probably the most well-known of us, and he's easily the best songwriter for this music today. He's as famous in Hawaii as the queen is in England. His songs have become instant classics. He writes in a real old style--he's old-school slack-key."

Richard Ho'opi'i and Kahumoku live near each other on Maui. "He lives his life farming and hunting and fishing, and playing music, after he worked for the city and county for many years," Kahumoku said of his friend.

"And (Ho'opi'i) sings that beautiful, pure Hawaiian falsetto. In old Hawaiian music, women weren't allowed to play music, so the men would sing their parts. This is from the Christian-missionary influence. They came from England to Boston and moved across the mainland to finally come across to Hawaii."

Traveling away from his beloved Hawaii sometimes leaves Kahumoku with mixed feelings.

"Actually, I think audiences appreciate us more on the road than they do at home," he says. "A lot of the Hawaiians here take us for granted; they say, 'Oh, we can always go hear those guys.'

"They don't even want to pay. Everyone wants comp tickets in Hawaii--even more when they are in your extended family. At our shows in the islands, we sell the tickets at, like, $40 a head. But when we played Carnegie Hall, tickets were $100 to $2,000 each."

Although he loves sharing his music with the masses, he always misses certain elements of life at home.

"I was on the road at one time for two years straight. I liked it a lot and made a lot of money, but I miss having contact with my family. And when you are at home, you don't always have to eat at Denny's or the Waffle House."

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