Primo Hawaiian Buds

Slack-key guitarists bring sounds of Hawaii to the Sonoran desert.

"Obviously there's interest in Tucson in Hawaiiana," said impresario Don Gest, who brought Keola Beamer to a well-attended Berger Performing Arts Center gig in 1999. Keola returns January 24, headlining the 17-city Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Tour 2002, joined by hula dancer/wife Moana and slack key masters George Kahumoku Jr. and Ozzie Kotani. The selling out of the 475-seat venue several days ahead of its weeknight performance underscores the In Concert! executive director's point.

Indeed, Tucson has two Hawaii associations composed of Native Hawaiian and other "local" transplants, plus tourists, military personnel formerly posted at the 50th state and others with Island ties. About 12 Tucson families belong to the Hui Ohana Hawaiian club. The 40-member Tucson Polynesian Society gathers Lei Days (May 1) for the annual Ernie Menehune golf tournament and luau.

Society president Menehune (Hawaiian for a kind of leprechaun) is an 80-ish entertainer, landscaper and ex-Old Tucson Studios extra from Kauai. The whimsical Menehune built a Polynesian oasis on five acres of desert near Tucson. His man-made lagoon is ringed by palms, thatched roofs, tikis and peacocks. Lei Day luaus have taken place there, complete with kalua pig and a Polynesian revue featuring Menehune and Halau Hula O' Ualani (Menehune's dance troupe). The tournament and luau raised funds for the halau, which has performed at Tucson venues such as Ye Olde Lantern restaurant, and teaches hula. The group isn't 100-percent Hawaaian, though; dancer Christine Colmenero, a Yaqui, says she feels Indians and Islanders are kindred spirits.

Hawaiian Julie Pauahi Johnston, treasurer of Ho` Aikane Promotions--which presents Hawaiian concerts--says Phoenix is another Hawaiiana hotbed, with up to 2,000 Island transplants. Phoenix has Lau Kanaka, a Hawaiian club with 400 members, plus Hawaiian canoe and golf clubs. Phoenix's annual March Aloha Festival includes booths selling Hawaiiana products such as laulau (pork or fish wrapped in taro leaf) and Aloha shirts, attracting thousands from as far away as California.

Some Island expatriates relocate for adventure or to drier climes for health reasons. But most move to the mainland seeking education and employment. Hawaii's decade-long recession increased the outflux of economic refugees, forced out by the high cost of living and land, inability to purchase homes, low wages and bleak career possibilities. But a bad economy has not soured them on the culture and beauty of their tropical homeland, and Tucson's smallest minority group keeps its distinct way of life alive through cuisine, fashion and, above all, Hawaiian music.

"There's a common theme of love for Hawaii; from the West to Chicago to New York there's enclaves of people who just love the music," says Keola. "Ki ho'alu, or Hawaiian slack key guitar, is a marvelous and interesting way we tune our guitar and a definite style of playing in those tunings." Slack key is to Hawaii what flamenco is to Spain, or the blues is to African-Americans. Introduced to Hawaiians in the 1830s by vaqueros--Spanish and Mexican cowboys--the resonant strumming of these loosened nylon strings is a unique cultural adaptation of guitar playing, expressing Hawaii's soul.

"Each player has his own unique style," often handed down one generation to another, says Keola. The Beamers' musical heritage dates back to 15th-century Hawaii, and Keola describes the family style as "lyrical; a coloratura form, the melody is very expansive. The chord structures are ... more sophisticated and complex than the standard one, four, five in most Hawaiian music."

Big Islander Amador Joaquin e-sells Aloha State sounds at and declares, "Keola's my favorite slack key artist. Listening to him in concert is like mixing Hawaiian history, music and dance together. Keola leaves you breathless."

"Hawaiian Cowboy" is one of the Polynesian picker's hits. Keola grew up on the Big Island, where America's largest private ranch is, and as in Arizona, paniolo ("cowboy") culture is important in Hawaii. On this tour, Keola is performing solo instrumentals--such as "Papa's Okolehau," about his grandfather's pineapple homebrew--from Soliloquoy or Ka Leo O Loko, his new Dancing Cat-released CD.

On January 8 the label also released Ozzie Kotani's To Honor a Queen, or E Ho'ohiwahiwa I Ka Mo'I Wahine. Ironically, the guitarists' coast-to-coast tour debuted January 17--the anniversary of Queen Lili'uokalani's overthrow in a U.S.-backed 1893 coup. A gifted composer, her most famous song, "Aloha 'Oe," is an unconscious prediction of a deposed monarch bidding farewell to her kingdom. Ozzie's wizardry brings Lili'uokalani's compositions alive, with mellow four-finger picking solo slack key renditions.

Like his ki ho'alu compatriots, George Kahumoku Jr. cracked Billboard's world music album chart's top 15--Hawaiian Love Songs hit number seven. The 50-ish musician/storyteller plays 12-string guitar, presents slack key workshops and wrote the autobiography A Hawaiian Life.

Keola's signature song is Honolulu City Lights, a poignant ballad with mellifluous music and lyrics Tucson's isle exiles easily relate to: Boarding a jet, a homesick Islander ponders leaving what Mark Twain called "the loveliest fleet of islands ... anchored in any ocean."

Even though the January 24 concert is sold out, Tucsonans can experience a bit of Hawaii without boarding a jet. Some tropical transplants do thrive in the desert.