The Descendants: Slack Key Festival continues a tradition that goes back to the ancient kings of Hawaii
Long ago in the backyards and byways of Hawaii a secret music of a sort was played.
Its roots went back to the last kings of Hawaii and to the wandering Portuguese and Mexican cowboys who’d arrived to tend to their cattle. But the style – which later would be called “Slack Key” – was uniquely adapted, family by family, place by place, to become a truly native Hawaiian music. Its intricate guitar tunings were passed on, generation to generation, and the music survived centuries, although few outside Hawaii knew of its existence.
This began to change in the 1940s and 1950s when a musician named Gabby Pahinui became the first man to record slack key guitar. Pahinui worked by day doing pick and shovel work as a laborer in road crews, but beginning with his recording of the traditional slack key song “Hi’ilawe,” he would become a leading figure in the Hawaiian Renaissance, a movement that flowered in the 1970s as Hawaiians reclaimed their native cultural legacy.
Gabby’s own musical legacy is monumental. The warmth and beauty of his playing mirror the islands themselves – he was eventually regarded as among the greatest guitar players to have ever lived, and he almost single-handedly spread Hawaiian to a global audience. By the time he died in 1980, Gabby had taken slack key guitar music around the world and inspired a new generation of musicians – including his son, Cyril, and the famed guitarist Ry Cooder, who’d visited the islands and recorded with Gabby.
And now, from beyond the grave, Gabby is still leading the way. The director Alexander Payne discovered Pahinui’s music while filming his newest movie, The Descendants, in Hawaii, and he fell fully under its sway. He and his music supervisor Dondi Bastone subsequently made the unusual decision to score their film almost entirely with existing music, using several of Gabby’s songs as well of those of other past and present masters of slack key guitar. The soundtrack is the first for a major movie that uses all Hawaiian music and musicians.
“Music plays such an important part in Hawaiian culture that it would have been so ugly of me in a way not to have tried to score it with Hawaiian music,” Payne told KCRW’s Tom Schnabel in an interview in December.
Cyril Pahinui, who arranged much of his father’s later work and who headlines the Southern California Hawaiian Slack Key Festival this Sunday in Redondo Beach, attended the opening of the movie in November. When his father’s guitar drifted through the theater at the outset of the movie, tears flowed from Pahinui’s eyes.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my, Daddy, you made it again,” Pahinui recalled in an interview this week. “We will all carry forward the name Gabby Pahinui.”
In October 1980, shortly after Pahinui passed away, University of Hawaii professor and ethnomusicologist Jay Junker heard about another great master who was living in complete anonymity.
A friend in Honolulu told Junker about the guitar player. He was an old man who lived in a boarding house in the Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu. He was a laborer – a country man who’d moved to the city in his old age – but each night when he came home, he would go to his room, pick up his guitar, and produce the most beautiful sounds imaginable. He would never play if another person was present, but only for himself.
“Man, you gotta hear this guy, but he won’t play for you,” Junker’s friend told him. “He only plays for himself, at night, before he falls asleep. And he’s playing and then you hear this clunk, and then you hear this snoring.”
Junker, who arguably knows more about the history and culture surrounding slack key guitar than anyone else alive, sought out the boarding house. He saw the man come home, stationed himself outside his room, and listened. He was astonished at what he heard.
“It was true,” Junker said. “This guy was just fantastic…He was beautiful, his style.”
Junker came back the next day and introduced himself to the old man. He said he was from the university and would like to record the man’s music.
“Eh?” the man responded. “No. Go away.”
He was shy about his music and didn’t consider himself a musician. The music was something purely personal. Junker never met the man again, and never even learned his name.
Slack key music is presently at its apex of mainstream popularity. The Descendants has exposed the music to millions of new listeners – not only Pahinui, but other artists, past and present, including Ray Kane, Kola Beamer, Sonny Chillingworth, Makana, and Jeff Peterson.
But the old man alone in his room in many ways represents the history of this beguilingly beautiful music.
“I bet you there were a lot of people like that in the old days,” Junker said. “Because there were a lot of people who would not record, and who thought of their music as just what they did, either for the community or for their family or just for themselves. And then there were the people who played music in public. And that is what is so interesting about slack key and its history — the first one came long before the second one. So for many years, almost 100 years, the music was really a private music for the community, for the family, for the individual, and it wasn’t part of the commercial scene.”
Slack key is as fundamentally about place as any music on Earth. In this sense, it makes sense it would serve perfectly as a soundtrack for a movie about Hawaii – so much of the music is very directly about the specific places filmed in The Descendants. There is a specific type of traditional Hawaiian song, in fact, called a “mele pana,” or “song of place.”
“It’s not the way pop music often works, which is songs about love,” said Junker, who was a consultant for the film’s music. “Many Hawaiian songs are also about specific places, and then there might be a deeper meaning under that, that is, about a romance or about a breakup or something. But it’s a clear, direct reference to a specific place, and a description of that place.”
The music in a real sense also still reaches back centuries. Junker tells the story of the master player Raymond Kane, who as slack key began broadening its sound often complained that it was straying from its roots. A fundamental quality of the music is embodied in the term nahenahe, which in Hawaiian means “sweet” but according to Junker carries a deeper connotation meaning “very relaxing.”
“Slack key was developed in Hawaii to put the cattle to sleep,” Kane once told Junker. “These guys are playing so fast they’ll cause a stampede!”
Kane worried that the music was losing this quality.
“That ain’t even slack key,” Kane once told Junker. “He’s playing that ‘old age’ music.
Don’t you mean ‘new age’, uncle?” Junker asked.
“Yeah, yeah – that new age music,” Kane said.
“You know, uncle,” Junker said. “You are playing old age music.”
This was actually a deeply true statement. Kane, Panihui, and even the old man who played for himself in the Honolulu boarding house, were playing a music that reached back to the last kings of Hawaii.
Cowboys and kings
The story of slack key guitar begins, in an odd way, with the arrival of Captain George Vancouver aboard His Majesty’s Ship Discovery in 1793. Things had famously gone awry between the British and the Hawaiians a few years earlier – Captain James Cook died violently on the beach in 1779, although he was not eaten, as the myth goes – but Vancouver’s mission was a peaceful one. He brought Hawaii’s first unifying king, Kamehameha the Great, a gift: a small herd of cattle. Vancouver believed the cattle would be perfect for establishing a little old-fashioned English agriculture on the islands.
It wasn’t a small herd for very long. Kamehameha established a “kapu”, a ban against harming the animals, and allowed them to breed and wander to their heart’s hungry content. By the time the king’s grandson, Kamehameha III, ruled the islands in the 1830s, the herd was so out of control that he sent for Spanish-Mexican and Portuguese “vaqueros” to manage the cattle and teach Hawaiians the fine art of cowboying.
The cowboys brought guitars. They were called “paniolo” (from Espanol) by Hawaiians and trained local men to ride horses and rope cattle well before any cowboys roamed the ranges of the American mainland’s Wild West. And when they left – or didn’t, as some vaqueros chose to stay in Hawaii – the newly established paniolo way of life included cowboy music that the locals made their very own. Hawaiian music up until this point mainly consisted of chants. As the locals adapted the guitar to their own sensibilities, the music that emerged had a strong vocal quality: the paniolo learned to make their guitars sing.
Hawaiian guitars have been singing ever since. Jeff Peterson, whose music is also featured in “The Descendants” and who will appear in Redondo Beach Sunday, was growing up in the mountains of Maui in the 1970s when he first heard the songs of the wandering cowboys. His father was a paniolo on the Haleakala Ranch, and some of Peterson’s earliest memories are of his father coming home at midday to play his guitar.
“He’d get up really early, you know, working on the ranch, and he’d come back in the early afternoon,” Peterson recalled. “And the first thing I could hear was boots coming through the wood floor of the old ranch house, ‘clunk, clunk, clunk,’ and I could tell he was back home. He’d have the chaps and the spurs on, the whole thing, but he’d take a break and pick up his guitar. He never played professionally, but he just really loved music.”
The real revelation of what the music meant came to Peterson when his father began taking him on camping trips up in the mountains and the little boy heard the music in its native habitat.
“My father and his friends, they really enjoyed the outdoors, so they would go camping, they would go on fishing trips, and there was a cabin up on the mountain above where we lived,” Peterson said. “It was called the Peanut House because it was so small. No electricity, so all the cowboys would get up there – we’d ride horses up through the pastures to get there – and they’d start a fire and start cooking and break out all the instruments and have a great jam session. That is really where I got inspired to play, just sitting around and watching. I was tiny, about three or four, and all the way up through high school I used to keep going there. I could just see how much fun they were having and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of it.’ But at first I’d just watch, and I think that was a real part of tradition of learning Hawaiian music – it’s a folk tradition, an oral tradition, so you’d just watch and learn. And when they’d be done I’d sneak over and pick up the guitar and pick at it a little bit.”
If the music derives from cowboys, it also still carries forth the melodies written by the Hawaiian kings.
“A lot of songs that are still performed by Hawaiian artists go back generations and generations, some to the royalty,” Peterson said. “The last leaders of the monarchy here were all wonderful songwriters, and that goes back to the late 1800s….that just goes to show how important heritage is here on the islands.”
Peterson has become one of the music’s modern masters. He is classically trained and his music – purists may object – often brings together jazz and slack key. In this, however, he is not unprecedented – Hawaiian music was influenced by big band jazz, which was wildly popular in the 1930s and was later echoed in Gabby’s often jazzy phrasing.
“I think Hawaiian music has always been based, ever since Western contact, on evolution from outside influence,” Peterson said. “Whether it was from the cowboys who first came in and brought guitars, the Portuguese who brought the braguinha, which became the ukulele, the missionaries who came with church hymns, which many were adapted into Hawaiian language and then different songs were then based on church hymns…then jazz and the swing era had tremendous effect on hula, with the swing feel and this real lilting slow swing that became one of the standard sounds of hula.”
“With any art form, as long you have a connection to your roots and you appreciate that and now where the music came from….From there, you can reach forward in a way that is still meaningful and connects to the tradition.”
Songs in a slack key
There is a rare quality in the playing of slack key masters that doesn’t really have a word but is something you know when you hear. Junker recalls something the legendary Auntie Genoa Keawe sometimes said while performing that exemplifies this quality.
Auntie Genoa, one of the great singers in Hawaiian history, was also a strict bandleader. She would turn to her guitarist and sweetly say “Okay, pa’ani,” or in other words, go ahead and solo. But if the solo got out of hand, she would lean into the microphone use the same sweet tone and deliver a rebuke. “I said pa’ani,” Auntie would say. “Not show off.”
“I have talked to so many musicians who said that was one of the most important lessons they ever learned,” Junker said.
Slack key is rare in how it features virtuosity within a warm, human context. .
“There is always room for individualism and no two slack key players should ever sound the same,” Junker said. “So it’s a very interesting music that leaves room for service to the music but also self-expression. I think that is why so many people like it – you can hear the humanity of the player, and the emotion of the player, but you also don’t feel like they are showing off.”
The music also balances a rascal quality – the term in Hawaiian is kolohe – with heart-wrenching beauty. And nobody was better at this than Gabby Pahinui.
“Gabby told me once that when he played he also looked at the older people there, and if they cried when he played something sweet and laughed when he did something kolohe, then he was happy,” Junker said. “Gabby was really good at both. He could make you cry, but also make you double over in laughter. To me, that is the sign of greatness in any field of art if you can cover the range of human emotion.”
Many of the performers appearing at the Slack Key Festival Sunday are descendants from the kings and the cowboys who have populated Hawaii’s rich history, but none represent this more purely than Cyril Pahinui – the son of Hawaii’s greatest musical royalty – and Jeff Peterson, the son of a cowboy. Pahinui will also being playing with his nephew, Philip Kunia, who is Gabby’s namesake (Gabby’s real name was Charles Philip Pahinui).
Pahinui says that he thinks of his father every single time he performs. And as the music that his father passed on to him and so many others begins to be heard more widely, it as if his father has been kept alive by song.
“I am so proud,” Pahinui said. “My father is probably looking down on us and saying, ‘Aw, thanks…” It’s a tribute to see my Dad’s songs still being played. I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me and they think my father is still living. We are just continuing his legacy. There is no end.”
See slackkeyfest.com for more information and to book tickets or call 800-595-4849. The festival begins at 2 p.m. and also features Sonny & Lorna Lim, Hi’ikua, Jim “Kimo” West, Steven Espaniola, Ed Gerhard, Nathan Aweau, Jeff Linsky, Shawn Ishimoto, and Kalyn Aolani.