Wed, 17 December 2014
It is widely acknowledged by discographers and ethnomusicologists that despite slack key guitar being played on back porches across the islands since the mid-19th century, the first ever recording of slack key guitar was made by Gabby Pahinui in 1947 – making him the undisputed folk hero of the instrument. In the decades that followed, however, you could count on your hands and feet the number of recordings that strictly featured the slack key guitar as a solo instrument. Many slack key guitarists were featured members of larger bands, and slack key guitar was often used in its primary service as accompaniment for the vocalist. But recordings of solo slack key guitar were rare for the first nearly 50 years after its first appearance on record.
Enter George Winston, a Montana haole and pianist who came to prominence first in the 70s but then catapulted to fame in the 80s – the era which spawned the New Age music movement, solo instrumental music perfect for nights sipping wine, smoking anything that was not tobacco, and gazing at the stars from you hot tub perched high on the hills of Santa Monica. Winston released a series of seasonally-themed LPs of his dream-like solo piano on Windham Hill – the New Age record label of that period – some of which are perfect for this season. (Check out Winston’s December or Winter Into Spring.) But it is little known that when Winston auditioned for Windham Hill head honcho guitarist Will Ackerman, it was with solo guitar pieces. Nonetheless, Ackerman signed Winston to make a series of solo piano albums – perhaps because he didn’t like Winston’s guitar playing as much as his piano prowess, perhaps because he didn’t want the competition as Ackerman would go on to release a series of solo guitar albums on his own label (as would be his prerogative).
More than 20 years ago now while chatting with Alan Yoshioka of Harry’s Music in Kaimuki, he casually said, “You and George Winston are like the haole soul mates of slack key. You should chat with him.” He proceeded unsolicited to give me Winston’s phone number, and I used it. Winston and I struck up what was at first a virtual friendship but then a more personal one – getting together every time he did a concert anywhere near my then home of Philadelphia. And all of our time together was spent discussing our mutual love of what we felt was the grossly underappreciated slack key guitar. But what I will always remember is that despite becoming renowned for his brand of piano playing, Winston always said that slack key guitar was the instrument and the playing style that spoke to his soul – that he could communicate better through slack key guitar than through the piano.
Putting his time and money where his mouth was, Winston invested heavily in Hawai`i’s unique art form by launching Dancing Cat Records which aimed to capture the living legends of slack key guitar in a manner in which they were rarely captured on record previously – solo. He started with the elder statesmen of the instrument – some of them in ill health – knowing that the opportunities to do so – regrettably – would be limited. The first Dancing Cat releases were from Raymond Kane and Sonny Chillingworth, and Winston’s prescience would sadly be fulfilled as Chillingworth would pass away soon after the release of his first Dancing Cat CD and never see the release of his second. Winston went on to record some of the younger legends – Keola Beamer, Cyril Pahinui, and Ledward Kaapana were among the first – as well as the first and only acoustic steel guitar recordings of steel guitarist Barney Isaacs accompanied by slack key guitarist George Kuo. The CDs were a resounding critical success but, alas, not a commercial one. And so there would be only about 20 Dancing Cat releases in the decade that followed before the releases would begin to slow to a trickle and eventually no more. What most do not know is that there are many more recordings “in the can” (as they say in the biz) including still more solo slack key tracks by Ray Kane, Sonny Chillingworth, and others. We can only hope they see the light of day someday soon.
Winston also had the foresight to record one or two holiday songs every time he had one of these legends in front of the microphone. (Notice I have not said “in the studio” since often these guitarists were captured in their comfy chairs and sofas right in their own homes.) So before long he was able to release Kī Hō`alu Christmas, the first ever holiday album comprised solely of solo slack key guitar recordings. (“Kī hō`alu,” by the way, is a Hawaiian term for the slack key guitar, but it should be considered a neologism since it was only conceived of during the Hawaiian music renaissance of the 1970s. For the century prior, Hawaiians referred to their unique art form simply as “slack key guitar.”) Featuring the label’s roster of artists at that moment – Keola Beamer, Cyril Pahinui, Ozzie Kotani, Ledward Kaapana, and others – the album does not evoke images of blizzards and sleigh rides but, more appropriately, the gentle joy of a Christmas in the islands. Most importantly, Kī Hō`alu Christmas spawned countless more holiday albums featuring the slack key guitar and – later – the `ukulele.
There was an almost equally beautiful follow-up from Dancing Cat just a few years later, Hawaiian Slack Key Christmas. But the first such album warrants this position on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i – not only because it set an important trend, but even if only for the solo slack key guitar recording of “Christmas Memories” by its composer, Dennis Kamakahi, which he introduced 20 years earlier on Christmas Time with Eddie Kamae & The Sons of Hawaii. This is the way the song was meant to be performed and heard – in its most sentimental form. The album is not available from the music streaming services such as Spotify and Rhapsody, but you can download it in MP3 format to your iPhone or iPod at iTunes and Amazon.com.
I also encourage you to check out George Winston’s December, a favorite of my family in this season and which the artist himself referred to as “slack key piano.”
Next time: #8 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i…
Direct download: 9_Christmas_-_Various_Artists_-_Ki_Hoalu_Christmas.mp3
Category:Slack Key Guitar -- posted at: 5:02am EST