Slack-key guitar virtuoso Led Kaapana visits Sly’s.
Thursday, July 6, 2006
Led Kaapana grew up in the perfect environment to become a musician. Kaapana lived in the small village of Kalapana on the main island of Hawaii under the smoking cone of the Kilauea Volcano. (In 1990, a lava flow from the volcano basically demolished the small community.) The young Hawaiian didn’t have any of the usual distractions that afflict youth, like television or shopping malls—the closest store was 15 miles away.
Rather, Kaapana spent his childhood days fishing, hunting and living off the land. He helped raise pigs and horses, but on weekends, his extended family would have big musical jam sessions.
Kaapana says his uncle Fred taught him how to play slack key guitar—a style of playing where the thumb picks bass and the fingers pluck the melody—at 8 years old. Kaapana’s uncle had learned about slack key guitar playing and tunings in a most unusual way. “Somebody came into his dream and sat in a coconut tree,” Kaapana says. “They taught him how to play guitar.”
By 1972, Kaapana had moved away from performing solely for family members with the formation of Hui ‘Ohana, a band featuring his twin brother Nedward and cousin Dennis Pavao. The group, which was known for falsetto vocals and slack key guitar, released 14 albums and became one of Hawaii’s most popular musical acts.
In 1983, Kaapana set out on his own and had a huge success with the release of Lima Wela, which won a Hawaiian award for Best Instrumental Album. Since then, one of Kaapana’s most notable releases was 1998’s Waltz of the Wind, which had the popular Hawaiian musician playing in Nashville with bluegrass greats like dobro player Jerry Douglas and the legendary Ricky Skaggs.
The album begins with “Radio Hula,” an acoustic instrumental that goes down as easy as a mai tai made from fresh island juices. From there, Waltz of the Wind blurs the lines between Hawaiian, bluegrass and country music. The subdued title track includes Kaapana’s ukulele playing and Allison Krauss’ angelic vocals and reveals that waltzes are a staple of both Hawaiian music and bluegrass, while the musicians take on the Hawaiian song “Yesterday,” which is redone with country vocals, sounds like an old cowboy number.
The blurring of genres is also evident on a cover of the Hank Williams’ classic “Move It On Over,” which has Kaapana playing ukulele alongside Douglas’ Dobro. Meanwhile, the highlight of the Cajun traditional “Les Flammes d’Enfer” comes in the middle when Kaapana trades slack key licks with slide guitarist Sonny Landreth.
Recently, Kaapana received more international acclaim for his work on Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Volume One. The live set, which was recorded during a monthly jam at Maui’s Ritz Carlton, snagged a Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album.
Sometime this month, Kaapana will release another CD titled Grandmaster of Slack Key. “It’s more of the old Hawaiian songs,” he says.
Kaapana has a few reasons why he enjoys playing slack key guitar. “I like the melodies and the feeling that we put into the music,” he says. “We don’t read notes. We just play from within.”
At his live shows, Kaapana has often been called a kohole, the Hawaiian word for rascal. He believes that part of his reputation is due to the jokes that he tells onstage. “When I perform, sometimes I feel like I’m enjoying myself more than the audience,” he says.
Over the last 30 years, the popularity of slack key guitar has increased outside of the Hawaiian Islands. Back in the early 1900s, most people thought of Hawaiian music strictly as songs played on steel guitar or ukulele, but, in the ‘70s, slack key guitarists like Gabby Pahinui and Leonard Kwan started to become heard by mainland music enthusiasts.
Recently, New Age pianist George Winston has contributed to the rising appreciation of the music form by showcasing slack key players like Kaapana, Ozzie Kotani and Cyril Pahinui on his Dancing Cat record label.
In turn, The Recording Industry recognized the rising tide of appreciation for Hawaiian music by creating an award for Best Hawaiian Music Album in 2005. Tellingly, both winners of the new prize have been CDs of slack key guitar playing.
Locally, slack key guitar’s popularity can be attested to by recent concerts at Monterey Live and Hartnell College. A month ago, Laguna Seca hosted the First Annual Monterey Bay Spam Jam, which featured—guess what—performances by slack key guitarists.
The Kaapana show is the first of a series of concerts at Sly McFly’s featuring national touring acts. The next big act rolling into Sly’s will be flamboyant bluesman Louisiana Red on Aug. 13 followed by more slack key guitar music courtesy of father/son group Dennis and David Kamakahi on Sept. 11.
LED KAAPANA plays Sly McFly’s, 700 Cannery Row in Monterey, this Monday at 8pm. $14/advance; $16/at the door. 649-8050.