Ray Kane playing slack-key guitar at home
in Nanakuli, O'ahu
Photo by Lynn Martin, 1992

Slack-key guitar playing in Hawai'i

Pua Sardinia (Gardenia Flower)," composed and performed by Raymond Kane

First phrase, 116 kB .AU
Complete stanza, 429 kB .AU

Spanish and Mexican cowboys who worked on the numerous cattle ranches throughout Hawai'i introduced the guitar to the islands. They brought a playing style that influenced the development of k h 'alu (slack-key guitar).

They say that the art of the slack-key guitar is to Hawai'i as the flamenco guitar is to Spain and the Delta blues guitar is to Mississippi. Each style represents the music indigenous to the particular areas as expressed through a single instrument--the six string guitar. Each style is a unique contribution to the world of music. Slack-key guitar music is a uniquely Hawaiian synthesis of traditional Hawaiian vocal styles with elements of Western music. In slack-key guitar, the six strings are loosened or "slackened" to produce an open chord when strummed. This remarkable and creative style is traditionally learned by imitation, without tablature or scores.

Many tunings have names, such as "taro patch," "wahine," and "mauna loa." Like Hawaiian songs, some tunings are said to be passed down from one person to another. In older times, some tunings were regarded as secret, much like a recipe for a favorite food or the text for a special mele chant. It is not unusual for a slack-key guitarist to turn away from an audience to tune, so that no one can copy his private tuning.

Slack-key tunings give rise to specific melodic and harmonic patterns, sometime called "runs" or "vamps." These patterns form the building blocks for composition and improvisation. In the Hawaiian language, the slack-key vamp and the transitional phase of a hula are both called kholo, another tie between pre-European Hawaiian music and slack-key guitar style.

The melodic and harmonic contour of slack-key resembles ancient Hawaiian chant, mele. The slack-key guitarist plucks out the melody on the treble strings, while plucking out a harmonizing rhythmic line on the bass strings. The guitarist may also intersperse strummed chords within the plucked melodic line.

Slack-key tunings also allow the guitarist to insert ornaments such as hammer-ons, hammer-offs, and harmonics. Called ho'opp, or "bells" or "chimes," the guitarist produces harmonics by touching the string above the fretboard at specific vibration nodes without making contact with the frets. Slack-key ornaments resemble vocal ornaments in Hawaiian chanting.

There are at least three main styles of slack-key:

Originally, slack-key probably only accompanied song and dance. Today, guitarists play slack-key mostly as solo instrumental music, though the melodies retain much of its original song-like quality.

Audiences appreciate slack-key performers for their technical virtuosity, especially the ability to keep a steady plucked accompaniment to a melody. Some player use manuals and recordings for new techniques and pieces, but most pick up new melodic patterns, ornaments, tunings, and pieces directly from their teachers or by observing other guitarists.

Raymond Kaleoalohapoinaoleohelemanu Kane

Raymond Kane, who grew up in Nanakui, a district on the island of Oahu with a large ethnic Hawaiian population, began to learn at the age of nine. "On the beach in Nanakuli, it was hard to convince the old folks to teach me. They liked their fish and I was a good diver to catch the fish. So we traded--I caught the fish, they teach me slack-key."

Later, Raymond Kane worked with Albert Kawelo and Henry Kapuana from the island of Ni'ihau, the only island of the Hawaiian chain where ethnic Hawaiians are still the majority population and the Hawaiian language is still the mother tongue. Kane is today one of the few slack-key guitarists to sing with his instrument. He maintains the old repertory of songs he learned sixty years ago, unaffected by the modern trend to "rearrange" older Hawaiian tunes, incorporating electronic instruments and faster tempi. Though retired and in frail health, he gives freely of his time for performance and instruction. He has recently taken on an apprentice, a talented high school senior whose work he praises. Kane appears at many community concerts.

In 1973, he performed in solo concert at the Orvis Auditorium of the University of Hawai'i, the only artist ever to give a full-length, solo, slack-key concert. It was an important event, a turning point for increased interest in this delicate, supremely musical style. Raymond Kane's music is aural proof of his title, "the purest of the living ki ho'alu artists."

Text above adapted from 1987 National Heritage Award program booklet and Musics of Hawai'i

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15 August 1996