The Hawaiian Slack Key Festival rolled into town with lots of great music, dancing, and Aloha.
At the Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon last Sunday an enthusiastic audience was treated to a group of outstanding guitar technicians and vocalists, alongside native Hawaiian dancers. Not only did the performers give us all a lesson in slack key guitar, but they managed to infuse the whole show with that characteristic warm, welcoming spirit that draws visitors to the islands.
The show opened with Paul Togioka performing what in my amateur opinion would be traditional slack key guitar. His playing had a light, delicate feel. After running through some really nice fingerpick style tunes, he demonstrated a couple of the very interesting techniques. This included arm swings which were stylistic sweeps of his left hand down the neck perfectly in time to the music, and changing the tuning of the instrument without breaking the rhythm. For the last couple songs, Paul welcomed the next performer, Dwight Kanae
Dwight’s approach seemed more laid back and emotive. With a voice deep and rich like Kona coffee, he serenaded the audience. Dwight ran through a country, reggae number, a beautiful Hawaiian lullabye, and what he called a “rascal song” about a boy sleeping in a park. At the end of his set, he brought out two dancers to accompany him. The thing that really impressed me about his performance was how melodic the Hawaiian language is. His smooth well worn voice made the songs very pleasing to the ear.
Next up was Kamuela Kahoano . His sound was more modern, and reminded me of Leo Kottke. He also sang several tunes in the native language. Kamuela played with an intensity that added an interesting element to the largely melodic music. He thumped on the guitar body, played with both hands at once, and even threw in some tape loop effects to fill out his sound.
When the emcee introduced Stephen Inglis and David Gans, he made a special point of informing the audience that David had written a book about the Grateful Dead which brought a round of applause from the audience. This proved to be a great lead in since the two of them proceeded to run through a set of Dead tunes slack key style. Scarlet Begoinas and Ripple sounded great
played on acoustic guitars. Stephen did a superb job of emulating Jerry Garcia’s unique classical, Spanish, groovy soloing style. Their rendition of the Townes Van Zant classic, “Pancho and Lefty” was a particular highlight. At the end of their set, Bobby Moderow the final performer, joined them on stage.
His high, soaring tenor voice mixed wonderfully with Stephen’s middle range singing. Bobby was quite the entertainer, firing off blazing slack key solos, dancing at the front of
the stage, and winding humorous stories. He brought out the whole troupe of dancers at the end of his set. While they swept and swayed in time to the music, Bobby sang a classic Hawaiian love song. At the conclusion of his performance, he thanked everyone for coming, and exhorted them to spread the love and friendship of the evening out everyone.
The world needs more Aloha!
For the big finale, all the musicians came out for an all star jam. They were joined by one of the dancers, and after this last wonderful offering, the cast came out for a final standing ovation.
At the meet and greet in the lobby, I managed to catch up with several of the performers. Two members of the Halua Hula ‘O Lono dance troupe were standing by the concession counter. I asked them about the orange necklaces they were wearing.
We wove these ourselves. They’re called ilima. Traditionally, these were made with small flowers that were pulled apart and strung.
When I asked Paul Togioka about the origins of slack key, here is what he had to say:
Cattle were introduced to the Big Island in the late 1800’s. The cattle kind of took over so King Kamehameha brought in some Spanish cowboys, vaqueros, to get them under control. The vaqueros brought guitars and songs with them, and taught the Hawaiians how to play. When they left, the people adapted the music to their chants, and adjusted the guitars to an open tuning. Slack key playing was born.
In answer to my question about the influences of his intricate playing style Paul mentioned:
I used to be a bluegrass banjo player, but there wasn’t much call for it, so I learned to play slack key.
The group seem glad that this was their final stop of the tour before heading home. They had performed in Eugene, Bend, and Portland. Thanks to the Lincoln for bringing these talented and generous people to share their culture with us. I drove away into late spring sun, head filled with beautiful sounds and sights.
Entertainment Writer Mark Perschbacher…A man who will cross great barriers to find exceptional music, art, food, and beer. Mark is a long time Skagit County resident, contributor to, and supporter of local arts.