John Keawe

Latest release: Hawaii Island…Is My Home (Slack Key Album of the Year, 2009 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards)
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It’s humid in North Kohala, but the air is clean and crisp from the early morning rain. As I look out the front door, I’m greeted with such an abundance of emerald and azure beauty, my heart swells with gratitude for this perfect day.

OK, I’m actually still on Maui staring at the derelict lot outside my window. But listening to John Keawe’s voice—as strong, rich and deep as koa wood—one can’t help but imagine lush landscapes, the sound of crashing waves and a gentle breeze on your skin.

Considering how completely Keawe has mastered the slack key guitar, I assumed he’d been playing forever and studied under the greats. In fact, self-taught Keawe didn’t show any interest in slack key until he returned from service in the Navy in the 1970s. Prior to that, he had only played good ol‘ rock ‘n roll while growing up on the Big Island. Around the same time he began to explore slack key, he met Hope. Eventually they married and went on to have three sons and, at last count, nine grandchildren. When Keawe embarked on his solo career in the ’90s, Hope began to dance hula for his various songs.

Keawe speaks lovingly and admiringly of his wife. Not only has she been encouraging and supportive of his career, she’s also served as the inspiration for many of his songs. In fact, Keawe says his favorite song to perform is “Beautiful Hula Dancer,” in which Hope performs alongside him with an original hula. Keawe happily reports that he’s doing what he loves with someone he loves. (He also told me that if I misquote him, he’s going to call me up and berate me.)

Other artists that have served to inspire Keawe include old-time (Keawe laughs as he says that and remarks, “Well, I guess I’d be considered an old-timer too”) slack key connoisseurs like Sonny Chillingworth and Keola Beamer. Although Keawe is inspired by their sound, he by no means cops their style. This singer-songwriter goes out of his way to make original music and definitely creates his own personal, sincere “John Keawe Style.” He says he wants his audience to understand him through his music, and he accomplishes that goal. Listening to Keawe is like talking to an old friend.

Although Keawe has won numerous awards—including a 2005 Grammy for his work with other artists on “Slack Key Guitar Volume 2”—and has toured all over the country, he remains a local boy at heart. Instead of opting for the glitz and glitter of Hollywood, Keawe still resides on the Big Island. His favorite venue to play is the Bamboo Restaurant, in his hometown of Hawi, in North Kohala.

When I ask about the Grammy win I expect to hear takes of schmoozing with celebrities, and maybe about whether or not Britney Spears’ crazy factor had hit an all-time high (or would that be low?). Instead, my query is met with Keawe’s comfortable laughter, like rolling surf hitting the shore. He explains that he didn’t even get to go, but was very proud to be a contributing artist to an album that has gained so much esteem. “It was an honor to represent the root music of Hawaii,” he says.

While everyone may not be able to understand the Hawaiian words, the timeless and intimate medium of slack key guitar—as well as the feelings it so effortlessly and profoundly conveys—is universal.