By Jen Russo
The gorgeous grassy field at the Manele Bay Resort on Lanai is warm, but festive. It overlooks one of the best snorkeling bays on the island, a stretch of glistening white sand beach, turquoise water crashing against rocky cliffs and a Jack Nicklaus golf course. This Friday night, local Lanai folk, beach park campers and Four Seasons guests will holo holo here for the Lanai Slack Key Festival. There, they will experience an art form that has been practiced and perfected for the last 200 years in these islands.
The name “slack key” comes from a translation of the Hawaiian ki ho alu, “to loosen the key.” Musicians and oral history will tell you there are paniolo roots in slack key playing. It’s a blend of Spanish guitar styled from hired cowboys in the 1800s and Hawaiian rhythms and chants layered and developed over the steel guitar through the years into its very own genre. It began the moment Captain Cook stepped foot in Kealakekua Bay and continues to shape the islands today.
Musicians didn’t actually get around to recording slack key until the mid 1940s. Like many gifts of Hawaiian culture, the art of slack key was not at first recognized openly as an art form. It didn’t enjoy the explosion of popularity in the early 20th century like other forms of Hawaiian music. Instead, slack key was passed down through families, a tradition enjoyed in back yards and paniolo homesteads for more than a century.
It was Gabby Pahinui who brought the music to the forefront, and he is recognized as one of slack key’s modern forefathers. In recent years, slack key has reached mainstream music appetites, evidenced by Grammy awards for Best Hawaiian music albums going to many contemporary slack key artists. One such student of Pahinui, Kawika Kahiapo (who won the Na Hoku Hano Hano title of slack key Artist of the Year in 2007) performs at the festival this weekend.
“At age eight, I started learning ‘ukulele from my dad,” says Kahiapo, who was born on Oahu.”When I was 10, he put a guitar in my lap that was tuned to G Taro patch tuning. He then leaned over and strummed the strings for me. I now describe that as a spiritual experience–the vibration of the instrument against my body. I wanted to make music from then on. I took no formal lessons, just what my dad taught me, and copying riffs off of old Hawaiian music LPs. Later, I was mentored by Gabby Pahinui. There were many jam sessions in our garage. It’s one thing to aspire and play, but when your aunties and uncles come over to jam, I had a platform to learn and grow. Gabby was there frequently. I picked his brain. Those were some of my favorite moments.”
For Kahiapo, slack key music is unique, but firmly rooted in Hawaiian art. “The form of slack key is like anything else Hawaiian,” he says. “We infuse the spirit of our heart and the mana of the land and sky.”
The Second Annual Lanai Slack Key Festival will wake up this quiet tourist destination, the smallest of the county’s three inhabited islands that lies in our Western horizon, connected to Maui by a 45-minute boat ride across the ‘Au ‘Au channel via Expeditions Ferry. This small community of around 3,000 residents swells with pride as it hosts three days of music and artists at seven venues across the island, all of which have free admission.
“Four Seasons is pleased to welcome back and host the music and cultural festival with such revered artists gracing our stage to perform for the Lanai community and resort guests,” said Tom Roelens, General Manager of Four Seasons Resorts Lanai. “We understand the importance of the arts and are privileged to be able to assist with bringing the Lanai Slack Key Guitar Festival to the island for all to enjoy.”
Maui filmmaker and festival founder Kenneth K. Martinez Burgmaier and his companies Jazz Alley TV and Hawaii OnTV.com partner with the Lanai community and Four Season’s Resorts Lanai to bring the slack key guitar festival to the island. Martinez Burgmaier is well known for his syndicated Jazz Alley TV show that airs Saturday nights at 9pm on KIKU, the 22-year series has won Best TV series from Billboard Music Awards twice. He says keeping the events free and “bringing the highest quality of entertainment to people who don’t always have the opportunity or funding to go experience great music, have free workshops and meet the artists” are the key elements he builds into the events.
The slack key festival kicks off with a gorgeous outdoor party at the resort. There will be amazing epicurean treats for the festival-goers: poke and sushi bentos and fish tacos, all packaged perfectly for outdoor picnicking while you perch on the grass and listen to music. On Saturday, the festival transforms the Great Hall of the Lodge at Koele into a cozy posh slack key lounge. Pupus like their Pulehu ribs, truffle oil popcorn and cheese platters complement the experience. The Lanai resorts do a great job creating the environment where the community and guests and artists can all come together to celebrate the music, but several other local businesses offer slack key jams, including No Ka Oi Grindz, Coffee Works and Cafe 565.
The slack key festival got its beginnings on Lanai after Martinez Burgmaier, along with Kepa Maly, directed and produced the History of Lanai for the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center. Martinez Burgmaier also credits the late Uncle Boy Kana’e, who was the emcee at many Jazz Alley TV events, with giving him inspiration and drive.
“We hope to create the Oahu Jazz And Blues Festival next, and bring back our Hana Film festival,” says Martinez Burgmaier. “We will do our best to continue with our Lanai Slack Key, Ukulele, Jazz and Film Festivals no matter what obstacles might pop up, IMUA! And as my grandma and Uncle Boy Kana’e always told me, ‘Mai Makau’–Don’t Fear! Kana’e was part of our Jazz Alley TV Film Productions and a partner in crime with me and Dave Lower (another partner). We talked everyday and he would spend many treasured holiday dinners together with our ohana.”
Kana’e brought Martinez Burgmaier together with Benny Uyetake, a local musician on Maui who has been teaching music to Maui’s keiki for more than 25 years. Uyetake performs at many of Martinez Burgemaier’s events and will be releasing a new slack key CD at the festival. He brings another important piece of the musical legacy to these festivals, the keiki. His students from Kalama Intermediate in Makawao, where he has 200 students in the sixth to eighth grades, often attend.
Being “a teacher of the arts I feel is a commitment of perpetuating my craft, as my dad and brother has taught me,” says Uyetake. “I had so many great teachers. I think this has created a whole person in me. That’s why I continue to teach children. I also try to expose kids to festivals for the reason of building confidence when performing. Most of these festivals are free [so] families can listen. Kids can watch and be influenced by other great players. Being around great festivals and experienced players encourages kids to strive to be the best in whatever they do or pursue in life. This is true for kids and other seasoned performers.”
Uyetake has a special connection to middle school students. He teaches ‘ukelele and his students perform their own songs or songs they learn in class. He says they love the music of Jake Shimabukuro and Kalei Gamiao. Uyetake says Kalama and King Kekaulike have a strong arts education program from teachers like Ed Queja, Beverly Barnard, Fred Losano, Casey Nagato, Ken Hattersley and Chris Kepler, who nurture music and fine arts.
“I think the public schools have a lot to offer,” he says. “If anything, there should be a highly qualified elementary music teacher. I remember when I was in elementary school we had a teacher teaching music for each grade. It was cool! While I think private school is a great option, our public school exposes our students to real life experiences. I think we create a ‘whole student.’ How I do this is by including students in all kinds of performances. I prepare not only with a set curriculum, but catering the curriculum to the next venue of performance.”
Creating a place for musicians to share with youth is part of Martinez Burgmaier’s vision. He recalls his tutu Sylvia Baca Martinez taking him to movies and listening to Hawaiian and jazz music, inspiring his career in film and eventually creating festivals around music. Now Martinez Burgemaier and his team produce the Lanai Ukulele Festival, Lanai Slack Key Festival, the Maui Jazz Festival, and the Hana, Molokai and Lanai Film festivals, with more festivals in development. Martinez Burgmaier also continues to produce and direct award winning documentaries like Ki Ho Alu-Keola Beamer and Jazz Colony with Michael Douglas.
Most recently, his film Malama Ko Aloha-Aunty Nona Beamer premiered at the Big Island Film Festival, while Brother Noland beyond the Coconut Girl is in production. Martinez Burgemaier will also host a CD release for Lanai Slack Key Festival LIVE at Koele. This album will feature live performances from artists of the 2011 Lanai Slack key Festival: Dennis Kamakahi, Sonny Lim, John Keawe, Brother Noland, Cindy Combs, Kevin Brown and Uyetake.
“The talent these artists have is always an inspiration to me and I just want to share it,” says Martinez Burgmaier. “If I can create a vehicle through my festivals to touch someone who has never experienced live music like we produce at our festivals and events it makes it worth it. We just want to share true aloha through music. I hope maybe one of our keiki who gets inspired at our festivals may be entertaining us in the future.”
Martinez Burgmaier says funding for these projects is always a challenge, but he tries not to focus on that or let it stop him. He funds the events through his own own production companies and through local business owners who also see his vision as well as “a ton of kokua from the community.” He says the resorts have offered “tremendous help. They cut all the red tape you have to go through with state and county properties and it’s just so lovely to be on site at these wonderful locations.”
The festivals have been hosted at the Four Seasons Resorts Lanai, Grand Wailea, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Hotel Hana Maui, Hapuna Prince and Ritz Carlton Kapalua. This weekend, Four Seasons will also offer a special festival rate of $199 and $179 per night (call 800-321-4666 and ask for the Lanai Slack Key Guitar Festival package).
Lanai’s Slack Key Festival starts this Friday, Aug. 17 and runs though Sunday, Aug. 19. Performances will include John Keawe, Dennis Kamakahi, Brother Noland, Kawika Kahiapo, Ernest Puaa, Kevin Brown, Benny Uyetake, Ekolu Kalama and hula with Hope Keawe. World Champion Stand Up Paddler Ekolu Kalama from Molokai will also teach a Stand Up Paddle workshop at Manele Bay Saturday morning and perform over the weekend. The event is free.
As far Kahiapo is concerned, he can’t wait. “Although I did not perform in last year’s festival in Lanai, I look forward to this year’s event,” he says. “I first met Kenny at the festival in Maui hosted by Milton Lau about seven years ago. These festivals always provide a platform for artisans that continue to keep this cultural tradition alive. People aren’t just coming to hear music, they are being educated in Hawaiian culture.”
FRIDAY, AUG. 17
• Manele Bay – 6-9pm: Legendary performers take to the stage for an enchanting evening of slack key guitar. Manele Bay will feature a special dinner under the stars.
SATURDAY, AUG. 18
• Coffee Works – 9-11am: Start the morning with a ‘Cup of Joe’ at the Slack Key Java Jam with Benny Uyetake.
• Café 565 – 11am-1pm: Enjoy live music in Lanai City during lunch with a performance by Kevin Brown.
• The Lodge at Koele – 4-8pm: The Great Hall will come alive with music from Dennis Kamakahi, John Keawe, Brother Noland, Kevin Brown, Benny Uyetake, Kawika Kahiapo, Ernest Puaa, Kevin Brown and a hula performance by Hope Keawe.
SUNDAY, AUG. 19
• No Ka Oi Grindz – 9:30-11:30am: Enjoy live music in Lanai City with a morning jam session featuring Ernest Pua’a. The music continues with the Ki Ho’alu Fireside Jam in the Great Hall with Grammy winning performances by the talented musicians.
• The Lodge at Koele – 11am-1pm: The music continues with Sunday Brunch in the Great Hall with Kevin Brown.
• The Lodge at Koele – 7-9pm: The festival concludes with an evening performance in the Great Hall with Kevin Brown.