It’s the musical equivalent of sea glass, a sound drenched in Malibu rum and day-old sunshine. In its more lackadaisical moments you can almost hear the sunburned steps of slowdancing honeymooners mixed in with the beats. Uptempo, it lends itself to old-timey mischief.
It may be one of the definitive elements of Hawaiian music, but don’t call it Hawaiian guitar (a misnomer that’s actually an alternate handle for slack key). Although it’s one of the sonic components to Hawaiiana—evoking images of post-war tourism posters—it may be a dying art form.
Yet some have set out to preserve it, as the designation of June as Steel Guitar Month, among other things, clearly demonstrates. Especially during this week, Hawaiian steel guitar, also known as kika kila, will get its due in Maui County. And so will a veteran musician whose life’s work has helped keep the form alive.
County Councilwoman Joanne Johnson played a key role in getting Maui resident and steel guitar veteran Henry Kaleialoha Allen recognized in Maui Nui. A ceremony that took place at the county building this past Tuesday made it official, and this weekend’s Steel Guitar Festival (part of the Maui Invitational Music Festival) will further serve to recognize and celebrate his legacy.
“I’m really honored to even know Henry,” Johnson says. “He’s just done so much to help perpetuate steel guitar.”
In addition to years spent performing in venues ranging from radio (Hawaii Calls) to cruise ships (which he still does to this day), Allen has helped immortalize steel guitar by teaching and writing textbooks.
What makes steel guitar, which was invented in the Isles more than a century ago, different from plain old guitar is that its strings are lifted another half-inch off the fretboard. This makes it impossible to play in a traditional manner. It requires a heavy steel slide, which blurs the notes in a most intoxicating manner.
Born in Hilo and raised in the Manoa Valley, Allen started on ukulele in the third grade, but later embraced his signature instrument as well as jazz guitar. Early on, he says, he was determined to learn from the best. At one point this meant choosing Honolulu’s Washington Intermediate over Kamehameha Schools since he favored the former’s music program.
“I made sure that the teachers were good,” Allen says. “The good school was Washington Intermediate.”
Highlights of his early career include being a frequent guest on Hawaii Calls, an emblematic radio show that ran from 1935 to 1975, playing the kind of hapa haole numbers that continue to brand Hawaii in the minds of suncreen-slathered Minnesotans to this day. Allen got his union card (Honolulu Local 677), which enabled him to play the hotels in Waikiki (there were, of course, far fewer in those days). He then had a stint on the Mainland—namely LA (where the musicians’ union cards read Local 47, he says).
It was in these early days that he was shown the path.
“In your younger years you have to decide what you’re gonna do,” Allen says. “In the musicians’ union you find out who you are.”
He went on to share venues with the likes of Don Ho (Greek Theatre) and George Benson (Castle Theater) and to work in television and film (he says he helped ensure correct pronunciation of the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” in the 1961 Elvis film Blue Hawaii).
He relocated to Maui in 1971. “I liked Maui,” Allen remembers, “because they had no traffic and the beaches were free.”
But it was in producing educational materials where he truly shined—when it comes to playing Hawaiian steel guitar as well as ukulele, this guy can literally say he wrote the book.
He has transcribed thousands of pages of music into three-ring binders, an epic collection he keeps in his home. “I’m running out of shelves,” Allen says of his ever-expanding library.
His two textbooks—one on steel and one on uke—are housed at Johns-Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory of Music. “I feel really honored to be there,” he says.
He has already been honored at the state level by both the Senate and the governor’s office, and even has a day named in his honor (April 4). The Valley Isle has recently dedicated the month of June to the man and his instrument.
This comes at an uncertain time for a culture and customs—musical and otherwise—that have been around for generations but now have to compete with influences from every corner of the globe. If Henry Allen has anything to say about it, steel guitar will stand the test of time. MTW