Growing up on Oahu in the 1960s and ‘70s, Geri Valdriz and his friends listened to the blues. “In my generation, that’s the kind of music we listened to–we never played Hawaiian music,” he told me recently. Then he started reading interviews of his favorite blues artists, and was surprised to find them citing Hawaiian steel guitar musicians as their influences. “So I started teaching myself to play kika kila,” he said. “They call it ‘Hawaiian steel guitar,’ but the Hawaiian word is ‘kika kila.’” “Kika” means guitar and “kila” translates as steel. But at that time, “there were no players,” Valdriz said. “All the oldtimers were gone, and we were playing different music.”
The “steel” part of a steel guitar is simply the metal bar that musicians hold in what would normally be their strumming hand. With the guitar in their lap, players slide the tool over the strings to produce a singing, melodic sound at various pitches. In country music it’s known as “slide guitar,” but few people know that the steel guitar was “invented, born and raised in Hawaii,” as Valdriz puts it, by a Hawaiian boy on Oahu at the turn of the 19th century.
Since those early days back in 1976 when he taught himself, Valdriz hasn’t strayed far from his passion for kika kila, even though his career took him away from the stage for nearly a decade. Now retired from his work as a judge in family court, Valdriz tours Japan and the mainland and plays at Hawaiian music festivals around the state, including the upcoming Maui Steel Guitar Festival, which runs April 13-15. For 30 years, as he honed his skills and taught others, Valdriz also collected kika kila instruments, artifacts and history, and now you can see his collection on display at the Story of Hawaii Museum at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Mall.
In addition to his touring, Valdriz also plays every Thursday during the lunch hour at the Coffee Attic in Wailuku. Last Thursday, I went there to listen to Valdriz play and learn about the kika kila exhibit and the upcoming Steel Guitar Festival.
The Coffee Attic is a cute, funky little coffee shop where none of the furniture matches. With my liliko‘i iced tea in hand, I sat down on a wingback armchair to take in the music. Watching the show was very much like sitting in your auntie’s comfortable living room, listening to your uncle play old time songs.
Valdriz, wearing an aloha shirt, jeans and Vans, has a neat ponytail and beard. He held a small, banjo-shaped steel guitar in his lap, and slid his shiny metal tool over the frets with his left hand. He was forthright and spoke passionately about the history of the songs he was playing and his beloved instrument between sets.
That day, Valdriz was playing with his student–guitar player Loren Tilley (in a Maui small-town moment, I learned that Tilley works with my significant other). There was also a bass player, though that was unplanned.
Earlier in the set, Valdriz noticed a customer wearing a Pepe Romero shirt who was sitting with his family. Valdriz asked if he played. “Musicians, you can tell, yeah?” Valdriz later said. “Other musicians. It’s a look in their eyes.” The man, a tourist named Ken from California, took a bass guitar from the collection decorating the wall and played with Valdriz. After the show, Ken from California hung up his guitar, shook Valdriz’s hand and headed back to his beaming family.
Valdriz often pulls people on stage to play with him. In the last few weeks he had a random clarinet player and a harmonica player jam with him. That’s the kind of person Valdriz is–inclusive, a natural mentor and educator.
Between songs, Valdriz talked story with the coffee shop patrons. “This next song is dedicated to my friend Pema,” he said, nodding to a lady on the couch. He told the audience about the song before he played it. “Naka Pueo” is about the Pueo Kahi, a boat that used to take supplies to Hana, and the song celebrates the voyage back and forth. It will also be his opening song at the upcoming Maui festival.
Valdriz always plays vintage instruments. “You cannot beat the sound,” he told me after his set. The vintage guitar he played at the Coffee Attic is the first model of an electric guitar, made in 1932. It’s shaped like a banjo, shows a few signs of age and is customized with a Jimi Hendrix sticker–Valdriz’s favorite artist, whom he saw on Oahu in the 1960s.
A similar guitar is on display at the museum. “When I play here every Thursday, I talk about the history, the people who invented it,” Valdriz told me. “Everyone forgot about it, but that’s what the museum is about.”
In the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, “Hawaiian players were influencing everyone in the world, particularly Joseph Kekuku,” said Valdriz. Kekuku played slack key guitar. The story goes that at age seven, the boy from Laie, Oahu was walking along a railroad track, picked up a metal bolt, and slid it along the strings of his guitar. He became intrigued by the sound.
“He put it on his lap and started rubbing iron bolts, pieces of glass, to get that sound,” said Valdriz. At Kamehameha School, a teacher helped him form a steel, bullet-looking bar. “The bar didn’t get stuck in the strings, and it made the guitar sing,” says Valdriz. That was in 1895. Kekuku started teaching all his friends, and by 1904, Kekuku and others started touring throughout American and Europe.
“They never heard the guitar played like that,” Valdriz said. “Before, everyone just strummed the guitar.” The country musicians listened to the emotional, lyrical potential of the instrument and started incorporating it into their music, and it became known as slide guitar.
The popularity of the steel guitar reached its zenith in the 1940s, after the invention of the electric guitar. Since then, the popularity has declined, though many steel guitar artists have still kept the music alive.
One way they’ve done that is through through Hawaiian music festivals on all the islands. Valdriz visits all the neighbor islands to play in their steel guitar festivals, and is thoughtful about his setlists, learning new songs for each event and playing songs specific to that island.
This year’s Maui Steel Guitar Festival will feature Valdriz alongside other master Maui players, as well as players from Japan and young up-and-comers. Friday and Saturday will take place at the Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel and Sunday will happen at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center.
In Ka‘anapali, there will be an open stage, workshops, a vintage guitar exhibit, singing and hula and jam sessions. At the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center, performances will start at 11am. There will be hula, ukulele and, of course, the best steel guitar players in the islands. The festival is free to the public.
Festival-goers at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center will also have a chance to visit the Museum and see the exhibit, most of which is from Valdriz’s personal collection. The idea for the exhibit was born at the festivals Valdriz plays. Over the past three decades, Valdriz amassed a collection of guitars and artifacts from his own purchases and things people gave him. After visiting Memphis and Nashville, he realized that there’s no exhibit in Hawaii about kika kila.
Valdriz would bring parts of his collections to put on displays at festivals for display. Later, Bryant Neal, the owner of the Story of Hawaii Museum, approached Valdriz about doing an exhibition. Valdriz, who has long wanted to bring light to Joseph Kekuku and the history of steel guitar, agreed. “I know I don’t have infinite da kine, but I have enough so that people can remember,” he said.
After the festival, Valdriz will travel to Nepal with his wife, which he’s been to many times. They’ll hike around the Himalayas, trekking six hours a day and staying in villages. He told me about his friends there. “They’re like family, you know?” he said.
I can picture that. Valdriz is passionate about his instrument, and uses its history to connect with others. He wants to make sure Maui players keep playing. In fact, every six months or so, he has a gathering at his house for kika kila players to jam.
“I’m planning on doing a kika kila concert downstairs [at the Coffee Attic] of Maui players,” he told me. “So many Maui players can play, but don’t want to play on the main stage at a festival. That’s the only way you’re going to learn–you have to play live with people.”
Valdriz sent me on my way with his album, Breath of Steel, which I popped in as soon as I got in my car. Then I drove off, the windows down and the kika kila on the speakers.
“This is Hawaii, kika kila was born here,” Valdriz had told me. “There has got to be local people playing our music. Thirty years from now, they might start playing it again… ‘ukulele came back. Kika kila will come back. We’re keeping this alive for the future. The music is there, we haven’t forgotten. We’re keeping the fire burning.”
Click here for more information on the Maui Steel Guitar Festival.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photos: Sean M. Hower