Web site: makanamusic.com
Next gig: Sat., April 17 at Stella Blues’ “Supper Club,” Kihei, 874-3779
Essential tracks: “Dance of the Red Poppies,” “Morning Star”
When you’ve gigged at the White House and guitar god Joe Satriani says he loves your technique—so much so he “might steal it”—you know you’re onto something.
A contributor to two Grammy-nominated albums—volumes I and II of Hawaiian Slack Key Kings Master Series—and twice winner at the Hawaii Music Awards, Makana has earned nods from the pick gods and ink from the likes of the New York Times and Esquire, which in 2003 gushed that “slack-key guitar music, indigenous to Hawaii, has been around longer than the blues, and Makana is considered the greatest living player.”
Bronzed and debonair, Makana may be a darling for the camera, but it’s his picking pedigree (groomed from an early age by legends like Sonny Chillingworth and Gabby Pahinui), along with his genre-bending brand of rock and world music dubbed “Slack Rock,” that has rendered him the new ambassador of Hawaii’s hallmark de-tuned tone. This, in an age where slack key’s mechanics—let alone history—still require explanation outside the 808.
“Slack key playing involves a ‘slacking’ of the strings to make an open chord. That means you don’t have to hold that chord, so your hand is freed up,” Makana explained in an interview with Guitar Player. “Then you establish a bass with your thumb and over that, a melody. It’s doing multiple parts on an opened-tuned guitar.”
It’s information Makana finds himself doling out a lot and that GP finds reader-worthy enough to land Makana a half-page highlight in their February 2010 issue.
Makana is no stranger to GP love. In 2008, he was one of just ten national finalists selected for the magazine’s Guitar Superstar competition. Held at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, Makana was the first to take the stage before a panel of discerning six-stringers and ultimately placed third.
“Your rhythm, timing and intonation is really nice, and it’s hard to fault anything,” said judge Steve Vai. “If I had to be critical, [while] I think what you’re playing is harmonically beautiful…my ear is always looking for something that’s more harmonically challenging—from Venus, you know?”
There’s an interesting correlation between the terminology in Vai’s critique and Makana’s latest release, Venus, and the Sky Turns to Clay: The Instrumental World of Makana (2009). Makana’s prior work displays his soulful vocal talent, with upper register trills like honeycreepers’ wing beats, high, suave and sweet. But Venus is a treat for critics like me, who easily crinkle their nose at too-pedestrian lyrics but are suckers for all-instrumentals that showcase a player’s prodigiousness.
Second to his only to Makana’s playing is his showmanship. The first time I saw him perform, his slack-key antics involved such voracious slides, I feared the strings might slit his wrists. It’s a gory image that might have complemented his tight leatherish pants—but remember, this is slack key. So, though energetic, his shows stay far away from the cattle-guard grind of the gear-head rock he credits as an influence.
His abundantly spiritual side oozes thick in his impassioned performances, where even when flying solo, his full sound can fill a venue. And when melodies linger over building, open-tune bass lines, it’s like the first pass of an oscillating fan on a hot day.
You can’t bust his chops about his chops, but since I first saw Makana a decade ago, I’ve found his garb to be a bit fulsome. My hang-up may be superficial, but it’s marred my most memorable Makana performance—when he opened for Elvis Costello at the MACC in 2006 (during which, with dramatic coincidence as his set completed, there was a citywide power failure and the Castle Theater’s emergency house lights rose to pale blue glow, and half of Costello’s set was conducted outside, to the backdrop of an indigo storm). Granted, the thrill of the evening (and the will to forget) has left specifics murky, but I remember Makana’s threads strongly evoking the spirits of the mo‘o (giant lizard) gods.
But, whatever. His fashion sense today—and the fact that we’ve come a long way since the dark designer days at the turn of the millennium—has quieted my nag. And it’s a nag I have only because—if Makana has been ordained the modern representative of slack key—lovers of all things local (like myself) need to cheer for him in every way.
That said, I will side with Vai in that I’m desirous of something more extraterrestrial—but not so much harmonically as lyrically. For me, tracks like “Song for Sonny,” the final track on Master Series’ volume II—while a sweet shout-out to legendary Chillingworth—sound like a very literal homage to Olomana’s “Ku’u Home o Kahalu’u.” Likewise, his track “Only You,” feels like the bouncy but slightly unattractive love child of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and Cat Steven’s “Into White.”
To be fair, my lyrical gripe is something I hold against all but a few. And I’m choosing to exercise this opinion now only because of my great faith in Makana’s promise and position.
Much of the heritage and essence of slack key is still lost on many, including musical experts. Makana’s growing fame, youth and vigor should help change that. I’ll be rooting for him. Anu Yagi, MauiTime