Aloha -- the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Tour
at Sunoco Performance Theater,
Whitaker Center, Harrisburg, PA
(6 February 2002)

Hawaiian music? Everybody has their own idea of what that means -- especially people who have never really heard it. The Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, Pa., has an adventurous concert series and is willing to take a risk bringing in lesser-known artists as well as the more predictable. Quality is the criterion they use.

And quality was certainly present when they introduced central Pennsylvania to the Hawaiian slack-key guitar tour on a chilly, windswept evening in February -- perhaps the perfect time of year for the warmth of music from paradise. Sadly, the glorious, intimate Sunoco Performance Theater, the heart of the Whitaker complex, was only a little over half full -- an interesting mix of aficionados, including a number of Islands exiles, along with the inquisitive.

The lights dimmed and Moanalani Beamer took to the stage. With her beautiful clear alto voice, she offered a chant of welcome set the scene; her warmth and appeal simply invited the audience to sit back and allow the music to enter. She then introduced Ozzie Kotani, a teacher, historian and musician from Honolulu on his first slack-key tour, who entered the stage with his Taylor guitar, assumed a classical pose and proceeded to capture the hearts all present with his instrumental set.

Opening with his interpretation of "Maika'i Ka Makani O Kohala," a gentle song of the wind blowing away dust from the cattle, he surprised many who don't know his work. For someone who is not classically trained, he has remarkable technique: his stance is perfect (he even has a contraption on the bottom of his guitar to hold it in perfect place), his right hand is virtually motionless as he caresses the strings with four fingers, his mobile left hand is relaxed and has all the time in the world even on complicated tunes.

His nimble fingers danced across the frets producing bass runs, harmonics and slides behind the beautiful melody. As he played, he occasionally glanced around with a shy smile, but for the most part seemed totally enthralled by the music coming from his instrument.

Before coming on the tour, Ozzie spent time at the Royal Mausoleum where he played the music of Queen Lili'uokalani (1838-1917) , Hawaii's last reigning monarch, and sought the late queen's approval. As he explained, she was illegally placed under house arrest at Iolan'i Palace by rebels who had overthrown the government. It was there that she composed many of her best-known pieces and Ozzie has released 14 of them on his latest album. He dedicated the remainder of his performance to tunes from the recording.

There is a history behind each tune and he is well-versed in their stories -- food fit for royalty, breezes that waft through the trees, the way life is -- without sounding pedagogic, he placed the songs in context thereby giving more meaning to the tunes, a personal touch.

There is an appealing retiring aura around Ozzie and the impression that he feels he is simply passing on the tradition. Yet his performance is humbly strong. He is a master of slack-key guitar and plays with great respect for the music. But he still has time to joke about the East Coast weather and his impressions of the mainland. Ozzie should tour more often; he's converted more than enough people to make it worthwhile.

Next up was one of Hawaii's great characters, the inimitable George Kahumoku Jr. Currently residing in California, George was suffering from a winter cold -- not that he'd let a thing like that interfere with his music.

He provides a good contrast to Ozzie Kotani. Both mainly use the G major Taro Patch tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D), but George plays a Takamine 12-string, full bodied and rich, and shows influences from far and wide. Playing with thumb and pointer finger, he literally rings as cascades of notes tumble from his instrument. And he sings with a wide-ranged warm baritone voice.

Joining George on a couple of occasions was his close friend, the delightful dancer Nancy Sweeney. Her elegant movements are fluid and vibrant as she translates the tunes into motion. Many Hawaiian songs function on two levels: the immediate (which could tell of the elements, wildlife, geographical features, and so on) and the hidden (often with references to relationships). While the lyrics might not be understood without translations, Nancy's hula interpretations are descriptive and appealing.

George's performance more than any other musician I've heard, revolves as much around his story-telling as it does his music. He talked about his job in Maui as a teacher, about his family, about life in the islands and how big companies from the mainland intrude (and don't always win), about fishing, about food ... about everything he has seen and done in his life (remember, George is a farmer, fisherman, teacher, sculptor, writer, musician and more, so he has many stories to tell.)

His rendition of "Moloka'i Slide" demonstrated how he approaches each song differently every time he plays. On his recent album, Hawaiian Love Songs, it is a rollicking duet with steel guitar player Bob Brozman; here he approached it in a more minimalist way, mellower on guitar and almost a talking blues on vocals. But just as his stories are diverse, so too the influences in his playing.

Along with an excellent musical performance, George also succeeded in capturing the spirit of Hawaii and Hawaiians. His description of the battle by locals to have access to the shore and the ocean in the face of opposition by hotel chains wanting exclusivity, is both amusing and epic.

Perhaps the high point of this part of the evening was his hilarious recollections of the bus journey to the Kamehameha School as a young child and his "kung fu" tutu, followed by her request to him later in life. It's not often a hymn ("Iesu No Ke Kahuhipa") will bring tears to the eyes of such an audience, but the bittersweet, revealing and fulfilling climax to George's story was more than effective.

After a short break, Moana Beamer returned to introduce her husband, Keola. Elegant, confident and completely at home, he took his place and demonstrated the versatility of the instrument, the musician and his music.

In the opening piece, he created dynamic melodic and percussive effects by using different parts of his hand to hit, slap, pick and strum the strings and the fret board, while chanting a hypnotic vocal proving he, like his fellow tour members, is a master of the genre.

His interpretation of "Po Mahina" was fascinating as he developed a Spanish-combined-with-Hawaiian approach to his guitar work; "The Beauty of Mauna Kea" proved what an excellent singer he is; he is equally at home with a standard like "Ulili E" as he is with the special style he has developed: moe'uhane kika or dream guitar.

And adding an extra dimension (or two) to his performance was his wife, exquisite hula dancer Moana. She moved with grace, exuded a feeling of calm and physically expressed the concepts and emotions of the songs she accompanied. Coupled with that, she also added subtle harmonies, often more felt than heard, and fascinating rhythms on ka'eke'eke (bamboo pipes, finger tapped or struck on the ground) and pa ipu (a gourd drum.)

As with his colleagues, stories form an important part of the performance and Keola has a many of them, too. Just as Kotani talked at length about Queen Lili'uokalani and her overthrow, and Kahumoku spoke of his experiences, Beamer talked about what he has seen in life: the teachers he has worked with, the origins of tunes, the characteristics of slack-key playing. And, like the others, he informed without preaching while he entertained.

Ozzie Kotani returned and offered a delightful back-handed compliment as he recalled how he had been inspired to take up slack-key playing as a youngster when he heard a recording of Beamer, already an established musician. The "old man" and the "youngster" then played a brace of duets including a superb interpretation of "Pua Lili Lehua," featuring Keola on lead and Ozzie providing an excellent accompaniment (such heavenly harmonics!)

George Kahumoku returned for a classic reworking of the Gabby Pahinui signature tune, "Hi'ilawe," Keola singing baritone lead and George baritone and falsetto harmony. Stories still took a prominent place, with Keola chatting about his own life and career and how George would reappear at different times (they come from the same area, attended the same school and George even married into Keola's family. In fact, they are also distantly related.)

This friendly rivalry directly led into a rendition of "Dueling Banjos," slack-key style. This was followed by a trio version of "Ku'u Hoa," with both Moana and Nancy returning to the stage. Moani took the microphone and a central Pennsylvania audience rose to its feet, held hands and joined in "Hawai'i Aloha."

The evening was at an end, but the music carried on. In the foyer, it seemed everyone was lining up at one of the tables to buy albums, videos and books and to get them signed by the performers. An hour later, George, Ozzie, Keola, Moanalani and Nancy were still there, along with Paul Konwiser (co-author of George's A Hawaiian Life book), signing their names, chatting with members of the audience about music, Hawaii and much, much more.

There are performers and there are performers. But rarely are there people such as these -- who are so reachable and who care so much about those who have braved the elements to come to their concert. And the audience left with more than CDs and books. Kotani, Kahumoku and Beamer made an impression that will last a long time. They are true ambassadors of their music, their culture, their land -- in fact, with their spirit of aloha, they are true ambassadors of humanity.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]
Rambles: 9 March 2002