Keola Beamer,
Ka Hikina o Ka Hau (The Coming of the Snow)
(Dancing Cat, 2007)

Keola Beamer's new release is a departure from his other works, so be forewarned. When you see the subhead of the title, "Keola Beamer plays Hawaiian Slack String Guitar," you may think you're going to hear Hawaiian music. But no "tiny bubbles" in this "wine" (with apologies to the late great Don Ho). Neither will you hear authentic Hawaiian traditional folk music such as the chants of one of my favorite Hawaiian artists, Joseph 'Ilala 'ole ( a venerated kumuhula, a "model" or "foundation" of hula culture.)

Instead, Beamer has opted to bring us an opus consisting of recognizable classical and modern music and his own compositions.

I was impressed with Beamer's choice of "The Little Drummer Boy," a song made famous on the AM radio of the late 1950s by the Harry Simeone Chorale. While many of us seem to have become jaundiced to it through overplay, I always enjoy it; it is probably one the few Christmas songs of the postwar era written with any degree of reverence. Beamer recognizes the innate dignity of the "Little Drummer Boy" and renders it sweetly and with respect. That earns this listener's admiration.

Familiar to us, too, is "Spinning Wheel," a work every young person taking piano lessons has had to learn at some point. One cannot help but smile upon hearing it. Beamer is full of surprises!

Classical music represented on the CD, which is produced by solo pianist George Winston, includes arrangements of Ravel, Eric Satie, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dowland, Piazzolla and others. The press release from RCA Victor states it is the first time Hawaiian slack-key guitar tunings have been used to interpret the works of classical composers. Surely this must be so. The result, for the record, is capitol, and we can only hope for more. The instrument and arrangements adapt like hand and glove.

Beamer gives us Ravel's "Pavane for a Sleeping Beauty" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Song of India," for example. From Mendelssohn we hear "Venetian Boat Song" and from Dowland, the famous lute of the 1600s, "If My Complaints Could Passion Move." Those arrangements, by the way, were arranged specifically for Keola by musicologist, guitarist and linguist Daniel O'Donoghue. In some of the arrangements, Keola is featured on acoustic nylon string guitar, acoustic steel string guitar and even electric guitars, overdubbing multiple tracks. The results range from tones and interpretations that are eerie, ghostlike and serious to stately, spiritual, like hymns, even dulcimer-like. The darker qualities can be attributed to the composers, such as Satie, famous for atonal music. The sweet and august, however, may be part of Beamer's personal spirituality. He has a respect for the Hawaiian way of life and tradition, and reveals to us his appreciation for the Islands. He is quoted in his notes as saying, "There's a beautiful feeling, at least once a day when the curtain of every day activity lifts, when you stop whatever you're doing and see this place for its amazing beauty. The sun coming up, a gentle breeze, the mountains at sunset. It can't be expressed in words, but in one's heart there's a feeling of thankfulness and pride. There's a haunting sense of gratitude that you feel to be part of this."

So perhaps the haunting feeling is part of the awe of Hawaii's beauty that gives birth to a sense of the divine internally. Surely, from the very first notes of the first track, which almost sound like Beamer is going to play "Greensleeves," something beckons, nay, calls to the listener. At times, the instrument sounds like a harp (the first track is actually "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Eve," the title, of course, to the noted Frost poem.) At other times, like, shall I say, a piano? And again, occasionally, like a balalaika. Is the tonal palette inherent in the instrument or brought forth by the artist? Probably a little bit of each is close to the truth.

Notable, too, in its loveliness is "Milonga," almost flamenco-like, reminiscent of the works of the late Laurindo Almeida, the remarkable Brazilian classical and jazz guitarist.

At no point can one question Beamer's command of his instruments. This is Beamer's sixth release on the Dancing Cat label. Considered a master of his music, Beamer has yielded us 19 albums over the past 35 years.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
John Cross

1 September 2007

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