Led Kaapana & Bob Brozman,
In the Saddle
(Dancing Cat, 2001)

The title of In the Saddle had me expecting country, so it was a surprise when Hawaiian music greeted my ears! The surprise was a delightful one, though; slack key guitar is a style that's fascinated me for a while, and this is a wonderful exposure to its range and beauty. Led Kaapana is one of the masters of slack key, and Bob Brozman's brilliant steel guitar playing interweaves with it beautifully.

Slack key guitar, for those unfamiliar with it, involves a unique approach to the instrument. It's played lying flat before the musician, rather like a dulcimer, and the strings are plucked with the fingers and thumb. The tuning is variable and eccentric compared to the standard. The guitar was brought to the islands by Spanish and Mexican cowboys, and the influence of Spanish styles can often be discerned in the intricacies of the slack key style. Many say that slack key is one of the most beautiful and melodic musical styles in the world, and after hearing this album I'm inclined to agree.

The thirteen songs here are mostly instrumental, and provide over an hour of music. The pieces range from original compositions to Hawaiian standards, and include a range of styles. "No Ke Ano Ahiahi" is a "name song," which is an important part of traditional culture. "Wai'alae Waltz," from 1902, is based on a Spanish waltz Hawaiian composer Mekia Kealakai heard laborers singing. Also included are a song of place, Tahitian influences, and a hula, as well as other songs remembering special moments and images.

The liner notes are everything liner notes should be. They tell us about both the styles and the musicians, and include extensive information on each of the songs here, including the tunings of the guitars and extensive historical notes. A discography of both musicians appears at the end. I wish all liner notes were as comprehensive!

I am delighted to have heard this album and to have it in my library. It's a wonderful introduction to a lovely type of music, and one I hear little of here in the northeast USA. The sparkling skill and sensitivity of both musicians comes through clearly even to one who is new to this style, and repays repeated and careful listening. I recommend this CD wholeheartedly, and look forward to using its discography to explore slack key guitar further.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]
Rambles: 28 July 2001