George Kahumoku Jr.,
Hawaiian Love Songs
(Na Mele Ho'oniponipo Hawai'i)

(Dancing Cat, 2001)

The story I heard is that Mexican vaqueros came to Hawaii two centuries ago to teach the islanders cattle-herding. When they departed some years later, guitars were left behind and a whole world of music opened up as the Hawaiians adopted the instrument as their own. Each village developed its own tunings. And each group of people that later came to the islands to live and work -- Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and more -- left its mark.

I find describing slack key guitar on the one hand is close to impossible. On the other, it's easy: because it is Hawaii, the ocean, the land, the warmth, the people. This is truly a music which reflects and represents an environment and a nation. Yet there is something universal about it, probably because of its diverse influences.

In some ways, Hawaiian music seems to lean on many other styles -- there are definite moments of swing, country, ragtime and more -- yet it strikes me that this more demonstrates the welcome offered by the people, their openness and their willingness to share and to accept others. There are two types of music, good and bad. This is good.

The album opens with an instrumental track in which homage is paid to the 1960s surf band, the Chantays. Yet it's also a tune which shares a strong affinity with Irish airs through its strong, image-laden melody; the kind of tune that makes you feel homesick, even for places you've never been to.

There are 11 tracks on this 64-minute album, but there's nothing out of place. Even though most of the songs are in Hawaiian, Kahumoku develops each piece, building them up to perfection with his warm, sensitive yet powerful approach. There are no language barriers, his expressive, soulful voice carries the emotion across linguistic divides. (The excellent notes provide the stories behind each piece, though an English translation of the lyrics would have been appreciated.)

Although most of the tracks are solo performances, there are some duets. "Keiki Mahine," a tragic sad love song, features the ukulele playing and singing of Diana Aki -- a perfect musical partner for George. "Moloka'i Slide" is performed with the inimitable Bob Brozman on acoustic steel (a wonderfully happy song, perhaps, but there is a tragic story attached to it). And "Lei Pikake" features the harmonica playing of Norton Buffalo.

The three instrumental tracks demonstrate Kahumoku's rare talents on 12-string guitar. He has a rich, enveloping sound, using the natural ringing of the instrument. But he also pulls out less expected effects such as the Chantays' bass run on the opening track, the rockabilly drive on the "Hawaiian War Chant," and the harp-like harmonics which add occasional punctuation. His playing is timeless.

There is a painful beauty to this music. It stirs the listener. It conjures images. There is the warmth and the breeze of the Pacific. But there is also a longing and a natural power that cannot be ignored. There is much more to the history of Hawaii and its people than I know -- this music goes some way to revealing it. Do not be put off by the title.

[ by Jamie O'Brien ]

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