Ray Kane,
The Legendary Ray Kane:
Old Style Slack-Key

(Cord, 2003)

Leonard Kwan,
The Legendary Leonard Kwan:
The Complete Early Recordings

(Cord, 2003)

In 1958 Margaret Williams, a Florida woman transplanted to Hawaii, established the Tradewinds label to record native musicians who played in traditional styles. Her favorite was the slack-key guitar (ki ho'alu), a music sometimes known as "Hawaiian cowboy" (paniolo). That phrase has literal meaning. Ki ho'alu traces back to the first half of the 19th century, when Hawaiians working on the island's big ranches, trying to imitate the sounds of guitar-playing Mexican vaqueros imported for their cattle-herding skills, more or less accidentally created their own distinctive sound.

Slack-key, however, was considered a private business, seldom performed in public and played only for parties of friends or within the family circle. Other kinds of Hawaiian folk and popular music became widely known on the mainland (especially after 1915, when the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco introduced Hawaiian musicians to a larger audience). But the unique and beautiful slack-key -- so called because players loosened the strings to play it -- remained obscure until Williams's label showcased it and a new generation of performers sought a wider (and paying) audience. In Charles Philip "Gabby" Pahinui (1921-1980), slack-key got its first star. By the latter 1970s Pahinui was recording with no less than Ry Cooder, who characterized him as possibly the best guitarist he had ever heard.

Ray Kane (pronounced Kah-NAY) and Leonard Kwan, both slightly younger than Pahinui, are also among the tradition's acknowledged masters. Born in 1931, Kwan died in 2000 but left a store of grand recordings, of which this welcome reissue documents the first, from discs waxed from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. It opens with his original "Hawaiian Chimes," from a 1957 45 on the local Island label, and goes on to a range of instrumentals, a few of non-Hawaiian origin (the 1873 parlor weeper "Silver Threads Among the Gold"), but all sounding very much part of a single musical vision. As he does for the Kane companion disc, George Winston provides detailed technical notes for hard-core guitar nerds. The rest of us need only listen to marvel at Kwan's overpowering gift. Besides being a wonderfully fluid, soulful guitar player, Ray Kane (b. 1925) possesses a haunting, high-tenor voice with which he covers traditional standards such as "Wai O Ke Aniani," "Hi'ilawe" and "Hawaiian Reverie."

Hearty thanks to Cord International for making this seminal American music available to all of us. My own favorite of these two is Kane's, probably because I love his singing so much. But for all real-world purposes, there is no artistic distance worth mentioning between the two. Each has his own take, differing but equally noble, on an exquisite tradition.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 9 October 2004

Buy The Legendary Ray Kane from Amazon.com.

Buy The Legendary Leonard Kwan from Amazon.com.