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If you guessed that "slack key" is a special guitar tuning technique employed by Generation X poster boy Beck, you'd be half-right. The term does have something to do with alternate guitar tunings but is far removed from the media-hyped slacker tag.
Actually, slack key is a rich acoustic guitar-based Hawaiian musical tradition that dates back several centuries. Up until now, slack key has been overshadowed by the far more familiar steel-string twang that, unfortunately, has become so closely associated with tourist kitsch such as plastic leis and tropical drinks with tiny umbrellas stuck in them. However, the combination of a growing appreciation among younger Hawaiian musicians for their cultural heritage and the burgeoning world music market have paved the way for a renaissance of sorts for the slack key style.
The name slack key is derived from the fact some guitar strings are loosened (or, in some cases, tightened) to form an almost limitless number of chord variations. The thumb plays a driving bass line while the fingers pick the melody and the improvisations. The aural result is a deep, resonant sound with a soothing, wistful quality that expresses aloha, the all-encompassing Hawaiian term and concept for spirituality.
Slack key has its origins in the 1830s, when the guitar was introduced to the Hawaiian islands by Spanish and Mexican cowboys who were brought in to teach the islanders how to manage their cattle. When the foreigners departed, they left behind their guitars, but they had neglected to teach the islanders how to tune the instrument properly. As a result, the Hawaiians were forced to develop their own tunings, or so the legend goes.
Until fairly recently (within the past couple of decades), slack key music had been an intensely personal affair. While a handful of albums were recorded as far back as the 1940s, the music primarily was performed at family gatherings, and the tuning variations were closely guarded secrets. Individual tunings became indigenous to each of the Hawaiian islands, and even to specific families. In fact tunings were solemnly passed down from generation to generation, and some slack key players would play only in complete privacy or would turn their backs on strangers while tuning their guitars.
A leading popularizer of traditional slack key music on the U.S. mainland has been the Santa Cruz, California-based label, Dancing Cat. Last year Dancing Cat embarked on an ambitious Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters series; to date, eleven albums have been released by such artists as Ray Kane, the late Sonny Chillingworth, and Keola Beamer. Label spokesman Ben Churchill says the series will eventually encompass more than 60 albums. "The feedback we got was listeners wanted more instrumentals," Churchill contends. "They found lyrics [sung in Hawaiian] to be intrusive." Dancing Cat's Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Instrumental Collection, a sampler of tunes culled from the releases to date, serves as a good introduction to the style. Other labels with slack key releases include the Hawaii-based labels Lehua Records, Mountain Apple, and Ho'oli Productions, though distribution for these may be somewhat spotty.
Another boost for slack key awareness may come from the work of Hapa, a Hawaiian duo composed of Barry Flanagan and Keli'i Kaneali'i, whose self-titled debut album was released in 1993 by the Miami-based Coconut Grove Recording Company (CGRC). The music on Hapa is not pure slack key in the traditional sense; with backing from studio musicians, a few of the songs meld contemporary pop and slack key stylings, and one cut is sung in English ("Ku'u Lei, Ku'uipo," which is somewhat reminiscent of Avalon-era Roxy Music). Still, Hapa relies heavily upon slack key instrumentation for its lush, dreamy soundscapes.
Among Hapa's highlights are its instrumentals (five of the album's ten cuts), particularly "Kaopuiki Aloha," a driving tune that features a guitar solo by slack key enthusiast Stephen Stills; the yearning, bittersweet "Justin's Lullaby"; and a reverential rendition of John Lennon's "Oh My Love." The marriage between slack key and other musical styles works best on "Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai" ("The Plants of the Sea"). Following the opening strains of a descending guitar line, the tune's upbeat vocals A which celebrate the bounties offered up by the Pacific Ocean -- are propelled by cheerful strumming and the simple pulse of a bass; the addition of harmonica, banjo, and fiddle provide rustic touches.
On Hapa, native Hawaiian Kaneali'i handles lead vocals, while New Jersey-born Flanagan sings harmonies and background vocals and also writes and arranges much of the material. Because of their approach (and success), the duo has been labeled the "Hawaiian Simon and Garfunkel." Hapa sold 100,000 copies in Hawaii the first year it was out, garnering six Hoku Awards (the state's version of the Grammys) for Kaneali'i and Flanagan, including Album of the Year and Group of the Year. Coconut Grove Recording Company recently linked up with a distributor on the mainland, and according to CGRC product manager Brian Rochlin, Hapa is now getting played on college, adult alternative, and adult contemporary stations in such unlikely places as Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), Tuscaloosa (Alabama), and Boise (Idaho). Flanagan and Kaneali'i are preparing to go into the studio to record their second album, which will include a slack key version of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)." The followup to Hapa is due out by the end of the year.