Napili Kai, HI

The Place to Hear Slack-Key Music on Maui

Slack-key musicians onstage at Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui

George Kahumoku Jr., far right, hosts the weekly Slack Key Show: Masters of Hawaiian Music. At Napili Kai Beach Resort, it’s the only place on Maui to regularly hear slack-key music.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

WE HAVE CAPT. George Vancouver and the vaqueros to thank for one of Hawaii’s best cultural exports. In the 1790s, Vancouver visited the Big Island and gave cattle to Kamehameha I. The Hawaiian king declared the animals taboo, meaning no one could kill any of them. The idea was to give the small herd time to grow. This it did, and a few generations later the Big Island was overrun with more than 30,000 sacrosanct bovines. They ate the Hawaiians’ native foods and generally made life unpleasant. In 1832, King Kamehameha III came up with a solution: he imported a handful of vaqueros—Mexican cowboys—to teach Hawaiians how to round up the cattle, which would then be shipped to California.

It worked (and in the process created the paniolo, the Hawaiian version of the cowboy, who endures to this day). The vaqueros didn’t linger, but left behind their guitars. They didn’t show the islanders how to tune them, though, and gradually the instruments lost their common sound. The Hawaiians’ solution was simple: instead of the standard EADGBE tuning, each player chose whatever notes sounded best to his ear. And so slack-key music, with its hundreds of tunings, was born.

Up until the 1960s, each Hawaiian family would have its own set of notes, kept secret from neighbours and sometimes even from other family members. “I had an uncle,” says slack-key musician George Kahumoku Jr. “When he put down his instrument he’d screw up the tuning” so no one else would know what it was. The thinking behind this, explains Kevin Brown, another slack-key player, was that, “When you invent something, you don’t just give it away.” But, says Kahumoku, “the tunings became so secret they were dying out,” and slack-key music with them.

Luckily, attitudes have changed, helping make possible Hawaii’s only regular slack-key concert series, produced by Kahumoku and held weekly throughout the year in a pavilion on the grounds of the Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui’s northwest coast.

Kahumoku also hosts the evening, every week with a different guest performer. Each has his own tuning: Kahumoku uses CFCFAC. The featured artist the week I was there, Dennis Kamakahi, uses the most traditional slack-key setting, called taro pitch: DGDGBD.

Slack-key songs are about the land, the plants, the animals. Some are whimsical: Kamakahi sang one about a brave limpet and a wicked eel. The music’s sound, as one description puts it, is “like a beautiful basket of fruit,” with different colours and flavours, and modified by outside influences. Dennis’s tunes, for example, are more muscular and country & western-ish than George’s softer, more undulating rhythms. That, says Kevin Brown, is because “Dennis’s idol is Willie Nelson.”

Slack-key remains, to some degree, a private art, making the weekly Napili Kai concert a singular opportunity for visitors to hear it live. “In the valleys, up in the mountains, people will be playing right now,” says Kahumoku. “But they won’t let you into their house if you’re an outsider. It’s still kind of an intimate thing.”



For more information on the Slack Key Show: Masters of Hawaiian Music, visit www.slackkeyshow.com.

For information on Maui visit the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s website at www.gohawaii.com/maui.