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Friday, Oct. 2, 2009

Hawaiian sounds wash ashore


By NICHOLAS VROMAN
Special to The Japan Times

George Kahumoku Jr., apart from being a master slack-key guitar player, has a talent for storytelling.

News photo
Breezing through: Slack-key guitar player George Kahumoku Jr. has become something of a musical ambassador for Hawaii.

He's as generous with sharing his experiences as an educator as he is his with his music. Since childhood, he has played slack-key guitar, the distinctive Hawaiian guitar style in which the strings of the instrument are retuned or "slacked" to create new open tunings.

"I come from a family of Hawaiian musicians. . . . I always farmed on the side. I always taught school and I always played music. In Hawaii you need at least three jobs just to survive."

Coming of age in the early 1970s, a heady time of Hawaiian pride, Kahumoku has since become an international ambassador of Hawaiian culture, all the while holding down a job teaching at-risk children.

Kahumoku's musical career began in an unsual way in the early 1960s, "I used to wash cars when I was 11, 12, in a place called Lippy Espinda's," he says. "He paid me 10 cents a car."

Espinda is most famous for appearing on the U.S. TV show, "Hawaii Five-0" and popularizing the shakah brah — the Hawaiian gesture of shaking one's hand with thumb and pinkie extended.

"Next door [to Espinda's] was a place called the Forbidden City — the Gateway to Waikiki," says Kahumoku. "It was a kind of raunchy joint. . . . On weekends, [singer-songwriter] Kui Lee would play there. Kui Lee heard me playing my slack-key guitar. I was about 11 years old. He said, 'Hey come in and do a song.' So I went in and did one song and all the customers went wild. . . . They threw money on the stage and for one song — it took me less than three minutes — I made $27.10. I was young enough to say, 'Man, I can do this!' "

After graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts he returned to Hawaii in 1973 and started an alternative school for at-risk children. By the mid 1970s, when not teaching, he began playing regularly.

"I played for the likes of [actors] Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Winkler," says Kahumoku, and through these gigs he ended up back in the U.S.

In the late 1980s, George Winston's popular Dancing Cat label thrust many slack-key guitar players into the limelight, Kahumoku was one of them.

"I started traveling around the whole U.S. The first guys I started touring with were Keola Beamer and Uncle Ray Kane. Then I started traveling with Leonard Ka'apana," he says.

Winston also took the band around the world in the 1990s. It wasn't until a extremely cold gig in Minneapolis with fans lined around the block that one of Kahumoku's roadies, Paul Conway, asked an interesting question — why didn't they do this in Hawaii?

Reflecting on the music scene in the 1990s, Kahumoku notes, "In Hawaii, the whole market was different. You'd play for tourists around the bar or crab-leg bake or a buffet — and nobody was paying attention to the music!" So, he told Conway, "You find a place to do this — I'll come home and do it."

Conway has since become one of Kahumoku's partners. Together in 2003 they launched the popular Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert Series. They recorded the shows for Winston, who then suggested they put an album out.

"We put out the first album [Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Volume 1] and we won our first Grammy [in 2006]. . . . We were nominated four times and won three Grammys."

Kahumoku's latest album, "A Gentle Hawaiian Breeze" is a compilation of the most popular, traditional Hawaiian slack-key songs. He says there's a huge Hawaiian community in Japan geared towards the hula and most of the pieces are hula songs.

"I'd rather actually do my own songs, because I get royalties off of my own music," says Kahumoku. "But we said, 'Let's just try this. Let's try something different.' And this is the first time I've done anything solo for Japan."

Kahumoku has four dates in Japan and he notes, "That's going to be during my fall break from Lahainalua High School."

George Kahumoku's "A Gentle Hawaiian Breeze Japan Tour" hits Kumamoto on Oct. 5; Gates 7 in Fukuoka on Oct. 7; Sakurazaka Theater in Okinawa on Oct 8; and winds up at EATS and MEETS Cay in Tokyo on Oct. 9. For details, visit www.respect-record.co.jp/ topics/res153live.html

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