Thursday, March 25, 2010

Music: Picking Up the Slack (Key) in Hawaii

When many people think of Hawaiian music they often think of four distinctive elements. One is the slack key guitar (a tuning variation to a regular guitar), two is the ukulele, three is the steel guitar and four is falsetto singing. There are many more elements unique to Hawaiian music but these are probably the four most widely know.


This piece will talk about the slack key guitar while future postings will address the other key contributions of Hawaiian music to the world’s cultural richness. Hawaiian slack key guitar (ki ho'alu) is truly one of the great acoustic guitar traditions. Ki ho'alu, which literally means "loosen the key," is the Hawaiian language name for the solo finger picked style unique to Hawai'i.

First off, the slack key guitar is generally your basic six-string acoustic guitar but with a different tuning than is usually played on the mainland. Hawaii had the guitar before the ukulele mostly due to Portuguese immigrants at the end of the 18th century. In standard guitar tuning each string is tuned to a different key, often EADGBE. When tuned this way and strummed without fingering, an unharmonious sound is produced. However in Hawaiian slack key guitar tuning the strings produce a harmonious sound even without fingering.

This style of tuning may have had its origins with the first vaqueros (cowboys) -- known in the Islands as “paniolos” and unique to Hawaii -- who came here from Mexico. They tried to play the guitar but did not understand the jarring sound when the strings were strummed together. They experimented with other tunings by loosening or slackening the strings to produce chords that matched the singers’ vocal ranges.

The most common slack-key tunings are usually set to a full chord without the need for fretting/fingering, like the “taro-patch” tuning where the strings are tuned to DGDGBD to produce a G major chord. But bear in mind, there are endless variety of other tunings, well over fifty at least (e.g., the “wahine” tuning of DADFAC).

These are also known as “open tunings.” And the open tuning set the stage for evolving the slide playing technique known today as steel guitar (more about this later in another piece).

Peggy Chun/ Daniel Ho

At first, there possibly were not a lot of guitars, or people who knew how to play, so the Hawaiians developed a way to get a full sound on one guitar by picking the bass and rhythm chords on the lower three or four pitched strings with the thumb, while playing the melody or improvised melodic fills on the upper two or three pitched strings.

In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood ki ho'alu, and the ability to play it was regarded as a special gift. To retain and protect the slack key mystique, tunings were often closely guarded family secrets. This practice has changed with the times, as respect has increased for the preservation of older Hawaiian traditions, and now slack key guitarists are more willing to share their knowledge outside the family circle with those who wish to learn. Because many of the beautiful old traditions in Hawai'i have been changed by outside influences, this greatly increased respect for the older slack key traditions and the sharing of tunings is helping to ensure that traditional slack key guitar will endure.

There are a number of major slack key festivals. The Gabby Pahinui/Atta Isaacs Slack Key Festival is held annually in or near Honolulu on the Island of O'ahu, generally every third Sunday in August (if interested, please verify date), and the annual Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival is generally held on the next to last Sunday in July at the Hilo Civic Auditorium on the island of Hawai’i (if interested, please verify date). Other festivals also take place on Maui and Kauai, on the Mainland, and occasionally internationally.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How Do the French Say, “How Now Honu?”

What do Hilo and France have in common? Not much, but a strange bit of history involving the discovery of an island and the green sea turtles that generally reside here in Hawaiian waters.

First about the island: In 1786 a French explorer “discovered” a large atoll at the end of what we now call the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian Islands are actually hundreds of islands that stretch 1,500 miles north and west from the Big Island at the southeast all the way past Midway Island to Kure and beyond.

This chain of islands is part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a U.S. National Monument encompassing 140,000 square miles of ocean waters and ten islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, making it one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world.

The “French Frigate Shoals” (Hawaiian: Kānemilohaʻi) island’s name commemorates French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse, who nearly lost two frigates when attempting to navigate the shoals. French Frigate Shoals was included among the islands acquired by the United States on July 7, 1898, when Hawaii became a United States territory.

Now about the turtles: Four of the seven existing species of sea turtles can be found in Hawaiian waters. They are the green sea turtle, the hawksbill, the leatherback and the olive ridley. Of these, by far the most common is the green sea turtle, or honu (pronounced hoe'-new), as it is known in Hawaiian.

Green sea turtles get their name from the color of their body fat, which is green from the algae or limu they eat. Adult green sea turtles can weigh up to 500 pounds and are often found living near coral reefs and rocky shorelines where limu is plentiful. The life span of sea turtles in not known. Hawaiian green sea turtles seem to grow very slowly in the wild, usually taking between 10 and 50 years to reach sexual maturity - 25 years is the average.

Green turtles were a source of food, tools, and ornamentation for early Hawaiians. With the arrival of western culture, however, the level of exploitation of this resource increased dramatically. Large numbers of green turtles were harvested throughout the Hawaiian Islands through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In Hawaii, legend tells about a green sea turtle, Kauila, who could change herself into a girl to watch over the children playing at Punalu'u Beach on the Big Island. When Kauila's mother dug her nest, a fresh water spring surged upward, quenching the children's thirst. Kauila is the "mythical mother" of all turtles, and perhaps of our children as well. It's also said that turtles were the guides for the first voyagers to Hawaii.

While we see the turtles frequently, particularly around Richardson’s beach in Hilo, the green sea turtle is now listed as threatened in Hawaii and is already endangered on the Florida coast and the Pacific coast of Mexico. At one time there were several million green sea turtles worldwide but today fewer than 200,000 nesting females remain, with only 100 to 350 females nesting each year in Hawaii.

The Hawaiian green sea turtle is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and under Hawaii state law. These laws prohibit hunting, injuring, harassing, holding or riding a green sea turtle. A violator can pay as much as $100,000 and serve prison time.

Although green sea turtles live most of their lives in the ocean, adult females must return to land in order to lay their eggs. Biologists believe that nesting female turtles return to the same beach where they were born.

The connection: Hawaii's green sea turtles migrate from their feeding areas along the coasts of the main Hawaiian Islands to their nesting beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Males appear to migrate every year, arriving ahead of the females while females only migrate every two to four years. Males accompany the females during the migration, which usually occurs in the late spring, and mate with them off the shores of the nesting beaches.

The most popular nesting beaches are almost 800 miles from Hilo on French Frigate Shoals, where an estimated 90% of the Hawaiian population of green sea turtles mate and lay their eggs. When females mate they come ashore often- as many as five times every 15 days to make nests in the sand and lay eggs.
So it will soon be time to say “bon voyage” again to many of these ancient reptiles – the French Frigate Shoals will be expecting them. (Photos courtesy of Devany Vickery-Davidson)