Legendary slack key guitarists share style, music during 26th Annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival in Kona
October 31, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated October 31, 7:18 AM
Strums from slack-key guitarists resonated through the packed Kaleiopapa Convention Center at the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa Sunday afternoon as artists and lovers of the musical style gathered for the annual, islandwide Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival.
Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award winner Noland Kaleolikolani Conjugacion, known to his fans as Brother Noland, was one of several performers who played at the festival, where experienced and up-and-coming musicians showed off their skills.
For Brother Noland and his friends, the event was a reunion of old friends and family.
“It’s less of a concert and more of a celebration,” he said.
Hawaiian slack-key guitar is a style of music that refers to the loosening of the guitar strings. The Hawaiian term is kī hōʻalu, and was developed during the paniolo (cowboy) days when visiting vaqueros brought their guitars to the island.
Since then, the slack-key style has been passed down through generations.
“…Slack key is what we grew up with. It’s what we were taught,” Brother Noland said.
Brother Noland’s friend and famous 12-string, slack-key guitarist Michael Ka’awa said he remembers growing up in Hawai’i and being taught the stories behind the music while learning slack-key guitar at family gatherings.
He hopes the next generation of slack-key artists, some who were present Sunday, will perpetuate the culture, and learn those stories, as well.
“That’s where it starts – in the home. It starts in the garage, in the kitchen, in Mom and Dad’s home, or Grandpa’s garage, where everybody gets together,” he said.
Hawai‘i Slack Key Guitar Festival organizer Milton Lau has been putting together the festival since 1982. He said one of the goals of the event is to bring together new and original talent to continue the legacy that is Hawaiian slack-key guitar.
“One of our primary missions is to seek out young talent that’s becoming a practitioner of the art form,” he said.
Kala’e Parish, a 32-year-old, Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning Native Hawaiian country artist from Waimea, is one of those younger talents who performed Sunday. He said being able to jam with the likes of Ka’awa, Brother Noland, and the other legendary musicians was “a huge honor.”
“I felt privileged to be able to sit in with some of my musical heroes, the guys I’ve looked up to for a long time, that I’ve gotten to watch perform. It was really cool. It’s always a highlight to play with one of your heroes,” he said.
Maui slack-key artist Anthony Pfluke, 23, was also excited to share the stage with some of the talented slack-key artists during the festival.
“I was honored to perform as part of the Kona Slack Key Festival alongside many of those who’ve perpetuated Kīhōʻalu so that it’s alive today,” he said.
He said the first time he ever heard slack-key music live was when John Keawe played at the Kihei Public Library. On Sunday, he got to see him live again.
“It was beautiful hearing his mele nahenahe (soothing, heart-felt music) once again,” he said.
Pfluke also paid tribute to his mentor, Uncle George Kahumoku Jr., as well as Uncle Ledward Kaʻapana who played alongside Kaʻawa and Chris Lau during the event.
Traditionally, Hawaiian slack key guitar was performed amongst family, at parties, or for entertainment.
But over the years this genre of music has grown increasingly more popular. Exposure to the Hawaiian slack-key style began in the 1960’s, with artists such as Leonard Kwan, Ray Kāne, Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui.
Pahinui may have been the first to record a Hawaiian song featuring a slack-key guitar when he released “Hi‘ilawe” in 1946. He was also the artist the first Hawai’i Slack Key Guitar Festival paid tribute to on O’ahu 41 years ago.
Brother Noland said he remembered what it was like being the up-and-coming musician at that first festival, learning from some of the legendary slack-key guitarists of that time.
Now, it’s time for him and the others to pass along the knowledge.
“We have to carry the torch now,” he said.
The following artiststs performed at the 26th Annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival-Kona Style: