Kihoalu - Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar by Ken Goehring

Ken plays a piece of Kealoha

An mp3 file, about 800K

The music of Hawaii has a long and interesting history. Hawaii was first populated with people from Polynesia around 1700 years ago. Similar to other Polynesian peoples, the native Hawaiians had a rich culture with chants, gourd drums, nose flutes and dance. The topics of the chants included cultural stories and history. Music of this sort was central to the cultural heritage of the people. Contact with Europeans led to missionaries establishing themselves on the Islands. One attribute of the colonialists was a musical tradition with melodies, harmonies and true songs. The Hawaiians enjoyed the music, adopted it and from these roots developed a rich musical tradtion which continues in many forms today.

On the islands, by the late 1800's, cattle management required Spanish, Portugese and Mexican paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) to round up the feral cattle. They brought with them to the islands the guitar and the machete de braša, a 4-stringed instrument believed to be the immediate ancestor to the ukulele. The story is told that when they left -- they left some instruments and the locals ended up tuning the guitars in open chords. This is different from standard guitar tuning which doesn't sound good when all the strings are sounded simultaneously. The locals adopted the guitar and developed about 40 different tunings. Many of the these are achieved by "slacking the keys" -- tuning down some strings to be in the desired chord. Kihoalu means "slackening the keys" or "loosening the strings" in Hawaiian and is applied to this style of guitar playing. Any type of guitar can be used, but this is different from "Hawaiian Steel Guitar" which is played on the lap with heavy piece of steel applied on the strings. The Hawaiian Steel Guitar has found its way firmly into Country Western and Blue Grass music in its original form and in the form of Dobros and Pedal Steel Guitars. Until the middle of the 20th century, many of the kihoalo tunings were kept as a family secret -- not taught to strangers. In the face of the art of kihoalu fading out -- several musicians helped changed the tradition and shared the technique. It is now available in books, CD's and DVD's to anyone who wants to learn. I want to thank Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, George Kahumoko Jr., George Kuo and other "old-timers" that helped keep the music alive by sharing their secrets. I've been fortunate to have taken workshops form Keola Beamer, George Kahumoko Jr. and George Kuo during their travels through our region.

The key to kihoalu is the aloha (loosely -- love) that the muscian feels for the music. And then the music generates aloha in the listener. It has been called the "soul music" of Hawaii. Sometimes played as part of a band, it is commonly played solo nowadays. One goal in the playing of kihoalu is to have the music be nahenahe -- sweet -- and convey the aloha of the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. Having played different styles of fingerpicking guitar, I find kihoalu the most fun and relaxing to play. I haven't been playing much in standard tuning since I returned from Hawaii in 2001 after a brief vacation.