Kihoalu - Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar by Ken Goehring
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.