History of Ki-ho'alu
Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar (ki-ho'alu) is a truly one of the greatest acoustic guitar traditions in the world. Ki-ho'alu, which literally means "loosen the key," is the Hawaiian language name for the solo finger picked style unique to Hawai'i. In this tradition, the strings (or keys)" are "slacked" to produce major chord, or a chord with a major 7th note, or sometimes one with a 6th note in it. Each tuning produces a lingering sound behind the melody and has characteristic resonance and fingering.
Many Hawaiian songs and slack key guitar pieces reflect themes like stories of the past and present and people's lives. But it is the tropical surroundings of Hawai'i, with its oceans, volcanoes and mountains, waterfalls, forest, plants and animals, that provide the deepest source of inspiration for Hawaiian music.
These currents run deep in slack key guitar playing, as accompaniment to vocals, as instrumental composition or as interpretations of vocal pieces. Slack key guitar music is sweet and soulful, and it is said that slack key is drawn from the heart and soul out through the fingers of each player.
There is a mystique surrounding slack key guitar music-it is very personal, and can be very magical in feeling. Slack key derives its unique sound from techniques such as "hammering-on" and "pulling off." These techniques mimic the yodels and falsettos common in Hawaiian singing. Harmonics ("chiming"), produced by lightly touching the strings at certain points on the fretboard, and slides in which one or two treble notes are cleffed and then slid (usually up) to sound another note, are also common. All these enhance the feeling of aloha, joy or longing expressed, sometimes all in the same song.
Like blues, slack key guitar is very flexible. Often, the same guitarist will play a song differently each time, something using different tempos, and even different tunings. As each guitarist learns to play slack key, they find their own individual tunings, repertoire, tempos and ornaments. It is a very individualistic tradition and, as one can hear from different recordings, each guitarist plays quite differently from the others.
There are different theories about the beginnings of slack key guitar in the Islands. Music is one of the most mobile of cultural forms, and the six-string guitar was probably originally introduced to the Hawaiians by European sailors around the beginning of the 19th century.
Guitars were also brought to Hawai'i by Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys), hired by King Kamehameha III around 1832 to teach the Hawaiians how to handle an overpopulation of cattle. Many of them worked on the Big Island of Hawai'i , especially around the Waimea region.
In the evenings around the camp fire, the vaqueros probably played their guitars, often two together, with one playing lead melody and other bass and chords. This new instrument would have intrigued the Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, as they came to be called, who had their own strong, deep rooted music traditions. However, given the strenuous work, the Hawaiians possibly didn't have time to learn a lot about this new music.
When the hired cowboys returned to the mainland a few years later, some of them gave their guitars to the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians incorporated what they had learned form the Mexican and Spanish music into their traditional chants, songs, and rhythms, and thus created a new form of guitar music. Hawaii's own unique musical traditions tended to dominate, as they did with the other musical influences that came their way from the rest of the world, and over time, it blended into a sound that became completely the Hawaiians' own.
At first, there possibly weren't a lot of guitars, or people who knew how to play, so the Hawaiian 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.
The gut string guitar (the precursor to modern nylon string guitar) brought by the cowboys has a very different sound than the steel guitar, which came to the Islands later, probably brought in by the Portuguese around the 1860s. The steel string sound caught on with the Hawaiians, and became very popular by the late 1880s, by which time slack key had spread to all the Hawaiian Islands.
The slack key tradition was given an important boost during the reign of King David Kalakaua, who was responsible for the Hawaiian cultural resurgence of the 1880s and 1890s. He supported the preservation of ancient music, while encouraging the addition of imported instruments like the 'ukulele and guitar. His coronation in 1883 featured the guitar combination with the ipu (gourd drum) pahu (skin drum) in a new form called hula' ku'i, and at his Jubilee (celebration) in 1886, there were performances of ancient chants and hula. This mixing of the old and new contributed to the popularity of both the guitar and ukulele.
King Kalakaua's conviction that the revitalization of traditional culture was at the root of the survival of the Hawaiian Kingdom became a major factor in the continuity of traditional music and dance. His influence still shows. This was a great period of Hawaiian music and compositions, when traditional music was actively supported by the monarch. Kalakaua, along with his siblings W.P. Leleiohoku II, Miriam Likelike and especially Lili'uokalani, composed superb songs that are still well-known today. After King Kalakaua passed away in 1891, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani, who was Hawai'i's last monarch. Among her classic pieces are Aloha 'Oe, Sanoe, Ku'u Pua I Paoakalani, Pau'ahi O Kalani, Ahe Lau Makani, He Onoa No Ka'iulani, Manu Kapalulu, Queen's Jubilee, Queen's Prayer, Ka Hanu O Ka Hana Keoki, Ninipo (Ho'onipo) Tutu, He Ai No Kalani, Ka Oiwa Nani and many other beautiful songs. These compositions are still deeply part of Hawai'i's music today.
As 2007 moves along, slack key guitar music has been embraced by hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe. Further, mainstream artists such as Ry Cooder, Steve Vai, Doyle Dykes, and others have also embraced the art form to further continue the evolving history of Ki-ho'alu. It has been said that Hawaiian Slack Key influenced the early bluesmen of America and Bluegrass Music. Joseph Kekuku, inventor the the original steel guitar, influenced Country and Western Music and the pedal steel that is used in country and western music. The early tunings of the blues came from a Hawaiian musician traveling the continent many many decades ago. In our eyes, Ki-ho'alu is a gift from the almighty to be shared throughout the universe as a tool to bring together the people of all stations in life and all races to walk together as one in love and aloha. Imua !
back to top