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Aloha Slack Key

March 9, 2010

slack.jpegThe weather not being all that cooperative in Hawaii last week, I ended up spending quite a bit of time trying to find fun things to do indoors. At the advice of a sweet and avuncular Michigan lawyer names John who was on Kauai vacationing with his wife, I followed a dirt track just outside the center of the town of Hanalei to hear a slack key guitar concert in a local community center given by a couple of Hawaiian old timers, Doug and Sandy McMaster.

Doug is one of the few people remaining on the islands who practices this old school form of guitar playing. Slack guitar is a soloistic style of playing which came into being in the late 1700s. It's purely instrumental and doesn't involve any singing, though originally it was used to accompany hula dancing and chant. It involves alternate tunings to the regular guitar tuning system (around 75 known slack guitar tunings are known of today) and extensive use of the thumb as a self-accomaniment device. The mode of playing was born when Mexican workers, who had come to Hawaii to teach the locals farming techniques (the cow had recently been introduced on the islands) left some of their instruments behind when they went home to Mexico. The locals picked up the Mexicans' guitars but didn't know how to recreate the original tunings, so developed their own systems based on what sounded good to their ears. The resulting effect is extremely melodious, sweet and mellow.

What a double-act the McMasters turned out to be! Sandy, a portly lady with a broad grin and the kind of speaking voice that could soothe the temper of the most harried politician, clearly (or at least in performance mode) wears the trousers in the relationship. She casually and almost inaudibly strums a ukelele in most of the pieces and does pretty much all of the talking, telling mystical-tinged yarns about the development of slack guitar and her and Doug's experiences over the years on the islands. She decides the playlist and tells her partner what to do at every stage. Only at one point during the two and a half hour concert did Doug get a chance to pick a tune and even then he seemed shy to do so and looked for Sandy's approval of his decision.

Doug, a gaunt gentleman with long straggly hair and a low voice, spent the first half of the concert peeping out from behind dark glasses. He has a sheepish aspect about him and a dry, understated sense of humor. He is also a very amazing musician. I was very glad to be sitting in a place where I could see Doug's fingers work the fretboard clearly. He gave the impression that he was hardly moving his thumb at all, but the musical structure was often so dense that it sounded like there should be three pairs of hands playing at once, not just one.

As the music flowed evenly like waves lapping a shore on a beautiful day, I shut my eyes and almost fell into a slumber. It's a good thing that Doug and Sandy serve Oreo cookies and water at intermission -- I needed the sustenance to kick me out of my lovely listening lethargy.

If you're on Kauai, I thoroughly recommend a trip to hear the McMasters play. They perform twice a week, on a Friday at 4pm and Sunday at 3pm in the Hanalei Community Center on Kauai's north shore


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