Album: Waimea Cowboy
CD Id: SLCD-2003
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||Slack Key # 1
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Slack-key is hardly a dying art . . . anyone who'd say so just doesn't know where to go to hear this kind of music . . . even with Sonny playing regularly at Honey's in Waikiki, as he did before at Honey's down the country in Kane-ohe.
Long before the steel guitar was accidentally discovered by a Kam school boy some decades ago, slack-key was a Hawaiian custom probably 100 years old, even then. It was in the early 1800's that guitars came to Hawaii with the whalers... and a little later with the Mexicans who came to teach the Hawaiians how to be cowboys. But no lessons came with them.
No one showed the Hawaiians how to tune or play this new instrument in the conventional manner. And it's a good thing. For those Hawaiians just loosened or "slacked," the strings, tuned by ear to suit themselves and the song of the moment, and plucked out an intricate filigree of audible mood which can weave itself around the most simple melody in a characteristic sweet, rich sound that pierces your heart.
To this day, it's a rare slack-key artist who will play two songs in a row without re-tuning from one key to another. How many tunings there are, no one claims to know. There must be many, many dozen. So of course, there can hardly be any written literature for slack-key. And though many of the old, old melodies have no names, all of the tunings seem to ... names like "Wahine" and "Old Mauna Loa" . . .
A man can put as much time, talent, dedication and patience into perfecting his slack-key technique as if he were trying to become say, a first-rank violinist. And this, starting from the time a standard guitar looks as big to him as a bass. So, though Sonny has been playing slack-key for over 20 years, he's still one of the youngest of the well-known artists in the field.
It requires an almost reverent attention to one's elders . . . who are generous enough to give their tunings and techniques and melodies ... to instruct and correct the youngster who would learn what they learned from their elders before them, and in the same way. And then practice, practice, love of practice, love of the music for its own sake.
Many all-around musicians play some slack-key, even on ukulele . . . two or three tunings, a few techniques of picking, several tunes. . . but the "pure" slack-key artists of quality are few. (Most of them can play the other stringed instruments, but choose not to.) Among the some-time professionals today, you'd be lucky to count half a dozen. Among non-professionals, probably an equal number who play only as a hobby.
Appreciators of this music, who are legion, can identify most any of the great ones by ear alone. . . so individual is the style each has developed. Yet all recognizably follow the same tradition. For instance, no one can match Sonny for speed, but this Irish-Hawaiian doesn't play so fast only for show, but because that's the way he feels like playing. And it doesn't mean he always plays that way. But speedy or sweet, it's always identifiably Sonny's style.
Now musical scholars can use words like "fugue" and "counterpoint" and talk about antique instruments and comparative sound, and mention 17th century composers for the classical guitar and if you're a concert-goer or that kind of stereo-listener, you'll see the point. But if you're the "I'm-no-expert-but-I-know-what-I-like" type, you'll enjoy this music just as much without the lecture.
Because some things don't have to be explained ... or can't be: like why you fall in love, or what happens to you when you hear slack-key.