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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress presents

The Homegrown 2008 Concert Series
Traditional Ethnic and Regional Music and Dance that's "Homegrown" in Communities Across the US

August 5, 2008 Event Flyer

Gary Haleamau and His Band
Traditional Hawai'ian Slack-Key Guitar from Nevada

Flyer for Gary Haleamau

Gary Haleamau grew up at Hu'ehu'e Ranch in North Kona on the Big Island of Hawai'i. Family gatherings included music, and Gary's father Karin Haleamau, a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) and ki ho'alu (slack key guitar) player, encouraged his son to join in. By the time he was eight years old, Gary could accompany himself on the slack-key guitar and was playing and singing at family and neighborhood gatherings. Hawaiian aunties and uncles inspired his mastery of leo ki'eki'e, Hawaiian falsetto style of singing, and he released his debut album on Poki Records in 1977 at the age of 12. Over the past 25 years Gary has continued to record and perform, captivating audiences with beautiful vocal stylings and seemingly effortless slack key finesse.

Although Hawaii did not become a state until 1959, the Hawai'ian Islands have been understood as a "state of mind" since the 1912 Broadway debut of Richard Walton Tully's The Bird of Paradise introduced Hawaiian musicians with their ukuleles and steel guitars to audiences in the United States and Europe. Hawai'ian music has enjoyed tremendous popularity on the mainland during the past hundred years and its influence on the development of other popular American musical genres has been significant.

Despite this popularity, Hawai'ian slack key guitar, or ki ho'alu, remained virtually unknown outside of Hawai'i until 1947 when Gabby Pahinui's recording of Hi'ilawe was released on Aloha Records. Ki ho'alu is Hawai'ian for "loosen the key" and refers to the practice of changing the guitar's standard Spanish tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E) to one that sounds a chord when the unfretted (or “slacked”) strings are strummed.The G-major or "Taro Patch" tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D) is the most familiar, but there are other standard tunings and countless variations.Tunings may be traditional to a locality or to a family, or may be innovations developed by an artist.

Ki ho'alu practically requires the musician to develop a unique sound defined by tunings, tempos, ornamentation and repertoire.These variations include the use of harmonics, slides, and "hammer-on" or "pull-off " techniques that produce a second higher or lower note immediately after plucking a string. There is also considerable variety in how individual artists play the bass pattern. In slack key, the bass is plucked with the thumb on the two lower pitched strings while the melody is played on the four higher strings.

The guitar was probably introduced to Hawai'i in the early 19th century by European or American sailors or by Protestant missionaries who arrived in 1820. Guitars certainly came with Mexican and South American vaqueros brought to the Big Island by King Kamehemeha III in the 1830s to help establish its cattle industry. When these paniolos left Hawai'i, some gave their guitars to their Hawai'ian compadres. By the 1880s ki ho'alu could be heard on all the Hawai'ian islands whenever families and communities came together to socialize or celebrate.

Master slack key players Sonny Chillingworth, Leland Isaacs, Ray Kane, Leonard Kwan, Gabby Pahinui and others who released albums in the 1950s and 1960s earned recognition for ki ho'alu as a highly developed instrumental art form.Then, in 1969, the State of Hawaii recognized the value of traditional culture by establishing the State Council of Hawaiian Heritage. In the decade that followed there was an enthusiastic revival of traditions that verged on being lost. "From young composers to canoe paddlers, from ethnomusicologists to artists, from students to professors, there's a kind of stampede back to the past," author George S. Kanehele wrote in The Hawai'ian Renaissance in May of 1979. “Everybody seems to be shouting, Ho'i ana i ke kumu or 'Back to the Source.'"

This was the era in which Gary Haleamau learned to play the guitar on the Big Island. "My father Karin Haleamau, family members, and slack key masters like Fred Punahoa, Lyons Alapa'i, Kanae Kahulamu, Ledward and Nedward Ka'apana...inspired me to want to learn more about slack key playing," he recalled. "Listening to these musicians and observing their fingers in a group setting was how I learned to play..." Gary was also inspired to master leo ki'eke'e, Hawai'ian falsetto singing, in which men throw their voices up into a higher vocal range with a distinctive "break" between the registers. This technique has also been noted in Hawai'ian chanting styles and is consistent with the use in slack key of harmonics and sounds produced by hammer-on and pull-off fingering techniques.

There are now more Hawai'ians living in the mainland United States than in Hawai'i. These "off-island" communities, like the "ninth island" in Las Vegas, maintain strong family and community connections to Hawai'i and its cultural traditions. Many mainland Hawai'ians identify with and embrace their Hawai'ian heritage and place a high value on sharing aspects of culture with each other and with the larger communities in which they reside.

Rebecca Snetselaar
Folklife Program
Nevada Arts Council

American Folklife Center Logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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   March 25, 2015
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