In the Moment
"I'm not going to just mimic my ancestors. I'm going to create in honor of them."
Audrey Coleman talks with Hawaiian slack-key innovator Makana.
On a nippy but sunny January afternoon, the audience at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center was heating up. Cyril Pahinui, the elder statesman of Hawaiian slack key guitar, had just finished the opening set of the 2009 Southern California Slack Key Guitar Festival. Then the lights came up on a slim, pale 31-year old with sandy curls pulled back from his face. With an approving roar, the audience welcomed Makana, who has carried the slack key guitar tradition forth with respect and brought it into the domain of world fusion music with artful innovation.
Greeting the audience of Hawaiians and Hawaiians-at-heart, Makana, played a set to please traditionalist and fusion fans alike. His selection ranged from tenderly rendered melodies from the traditional Hawaiian repertoire to arrangements of Hawaiian songs thick with ornamentation, flamenco-like flourishes or intense, hand-blurring strums. He played original, jazz-infused compositions with electric energy. Perhaps the most moving moment came when he interpreted a Portuguese fado made famous by his teacher, the late Sonny Chillingworth. His sweet, youthful voice quivering with emotion, he stepped down from the potted palm-lined platform, striding to the edge of the stage to get as close as he could to his audience.
Makana has no problem balancing traditional Hawaiian music with his world fusion leanings. "My heritage is slack key guitar," he says. "That's my cultural heritage. My life is forever dedicated to the living tradition of slack key guitar - which means I'm not going to just mimic my ancestors. I'm going to create in honor of them."
Makana is so steeped in this Hawaiian cultural heritage that the word ancestors floats by easily despite the fact that he is not of Hawaiian blood. His father is a Minnesotan who migrated to Hawaii with a love of the ocean, his mother Oahu-born of Chinese parentage, which makes Makana one quarter Chinese. Born Matthew Swalinkavich, he was given the name Makana by his high school Hawaiian language teacher. He adopted it as his performing name in the 90s. It means gift, and the word suggests to him the ongoing lesson of learning to give his music unconditionally. He has done so at festivals, in solo gigs, and as opening acts for such music legends as Elvis Costello, Sting, Santana, and Chris Isaak.
Makana likes to explain the origins of ki ho 'alu to audiences. In the 19th century, he recounts, the Hawaiians made contact with the guitar through whaling ships and Spanish vaqueros brought in by Hawaiian royalty to teach Hawaiian cowboys how to handle cattle. Over time, Hawaiians developed their own ingenious approach to playing the instrument. Instead of contorting their fingers to achieve various chords, they tuned their guitars to produce chords, a technique some call "open tuning." This "slacking" of the strings to dozens of different chords or tunings gave the left hand freedom to play melody, with the lower three strings typically playing a bass line.
Over the past two years, two cultural landmarks have chosen Makana as Hawaiian music ambassador.In December, he played in the White House at a cocktail party for about 800 people. He described his meeting with the Obamas in his blog:
Several months before, in July 2009, the plush Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Waikiki historic landmark, re-opened its Monarch Room with a series of concerts called "Curators of Hawaiian Music." Makana was the first artist to be featured. Determined to give his show depth and not simply do "a tourist show," he designed the stage with a billowing sail and canoe plus a front porch to suggest the lives of Hawaiians, past and present.
His band included musicians he collaborates with on a regular basis—Lono Kaumeheiwa (bass guitar and nose flute) Lopaka Colon (percussion, djembe, traditional Hawaiian instruments as well as African and Latin instruments, and bird calls) and Buck Giles (steel guitar).He also featured a beautiful elderly hula dancer known as Aunty Flo 'Iwalani Koanui, who did an off-color comic number that Makana made all the funnier by pretending not to understand her innuendos. . He lived up to the publicity for the "Curators" show that billed him as a Hawaiian slack key/world fusion artist.
"My own style is high octane, intense, passionate," he shared over a quick morning-after-the-show breakfast at the Royal Hawaiian (in a private garden tent!). "It's different from the other slack key players. There's bluegrass and rock and flamenco and Arabic all mixed into it."
One of his modes he calls "slack rock" but he is quick to say that the word rock does not lock him into a certain identity, dress, or behavior. "Slack rock is the technique of slack key with the energy of rock and roll. I've got too much energy coming through to just stand there. We are energy, we're not static. It's ingrained in young people to become something. And I've never bought into that. I've always enjoyed transformation and transcendence—change that I initiate. Instead of the ego saying this is who I am in any context, deal with it, world. It's like – okay, I'm invited to the Monarch Room. It's a luxury collection, a classy place with a huge history. The performers used to wear tuxedos. So I bring my own style. Italian suits. Hawaiian tapa prints."
He described the atmosphere he was trying to create with the show. "In the background you can see the trees and that represents the aina (the land)) and then the canoe is sailing towards makai, the ocean, and you had the tikis at the front of the canoe. I wanted to reference the different aspects of the journey."
The morning after the Monarch Room show, between mouthfuls of brown-sugar-sweetened oatmeal and with an eye consulting his watch regularly, the performer reflected on his unique musical journey of the past 20 years. At eleven, ki ho'alu-smitten Matt began learning traditional slack key guitar with 21-year old Bobby Moderow, who was building a musical reputation with the now-acclaimed group Maunalua and whose chief mentor was ki ho 'alu master Raymond Kane. "I learned every song Bobby knew over two years and he was teaching me Raymond Kane style…," recalled Makana. "Now, slack key has many styles. Raymond Kane's style they describe as the nahe nahe style and it means real sweet-sounding to the ear, very mellow. It's associated with tradition. It's not fancy, there's no real high speed picking and tricks. It's a solid alternating bass with a lot of runs up and down the board and hammer-ons and pull-offs. It's a kind of music you would associate with sitting alone watching the sunset or in the backyard playing on the porch."
Meeting a contemporary of Raymond Kane, Sonny Chillingworth, at a Slack Key Festival, he found an elder who was eager to teach him. Young Matt studied with Uncle Sonny under a grant from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Although Chillingworth passed away just a few years later, his art remains alive in Makana's memory. "Uncle Sonny Chillingworth's style is almost the polar opposite (of Raymond Kane's). He is a speed demon on the guitar. He can do arpeggios while continuing the bass. He can also do hammer-ons and pull-offs but really fast runs that took (me) a lot of time to pick up."
His recent CD release, Venus and the Sky Turns to Clay, is rooted in slack key but explores multiple moods while showcasing a dazzling technique. Although there are 15 numbered cuts on the album, the total musical effect is of a single tone poem surging and receding with waves of passion. Makana was excited to learn recently through his blog that Venus was being played for cancer patients by some oncologists to help patients receiving chemotherapy infusions to relax.
Koi Au, his 2002 CD, incorporates Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, bluegrass, Hawaiian, Portuguese, African, Mambo, western classical and jazz influences. The Hawaiian nose flute co-exists with the violin, viola, cello, and various guitars, electric and acoustic. In honor of his Hawaiian cultural roots, he features Cyril Pahinui (who opened the SoCal Slack Key Fest) on six-string guitar, joining him in, "E Nihi Ka Hele," a song King David Kalakaua wrote for his wife before she left to attend Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebration. He also plays the fast-paced "Slack Key No. 1," a composition of nimble-fingered Sonny Chillingworth. He performed these two songs at the SoCal Slack Key Festival.
Makana: Ki Ho'Alu: Journey of Hawaiian Slack Key, released in 2003, is his most traditional release to date. It mixes his own compositions with those of musicians well known in the traditional Hawaiian music community, from Queen Lili'uokalani to Raymond Kane.
To follow Matt/Makana's personal and musical journey is to explore the interwoven careers and personalities that have made ki ho'alu a unique Hawaiian tradition and brought it into the spotlight on the mainland with three Grammy-winning slack key compilations.
Makana is eager to educate people in the multiple styles and nuances within the ki ho 'alu genre."Gabby Pahinui had multiple styles. Pops was first and foremost a steel guitar player before slack key. Then as a slack key guitar master, he is a solo master, where he played with soul. It's rare in a guitar style – it allows the player's total personality to shine through. That's what's special."
Gabby's style lives on in his sons Cyril, Martin, and Bla. But it also incorporates the influence of Gabby's contemporaries, Makana pointed out. "Now when we talk about tradition, Atta Isaacs is one of the lesser known masters but one of the most influential. Gabby's family carries on mainly Atta style. Atta Isaacs played in the key of C mostly and he did a lot of moving around the fret board. He was so nimble even though he had these big thick fingers. Then you have Fred Punahoa. He taught Sonny Lim and Ledward Ka'apana. Now Ledward is my favorite slack key guitar player. So much aloha shines through when he plays. It's fun, they're tricksters. Then there's the Beamer family. That's a beautiful style. Nona Beamer the matriarch and Keola and Kapono, you just have to hear their slack key and it gives you chicken skin. It's so Hawaiian…I love it so much. You also have Auntie Alice Namakelua. She is a lot like Raymond Kane. When you start to understand all these styles, you realize they're completely different."
This sense of musical lineage came through in Makana's Royal Hawaiian Hotel Monarch Room show included an artful slide historical collage which included a photo of him with Uncle Sonny Chillingworth and one of Bobby Moderow with Uncle Raymond Kane.
Beyond the individual musicians Makana recognizes as influential to ki ho'alu, he stresses the multi-cultural musical heritage of Hawai'i. "I want to expand the association of Hawaiian music in people's minds. I think there's a stereotype that exists (sings a typical Hawaiian musical vamp- a kind of ornamented cadence). Hawaiian music is a unique encyclopedia of influence and interaction of cultures…When you talk about (the earliest) Hawaiian music, you're really talking about chants, mostly. Drums. (This tradition was) influenced by missionary music, German big band compositions, American folk traditions, the Spanish influence that came in with the arrival of the guitar, the Portuguese with the arrival of their instruments when they came to work on the plantations, all the other influences when people came to work on the plantations –from the Phillippines, China, Korea, Japan, European. Other Polynesian influences. And you're looking at the swing era when the steel guitar was invented. All of that. It's just an incredible amount of things going on inside this thing we call Hawaiian music…"
With Lono and Lopaka, Makana is expanding his musical horizons to include more Latin influence. "We feel that the melodies of Hawaii with the rhythms of Latin America – Cuban, bossa nova, tango, meringue, samba – is what Hawaiian music needs. It needs that rhythm. It reaches a greater audience. It's like you have the melody. Now bring in the rhythm."
Makana's choice of guitar is another important ingredient of his art, imbued with spiritual meaning. He plays a Takamine EM 10C cutaway with De Adario medium gauge strings. "It's always been like that," he declares. "Other people have started to emulate that. It's like they say, 'How do you get that sound?' My DNA, my sweat, my skin, have integrated into this guitar. It's one with me. It's like my mana (life force/spiritual energy) is in this guitar. You see the front of my guitar how it's just completely worn away. It's my wife….I'm so loyal to that guitar. Takamine finally just sent me another one. It's wearing away so much there's not much left. ..It's like your lover passing away and you have to learn to love again…My guitar that Sonny gave me, another Takamine, was stolen from my home in 2005… and that was my best friend. And so, what it taught me was: It's not the guitar. It's really the mana inside of us, the musicians. The channel that we become. The instrument plays us."
At another morning-after-the-show breakfast, this time after the Southern California Slack Key Festival, Makana was sitting outdoors at a little café in Marina del Rey eating a hefty portion of eggs with pancakes. He wanted to gain weight, but the pace of his life seemed to keep his metabolism burning off the calories - he has gigs booked around the world and he works charitable events into his schedule on a regular basis, not only playing at fundraisers, but also educating Hawaiian schoolchildren through his own project. He founded Leaving a Legacy for the Children of the Land or I Ho'ili Kamali'i in 2008 with funds from his fan base, working in cooperation with the Hawaiian Arts Alliance.
Reflecting on his breakneck creative output, Makana seemed pleased though admittedly tired. "I'm like a businessman. I organize everything myself. I'm the kind of guy that if I have an idea, I make it happen….My favorite thing to do is the process of composing. I've gotten to the point where I'd rather not even finish a song because I love the uncertainty of where it could go. I enjoy it so much. I'm so blessed. I'm not addicted to that security feeling. I don't mind the open-endedness of life. I love it. It's like I've died and now I'm living."
Alongside his music, his philosophy of living seems to preoccupy him. He sees his musical journey as his destiny and believes he has a Karmic spiritual mission which involves the energy of two opposing forces. "One is…the force that is attempting to uphold the illusion of form and all of this. The other is the one trying to rip it apart and show you God. Because I feel like there's more juice on the first side, I'm on the other side –I'm trying to rip this thing apart. I'm like Shiva, I'm a destroyer but I create to destroy. I like to destroy illusions. And (I do) so through my art, whether it's composition, performing, education, or film, I'm publishing a book …about inspiring people to discover their limitless potential."
Having gotten his protein fix with the eggs, the artist gazed down at his pancakes thoughtfully. Then he rose and entered the café in search of maple syrup. Whether it's eating breakfast or spreading music, Makana savors life, one sweet moment at a time. - Audrey Coleman
Audrey Coleman is a freelance journalist, columnist for folkworks.org and passionate explorer of traditional and world music.
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