An Hawaiian Passion
Christina Roden Talks With Dancing Cat's Slack Key Guitar Librarian, George Winston

He is a well-known piano soloist and guitarist who has contributed a series of what he calls "rural folk piano" recitals to the American soundscape. Among his best-selling recordings for the Windham Hill label, "December" is a holiday must-have with the Martha Stewart plaid-ribbon crowd, and "Linus And Lucy", a collection culled from soundtracks composed by the late Vince Guaraldi, is nearly as ubiquitous. But George Winston's avowed life's work is to archive and promote Hawaii's ripely gorgeous, melody-obsessed slack key guitar tradition. Speaking by phone, he says, "People think I'm an artist, but I'm a worker, a listener. My own playing is what I do after work! I play as well as I can but that's somebody else's record collection! 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, slack key is the lens I look at existence through!"

Winston recalls that his initial impressions of Hawaiian pop music were not terribly positive. "Hawaiian music was so commercial;" he says, "I used to skip the Hawaiian bands when I was searching for the missing matter in the universe." But when he heard an old recording of Gabby Pahinui, he was awed and charmed. "Gabby was the founder for the modern slack key era. He made the first slack key recordings in 1946, four songs in four different tunings, which astounded everybody!" he recalls, "It just reeked of folk music! I said, 'That's what I've been looking for and never gotten anyplace else!' He's like what Professor Longhair was to New Orleans rhythm and blues piano."

Slack key tuning and a local version of slide guitar already existed in Hawaii by 1889, predating the better-known mainland country acoustic slide and electric steel guitar by more than 60 years. Hawaiian string players had created the special tunings in pursuit of a lushly harmonized strum. Winston has a favorite, unproved theory about how Hawaiian music's characteristic bent and gliding notes evolved. "I think the Hawaiians must have heard veena players from India!", he suggests. A more provable influence was added during the 1830s, when the British government sent the Hawaiian people a gift of cattle, which multiplied prodigiously. "The Vaqueros, Spanish and Mexican cowboys had been hired by the King to teach Hawaiians how to ride horses and rope cattle." explains Winston. The cowboys brought their gut-stringed guitars along and played around the campfire. The Hawaiians admired their music and so grafted a Spanish flavor onto their own Polynesian chants and rhythms. Some thirty years later, the Portuguese introduced the steel-stringed guitar, which became the instrument of choice for Hawaiian music.

Until recently, slack key was mostly unknown outside of Hawaii, largely due to the Islands' isolation. Winston realized that the remaining old masters were getting older and that their repertoire, tunings and fingering techniques were in danger of dying with them. He formed his own label, Dancing Cat, in the mid-1980s in order to preserve slack key for posterity. "Well, it was my money! I don't know what the sales are - it's not dedicated to commerciality." Winston says earnestly, "It was my job to make slack key more available. This is what I'm supposed to be doing, if I choose to accept it, so to speak." Winston admits that he is not heavily immersed in Hawaiian folkways. He prefers to leave cultural veracity to the performers and concentrate the music itself. "You've got only so many hours in the day. My business is to be a sound librarian.", he asserts. "I'm dealing with pure sound. Personally, I care nothing about what the songs are about. I'm not interested in gurus, I'm interested in the God itself - sound; what the guitar is doing underneath and what the guitar breaks are going to be. If the song is most powerful as a vocal, that's how we record it."

Ledward K.
Ledward Kaapna
As the world continues to grow smaller, many of the younger slack key players are anxious to collaborate with musicians from outside Hawaii. A Dancing Cat regular, Ledward Kaapana, has just released a wonderful CD called "Waltz Of The Wind." The guest artists include Alison Krause, Ricky Skaggs, the amazing steel guitar virtuoso, Bob Brozman and Winston himself. "Oh, the Nashville record! I tried to get Bob and Led together for nine years." says Winston, with a smile in his voice, "Led likes country music a lot, so the idea came to him to record Hawaiian and country tunes with some people from Nashville. It kind of mellowed the two traditions. Acoustic steel and slack key have very different textures. The glissando is in the steel, what Bob is doing, and the slack key is all staccato. If more than one person is going to play, I insist that they play different instruments, so I can hear the dialogue."

Bob Brozman
Bob Brozman has previously recorded duets on Dancing Cat with Cyril Pahinui, a son of the great Gabby, including their 1999 release "Four Hands Sweet & Hot. "Acoustic steel and slack key had never been done as duets - ever! Which is like if you said, 'well, nobody's ever recorded acoustic guitar and coke bottles being tapped'!", comments Winston, clearly amazed at the oversight. Mixtures of styles don't faze Winston and he doesn't buy the old saw that someone from outside a culture can never really play its music effectively. "They say white guys can't play the Blues. Well, if you do it for 20 years, you can! African-Americans weren't born playing it! If I heard a song 20 years ago, once, I still have a 20 year relationship with that song. Time has to go by."

The Dancing Cat label will continue to be dedicated overwhelmingly to slack key, Winston is adamant about that. "If you want Flamenco, African, Blues - you can get it. I'd love to say, 'let's go to Africa and do 80 CDs of African solo acoustic guitars', but it ain't gonna happen! I'd rather do one thing right." He is pleased by the reception the Dancing Cat recordings are receiving, but is too restless to rest on his laurels. "I'm always thinking three records ahead." he insists, "We've got 20 records out and 60 more to do. I want this encyclopedia to exist, of what happened, what slack key is and was, in case it's useful for somebody. We've got to have this encyclopedia of slack key! That's it - period!"

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© 1998 Christina Roden
Winston: Jay Blakesburg
Kaapana: Paul Schraub
Brozman: rr jones

This article originally was published in Rhythm Music Magazine, 1988

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