The Slack Key Lady: An Interview with Cindy Combs

Cindy Combs is known as the Slack Key Lady, and not without good reason. Of the 30-plus albums released by Dancing Cat Records, the leader in documenting ki ho’alu music today, only one has presented the solo playing of a woman. And that woman is Cindy Combs.

Yet, the Slack Key Lady is not even Hawaiian. Her parents come from Oklahoma and she was born in San Diego; it was not until she was 10 years old that the family moved to the Islands. “My dad was in the navy,” she says of her family’s earliest connection with Hawaii. “He was stationed at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked.”

Soon after her sister was born on Oahu, the family moved to California and along came Cindy. When her father retired from the military, the family chose to live initially in the Canary Islands. “I remember one day particularly, hearing this Hawaiian music on the radio in the Canary Islands and my mom started singing along with the last verse. I was staring at her, going ‘Mom, how do you know the words to this Hawaiian music?'” It was then that Combs learned about the family’s experiences in Hawaii. The conversation might also have rekindled the call of the Islands, as the family soon after moved to Honolulu. That was 1963.

The first instrument Combs began to learn was accordion in San Diego. She still has two instruments (a diatonic button accordion and a piano accordion) and plays a little: “In fact, we had a jam just the other night — we were playing Hawaiian music.” On starting school as a fifth grader in Hawaii, “the first thing they did was pass out ukuleles and I was just in heaven… I loved ukulele and that Christmas, my folks got me a beautiful Martin. And that summer, I’d go to the Y and take ukulele lessons. That was my first stringed instrument.”

Her next step on the road to becoming the Slack Key Lady came two years later. “When I was 12, my mother joined a record club and so she asked me if I wanted to get a record.” Combs chose three: Bobby Rydell, Cher and Joan Baez. “Joan Baez just rocked my world. I got a guitar and her songbook and chord charts and started to play away.”

The worlds of folk and Hawaiian music came together in 1971. “I’d just been playing out professionally; it was the summer after I graduated from high school. I saw the ad in the paper.” Keola Beamer, already an established name in ki ho’alu, was starting a new class.

“I went along once a week for six weeks. There were about seven people in the class and I was the only girl. He would hand us the tablature, play the tune and then we would grope along with it. He’d send us home and say, ‘come back next week and play it for me.’ And I just loved it. I would get that piece memorized.”

Although Beamer was a tremendous influence on her playing, Combs also had the good fortune of being able to see such seminal greats as Sonny Chillingworth and Gabby Pahinui perform. “And then of course, there was Jerry Santos and Robert Beaumont… They formed a group called Olomana and I played slack key on their first record. Jerry was a great influence in helping me learn songs. He knew a lot of Hawaiian songs and had a great record collection.”

When asked to describe her particular style, she laughs: “Slack jazz!” This reflects her diverse tastes and her willingness to listen to a wide variety of musicians. “A lot of it comes from listening to the radio and some of the older groups which did… I don’t know how to put it, it was jazzy, the arrangements and chords and harmonies.”

Her approach attracted the attention of George Winston, who then recorded her 2001 release Slack Key Lady, the first by a woman in the Dancing Cat series. It also enabled her to join Cyril Pahinui and Dennis Kamakahi on the prestigious Slack Key Festival Tour in 2004, which traveled from Alaska to California, across the Midwest and then into the Mid-Atlantic region. These two landmarks show that Cindy Combs has joined an exclusive band of worthy performers and has now become a noted ambassador of Hawaiian music and culture.

Combs lives in Kauai. She had been going back and forth to the island since 1971. “Finally, in ’85, I went over permanently, got married, started a family and have been there ever since.” She presented a radio program for nine years. “But that station went the way of so many others. It got bought out by a conglomerate and became computerized. I was phased out.”

Currently, Combs is program director for the Rainbow Academy. “[It’s] under the wing of the Storybook Theater of Hawaii, which is a non-profit organization… I’ve just hired teachers for an after-school program in a newly renovated building. There’s a TV and recording studio in there. We’ll have after-school programs for kids, but also classes for adults, people of all ages, so they can learn hands-on TV, radio, all kinds of media, computer graphics and then theater arts, dance, circus juggling, magic, painting, drawing, set design, puppet making, puppetry, all these things.”

But music is still the main pulse in her life. “Right now, I play three nights a week with my Hawaiian trio at the Plantation Gardens Restaurant and Bar in Poipu; that’s with John Emery on ukulele and his son, Eli, who plays upright bass. We do all traditional Hawaiian music. On Friday nights, I play at the Hanapepe Café; that’s solo, mostly slack key guitar, lots of instrumentals, but I do throw in some contemporary music and my own compositions. And then Saturday nights, I’m at Hanalei Bay Resort on the North Shore in the Happy Talk Lounge that overlooks Hanalei Bay. It’s just a beautiful outdoor vista. We do Hawaiian music usually on the first set, some more in the second, and then mix it up with contemporary things.”

Along with her music, Rainbow Academy work and family, Combs appears to be living life to the full and enjoying it. She currently has many projects bubbling on the back burner, ranging from a possible new album to prospective tours. In spite of a cold and in spite of coming face to face with falling snow for the first time in her life on the slack key tour, she laughs a lot: open minded, always looking on the bright side and responding effervescently to everything coming her way.

Once, when talking to her about how she was absorbing and interpreting Hawaiian slack key music, Keola Beamer said to her, “Cindy, you should have been a local girl.” It would appear that a few years later that is exactly what Cindy Combs has become.


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