Reviews

George Kahumoku

Jamie O'Brien
George Kahumoku

George Kahumoku

City: Alexandria, Virginia
Venue: The Birchmere
Date: 2003-07-13

When Hawaiian slack key guitarist and singer George Kahumoku Jr. comes to town, expect something different. He never plays a song the same way twice, never tells a story quite like the last time. He's a one-off person in real life and it's the same when he's on stage -- every performance is different, every performance another journey through the world he inhabits and every performance is the essence of aloha. There are two George Kahumokus: the Hawaiian, steeped in the traditions and history of his culture; and the 'Modern Man' who has traveled, studied and worked throughout the world. It's with these perspectives that he takes the stage and with these insights that he transports his audiences. But first, the evening began with a darkness descending on the room, the sounds of ocean waves and the wind, followed by the appearance of members of Halau Ho'omau, a Washington-based hula school. A 30-minute journey in words, hula and chant followed, presenting an abridged introduction to the history of Hawaii, its people and culture. Kumu Hula (master teacher) Manu Ikaika invoked the spirit of Hawaii with his dancers, his own chanting and the narration. This was not 'tourist hula', waving grass skirts and fixed smiles. As Kahumoku commented "it's a treasure to see real hula here in Washington", so far away from the Pacific and its homeland. And then it was his turn. He sat in a pool of light, perched on a stool on one side of the stage, with his black graphite Rainsong 12-string guitar nestling on his lap. The room was almost full, but the layout of the Birchmere and the persona of the performer combined to create an intimate atmosphere, something essential for ki ho'alu. An oli (Hawaiian chant), accompanied by a softly strummed guitar, opened his show. He learnt "E Ho Mai Ka Ike" from his mentor, the legendary singer Edith Kanaka'ole. It's a quiet chant which helps soothe the soul and prepare both chanter and listeners for what is to come. Much of his material is sung in the Hawaiian language. In spite of its hard consonants and glottal stops, it is a soft melodic tongue, well-suited to the image-laden songs. And Kahumoku, a strong baritone, digs deeply into the meanings without sounding theatrical. His range extends from resonant bass notes to ethereal falsetto, all contrasting well with the soft, breathy talking voice he uses to translate lyrics between verses. He was in the mood for audience participation; many of the songs included tongue-twisting choruses which he taught with consummate ease. It is quite a feat to sing verses in English, while leaving your English-speaking audience to handle the chorus in Hawaiian, which is what happened with the song "Hanohano Hawaii/Sweet Lei Lehua". Individual styles of ki ho'alu vary greatly from musician to musician. Kahumoku used the traditional and versatile Taro Patch open G tuning. His guitar is resonant, particularly responding to chiming high end sounds, without losing any depth. And while he steadily picks a solid bass accompaniment, he incorporates many slides and harmonics into the melody lines, making a lively and upbeat sound. He also enjoys deadening the strings to create a contrasting pizzicato effect, which is especially attractive behind his vocals. He performed a wide range of songs, from traditional Hawaiian to haole (sung in English), and from his own songbook to the works of other composers. His repertoire is vast and he included wistful love songs ("Kealia"), Island standards ("Hi'ilawe"), paniolo or Hawaiian cowboy songs ("Kaula 'ili"), about gathering seaweed ("Ka Uluwahi O Ke Kai") and more. Through the lyrics, he gave a sense of what it means to be Hawaiian, especially with the two Queen Lilli'uokalani classics with which he ended the evening. Spontaneity is an important part of his show. He selects each song as he goes along, choosing the most appropriate based on audience reaction. Much to her surprise, he invited Nancy Sweeney, his regular dancer (who was enjoying a rare night off, courtesy of the Halau Ho'omau), to perform a hula to "Hanalei Moon"; he then proceeded to enlist the audience to sing the song to his guitar accompaniment. 'Talkstory' is an Island concept and Kahumoku is a master at the art. Some of his stories are well known through his performances and his book, while others are rarely heard. But each one takes on a new lease of life as he highlights different aspects of events. It's not stand up comedy, it's not dry history, not social commentary, nor fable. It's something in between: short descriptions of things he or others close to him have done, which illustrate one aspect or another of life in the Islands. They're often punctuated by Kahumoku's outbursts of laughter, though his occasional silences are poignant. Sometimes, these stories are connected with a song and sometimes they are told just to pass time. They can be educational (as when he describes the origins and development of ki ho'alu) and they can be self-deprecating (as when he describes a fishing adventure). But there is always a feeling of spontaneity, that even he doesn't know where the story is leading. Throughout the evening, he invited the Halau Ho'omau dancers to take the stage, and encouraged them to perform hulas not often seen on the mainland. In some dances, they used ipu (gourd 'drums' which are tapped by hand) and in others pu'ili (strands of split bamboo tapped against each other or on the body in a kind of Hawaiian morris dance!), along with the more commonly seen hand movements. Their elegance and grace was inspiring. Like a conductor, he moves the dancers through a tune or guides the audience through a chorus. He is in his element, singing and story-telling, entertaining everybody. George Kahumoku Jr. is a rare performer, one who loves and lives his culture and traditions and opens them with great respect to other people.


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