Explaining Hawaiian slack key guitar is relatively simple. Take a guitar, pick a melody on the high strings, play a bass line, and use the middle strings to add rhythm. Harmonics, harmonies, runs and percussive effects help. That's slack key.
Now, really explaining slack key is not quite so simple because it's many things to many people. Scenery, weather, family, fauna and flora influence the player. And so do imported musical traditions such as Portuguese fada, even Jamaican reggae, the blues, jazz, and more. Slack key playing is a response to what is around you, to your mood, your character. The hackneyed claim that you never play the same tune the same way twice is so true in slack key music.
Take two brothers, both superb musicians, and you wind up with two separate approaches to playing. It's not just that George Kahumoku Jr. plays a 12-string guitar, while Moses plays a six-string. Each player has his own unmistakable style. And on this 45-minute long, nine track CD, the differences are apparent as they chop and change lead and accompaniment with each other.
But first, the overall style: it's said the guitar was introduced by Mexican cowboys (paniola) brought to Hawaii to teach the Islanders how to manage an out-of-control population of cattle. When they left, their guitars remained. The rest, as they say, is history.
For this album, the Kahumoku Brothers have chosen to feature a very Spanish way of playing. The CD opens with "Spanish Song", a piece that would not be out of place on a flamenco album, and is probably very similar to the first music the Hawaiians heard from their visitors. The melody Moses plays, the runs, triplets, chords and, most of all, his phrasing, is pure Spanish. The effect is heightened by George's steady approach to rhythm -- initially with bass runs, later with strummed chords.
The Spanish approach runs throughout the album, even on standards such as the "Hilo March" and "Maui Chimes" medley or the beautiful waltz "Pua Lilia". The latter particularly shows the difference in their playing -- George takes full advantage of his guitar's ringing qualities to glide through the tune, whereas Moses relies on a tremolo effect to create a resonance with the melody.
They introduce elements of jazz and swing on "Tennis Elbow Swing", a fast paced tune based on a strong bass line (at times you have to remind yourself this is just two guitars) and featuring George with his rich sliding sound weaving in and out of Moses' rocking improvisations.
"December at Mauna Kea", composed by the pair, is a gentle waltz with a strong melody of which they take full advantage with their gentle approach. They also highlight the differences in sound of their instruments with the pizzicato nylon strung guitar taking center stage, while the steel strings of the 12-string hover behind the tune creating a near-harpsichord sound.
The humor in their playing is evident throughout the album, but especially when they explore the instrumental possibilities of "Mauna Kea Mosquito", reinterpreting the tune each time through, playing with rhythm changes and creating startling effects with different voicings of chords, speedy runs through the strings and more.
Sweet & Sassy is a reissue of an 1988 vinyl release. The eight tracks from the original album are rounded out on the CD with a bonus track: "No Ke Ano Ahiahi" is another traditional piece and is the only vocal. The tune is very close to a chant with the main body of the verses basically using only three notes, the last line adding two more. Perhaps for this reason, they seem to play with the arrangement, creating sounds reminiscent of groups such as the Beatles and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The contrast in their voices is also notable -- Moses with his clipped style, George with his gentler, laid back vocal. (Does guitar style influence your singing, perhaps it's the other way around?)
On such an outstanding album where every track is so enticing, it might seem strange to single one tune out in particular. But it's hard to look on "Dad's Slack Key" as being anything other than exceptional. A family piece handed on by their father, George Sr., this is a fast moving jazzy tune with many phases, perfect for improvisation. At times, the brothers play it almost as a question-and-answer piece, at times they sit back letting the other reinterpret the melody. It's the perfect tune to allow players to ho'oi'o --show off! Moses and George accept the challenge with relish. Their obvious enjoyment is contagious and inspiring.
From a production point of view, this is a well-recorded album, nicely transferred to CD. The balance between the two guitars (and voices) is well-maintained, neither intruding on the other, allowing you to focus on the melody while being aware of the accompanying playing and vice versa. (The accompaniments are worth listening to in their own right). At times, I feel Moses' guitar might have been better miked, though his playing is so good and the arrangements so strong, the lesser quality in his sound doesn't really detract from the overall effect.
The variety and diversity that exist in slack key tradition is astounding. This particular Spanish approach is in some ways a little more aggressive than other styles, yet it still retains the other qualities of the genre. And within this style, these two guitarists maintain their own identities while gelling perfectly with each other. The Kahumoku Brothers played together for over two decades and each has established himself as a major force in ki ho'alu (slack key guitar) music. Now I wonder when we might expect a Volume 2?