Hawaiian Slack Key

Gérard Koch and Milton Lau
Gérard Koch and Milton Lau

Today, we will travel through the Nuuanu Valley to the east side of Ohau for a special interview. This time it’s the Hawaiian music, more specifically the world famous Slack Key Guitar music.

From our hotel we drive past the zoo in the Kapi’olani Park, which was founded around 1914 by Ben Hollinger, through an older business district, to reach the motorway exit „H1“. The driveway there has a little in itself, if you are not in the thing, you are quickly headed in a different direction. Now it is called, threading properly on the highway. Here, too, I have to be very careful, because after a short time later, I see over the highway hanging the green giant sign with the arrow Exit 23B „63 Pali Hwy„. From this exit, it leads right to the next traffic artery, which allows us to cross through the beautiful jungle-covered mountains. Many motorists, called tourists, do not realize by which historical and interesting rich area they drive. There are several Buddhist temples like Honpa Hongwanji, Daijing Temple, Nichiren Mission, Kagyu Thegchen Ling Temple and several more as well as a lot of churches.

Byodo-In Buddhist Temple in Oahu, Hawaii. Foto: Anna Gorin

So many different cultures and faith communities in such a small space are impressive. You will also pass the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific as well as the Kapena Falls, Nu’uanu Memeorial Park, a bit more remote and accessible via Nu’uanu Ave the Mauna Ala Royal Mausoleum where the Hawaiian monarchy is buried and many general consulates. Wherever a stop needs to be planned, the Queen Emma Summer Palace is like Queen Emma Preschool hidden behind huge trees and shrubs. A breathtaking view can be found literally in the Lookout Nu’uanu Pali as in the Pali Notches. The wind can be so stormy there that it robs you of your breath.

Historically, the last three are truly interesting.

Although I almost press the gas pedal through the car chassis, the sheet metal housing on wheels has some trouble uphill. Immediately after the lookout, the mountain Pali swallows us up and we drive through the old Nu’uanu Pali Tunnel, which was opened in 1953, to the other side of the island. Once you’ve driven out of the tunnel, you can hardly believe your eyes to catch this dreamy, enchanting vision of the island.


View from Pali Lookout – ©Foto Gérarad Koch

Simply incomprehensible! What I celebrated earlier with the accelerator pedal, I now deal with the brake. Because now it goes downhill heavily. I’m also preparing for my favorite curve, which turns the street by exactly 180 degrees. Hardly out of the corner, I have to slow down considerably the car to turn sharp left again next to the „83“ direction Kaneohe. The island of Oahu was not given much land at birth to build the roads far and comfortably as we know them everywhere else. As the Hawaiians discuss directly and imperturbably, the streets are also constructed so directly.

In Kaneohe turn left onto the „63“ and right again onto the „83“ Kahekili Hwy towards Ahuimanu, our destination to meet Milton Lau.

Milton Lau, left, with Dennis Kamakahi, who will perform at the 30th Annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival. Thanks to Lau’s efforts as an organizer, there are plans to bring the festival to USA and beyond. –Star-Advertiser / 2010

Born in 1960 and raised in Kaneohe, Oahu, Milton Lau played the guitar behind his birthplace as a teenager. In this time, the 60s, the Hawaiians played their guitar mostly for themselves or in their family circle, but barely public. When Milton Gabby Pahinui met and played at a party with his uncle, he was so fascinated by his music that in 1978 Milton asked Gabby if he wanted to jam guitar with him. So it happened that both played guitar together, which resulted in a close good friendship between Milton and Gabby, until 1980 Gabby died unexpectedly.

Gabby Pahinui

Gabby Pahinui was a well-known Slack Key musician at the time. Milton Lau has decided that he wanted to set up a festival in memory of Gabby and in appreciation of his contribution to Hawaiian music. In 1982, after hard work, Milton Lau created the first Slack Key Festival on Waimanalo Beach, where Gabby grew up, with famous musicians. The festival was so overwhelming that Milton himself was amazed by this huge success. That was the birth of today’s highly successful Slack Key Festival. Milton and his festival were so effective that this event made the leap to the USA. Milton Lau is the founder of the Slack Key Festival.

What is Slack Key Guitar and where does it come from?
Hawai’ian cowboys

The arrival of the guitar on the Hawaiian Islands took a strange course. The origin can be found in James Cook, who had then exposed cattle on the island, to find in the future when approaching the atoll, fresh meat of the increased cows. The animals flocked splendidly in this wilderness, multiplying in numbers and forcing King Kalakaua to ask Mexican and Portuguese cowboys to his land to control this „cow plague“. The Hawaiians knew during this time neither the animal let alone the livestock. So the first cowboys came to Hawaii with their guitars. When the plague was contained, the Portuguese and Mexicans returned to their land, leaving their instrument, the guitar, to the Hawaiians. The islanders could not read notes, did not know what a note was and just played by ear, with feeling and with heart. To tune a guitar was just as unknown to them, so they relaxed the strings or actually detuned them.

Through this slowly developed the Hawaiian music style which became world famous around 1960. Slack-key guitar means from the Hawaiian kī hō’alu, which means „loosen the [vocal] key“. This South Seas style of music influenced significantly the blues in the United States as well.

Let’s tell the story to Milton Lau in his cozy apartment:




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