Listen but Don't Ask Question: Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar across the TransPacific

Listen but Don't Ask Question: Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar across the TransPacific

by Kevin Fellezs


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Performed on an acoustic steel-string guitar with open tunings and a finger-picking technique, Hawaiian slack key guitar music emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. Though performed on a non-Hawaiian instrument, it is widely considered to be an authentic Hawaiian tradition grounded in Hawaiian aesthetics and cultural values. In Listen But Don’t Ask Question Kevin Fellezs listens to Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and non-Hawaiian slack key guitarists in Hawai‘i, California, and Japan, attentive to the ways in which notions of Kanaka Maoli belonging and authenticity are negotiated and articulated in all three locations. In Hawai‘i, slack key guitar functions as a sign of Kanaka Maoli cultural renewal, resilience, and resistance in the face of appropriation and occupation, while in Japan it nurtures a merged Japanese-Hawaiian artistic and cultural sensibility. For diasporic Hawaiians in California, it provides a way to claim Hawaiian identity. By demonstrating how slack key guitar is a site for the articulation of Hawaiian values, Fellezs illuminates how slack key guitarists are reconfiguring notions of Hawaiian belonging, aesthetics, and politics throughout the transPacific. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478006718
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/06/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,214,455
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kevin Fellezs is Associate Professor in the Music and African American and African Diaspora Studies departments at Columbia University and author of Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion, also published by Duke University Press.

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A simple definition of [Hawaiian music] would be, like Eddie Kamae said, "A Hawaiian song must have Hawaiian lyrics." I think what Eddie means in his definition, is that the real Hawaiian stuff is with Hawaiian lyrics. I would agree in that context. But don't go to Andy Cummings and tell him "Waikiki" isn't Hawaiian, or Gabby and "Blue Hawaiian Moonlight," or Alex Anderson, or "Sweet Leilani," etc. — PETER MOON in Eldon Akamine's "A Breakthrough for Hawaiian Music" These various Natives [Haunani-Kay Trask, Davianna McGregor, George Kanahele] dispute the claims of metropolitan scholars such as Homi Bhabha, Roger Keesing, and many others, who argue contemporary indigenous cultures are so thoroughly hybridized that appeals to precontact values should be viewed as romanticized fantasies. — HOUSTON WOOD, Displacing Natives

An open-air bar and performance space are flanked on one side by a pool barely used by hotel patrons, perhaps because of the proximity of the ocean, mere steps away. On the other side of the space is a vast lobby, which includes a car valet station and a panoramic reception area. Young female hostesses stand to the side, ready to welcome guests warmly to the upscale hotel, which features a small retail space near the performance stage, with restaurants and tour agencies nestled among its jewelry and art galleries. The relaxed ambience is enhanced by its sequestered location, and an air of privileged languor permeates the expanse.

Across the waters of the hotel beach, nearly four thousand miles to the west, sits an underground café accessed down a short flight of stairs. Rounding a small corner and foyer, a larger-than-expected room opens up with a bar on the left, a raised bank of booths on the right, and rows of tables in between. The café is decorated with posters, tchotchkes, and tourist paraphernalia identified with Hawai'i in its shrine-like if decidedly downmarket ambience. The space evokes a Hawai'i that no longer exists, if, indeed, it ever really did, with an iconographic mix of different eras evoked by fading posters of sun-filled beaches, happy couples, and impish menehune adorning the walls and counters.

Across the ocean in the opposite direction of the hotel lobby, some 2,400 miles to the east, sits a modern building incongruously announced by a rustic-looking sign marking the space as one of antique sensibilities. An impressive nearly theater-length marquee announces current and upcoming attractions, while the building's former signage as a nearby sports stadium's garage was left intact, reminding visitors of its less glamorous past. The marquee also announces the venue's primary function as home to a nonprofit arts organization tasked with presenting and preserving traditional music. The understated yet upscale entrance leads into a large open lobby, with a table of flyers for upcoming shows as well as invitations to join and support the organization.

Recorded music from Hawai'i permeates the soundscape of all three spaces, at least during the time of my visits during Hawaiian slack key guitar performances. Only the first location, however, features Hawaiian music exclusively, the Kani Ka Pila Grille at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort in Waikiki's tourist enclave — a world distinct from the Hawai'i in which most residents live their daily lives, except, perhaps, as a place of employment. The underground café is the location of the Millions of Tastes Deli-Carte café in Yokohama, Japan, which provides an outlet for what is known in Japan as "island culture," a term used to encompass music and dance performance traditions from Hawai'i, Ryukyu (Okinawa), Tahiti, and Jamaica, while ignoring other Asian and Pacific island cultures such as the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. The final scene is of the "roots music" concert venue the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, in the "island of Berkeley, California," as slack key guitarist Patrick Landeza is fond of describing his hometown. The Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse (the name references its former incarnation as a coffeehouse at a nearby location) is a long-standing institution in Berkeley, known for its support of both local and touring artists whose work straddles various folk music traditions. These three institutions and the discursive and material practices they epitomize give material form to this study of contemporary Hawaiian slack key guitar, or k? h?'alu, as practiced in Hawai'i, Japan, and California — three nodes in the construction of what I am calling a polycultural transPacific.

"I Just Play the Way I Feel"

"No stress. Jus' press!" In response to my question about the difficulties of learning and performing slack key, Japanese guitarist Yamauchi Yuki's rhyming quip, borrowed from Hawaiian guitarist Ledward Kaapana, sums up many guitarists' attitudes whenever I broached the subject of the mechanics of performing slack key. Yamauchi's answer also points to the "right Hawaiian feeling," as he put it, of producing "real Hawaiian music" — the idea of Hawaiians' purported relaxed and casual attitude being reflected in the sound of slack key. But just what, exactly, is Hawaiian music, and why do musicians and listeners alike attribute such "serious casualness" to its aesthetics, its performance, and its appeal?

Early ideas linking geography with human culture used folk song to establish this link between sound and place (Bohlman 2002, 1988a, b; Clayton, Herbert, and Middleton 2003; Haynes 2013). Johann Gottfried Herder categorized folk songs from around the world, establishing the connections between peoples, musical sounds, and specific places. Herder's work joined contemporaneous efforts to categorize humans within a racial hierarchy by marking various musical cultures along a scale of developmental evolutionary progress reflected in Eurocentric ideas about musical sophistication (Bohlman and Radano 2000; Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000; Taylor 2007). Much attention has been given to how Europeans and Euro-Americans grappled with difference through engagements with music (Bohlman and Radano 2000; Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000; Haynes 2013; Taylor 2007). European politicians, scholars, and artists during the age of imperialism were forced to contend with difference embodied in the non-European populations and cultures they confronted, which invoked several binary oppositions — civilized/savage, Christian/heathen — invariably placing Western culture and Europeans at the top of a cultural pyramid (Taylor 2007; Tomlinson 2009). The destabilizing of delimited cultural groups, especially salient in a time when a discourse of globalization has effectively renarrativized histories of bounded cultural production and reception, troubles the divisions I am tracing — Kanaka Maoli (both on- and off-island), locals, settlers, colonialists, missionaries, tourists — by revealing the arbitrary nature of difference and the contingencies of its historical particularities.

Contemporary cultural geographers whose work on the links between place and music argue for site-specific contexts and meaning making that involve consideration of the locality — its "localness," so to speak — in studying music cultures (Leyshon, Matless, and Revill 1998). Ethnomusicologists too numerous to list here have largely concerned themselves with the local, the particular, and the site specific. The discipline's self-reflexive turn has troubled its relationship to the particular, but it has not dislodged the centrality of deep description of and emplacement within particular communities as a defining feature (Barz and Cooley 1996). The self-reflexive turn questioned long-held assumptions regarding racial and other social hierarchies embedded within those categorizations, dislodging modernist ideas regarding progress, development, and achievement, and unseating former assumptions about the nature of cultural boundaries and difference within ethnomusicology (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000; Guilbault 1997; Haynes 2013; Stokes 1994; D. Wong 2006). It has also meant a deep engagement with the politics of representation, especially in the positioning of the ethnographer to her interlocutors (a word and relationship with which I have never been comfortable, though it is preferable to "informant"), and in the often uneasy fit between practice and theory (Barz and Cooley 1996; Clifford 2013; D. Wong 2006).

Some of those concerns about boundaries and difference can be set aside — or heightened — for Hawai'i when discussing Hawaiian musicking prior to Capt. James Cook's arrival in 1778, isolated as Hawai'i had been for the previous three centuries. Hawaiian hula, for example, developed into a rich dance tradition that remains a uniquely Hawaiian cultural expression (Stillman 1998, 2005). In terms of music, Elizabeth Tatar is unequivocal: "There is no Hawaiian word for 'music' in the Western sense. Mele refers to poetry, which was always chanted" (1981, 482). Tatar notes that "chant," or "mele," is used when describing precontact Hawaiian music, while "song" is reserved for any Hawaiian music from the nineteenth century onward exhibiting any non-Hawaiian influence, which includes most of the forms she uses to describe Hawaiian music, including himeni, sacred and secular songs based on Protestant hymnody; hapa haole, songs influenced by Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, and other pre–rock 'n' roll continental U.S. mainstream popular music styles; monarchy songs, which is music composed during the Hawaiian Kingdom period, typified by the light classical compositions of Capt. Henry Berger, the German conductor hired by Mo'i Kamehameha V (Lot Kapuaiwa) to organize the Royal Hawaiian Band; folk songs, including slack key repertoire; and contemporary, which draws musical inspiration from rock, R&B, reggae, and other post-WWII popular music styles rather than the earlier popular music styles associated with hapa haole (Tatar 1981). Clearly, "Hawaiian music" can be defined in a multitude of ways (D. Hall 1983; Hood 1975).

In fact, this prolific branching of musical styles would keep the committee tasked with forming the Hawaiian Grammy Award busy for twenty years, nearly three times as long as the period in which the award was presented before it was subsumed under a "regional roots music" award (I discuss this episode at more length in chapter 6; Ryan 2005a). The Grammy committee members wrestled with questions such as whether the recording needed to include the Hawaiian language. They eventually decided that a majority of the lyrics in a vocal recording would need to be sung in Hawaiian, and this single clause would play a key role in the short-lived award, particularly in terms of slack key guitar. Other questions discussed by the Grammy committee that we might also consider: Does the music need to be produced in Hawai'i? Do the artists need to be Native Hawaiians? Does any music recorded by a Native Hawaiian qualify as "Hawaiian music"? What about Jawaiian (Hawaiian reggae) or Hawaiian hip-hop? Do the lyrics need to address Hawaiian themes regardless of the language used?

Ricardo Trimillos offers a concise three-tiered description, which provides a broad frame for Tatar's genre delineations: (1) traditional Hawaiian music, with a basis in Protestant hymnody, use of common (Western) harmonic practice, musical structures using strophic, verse-chorus, and thirty-two-bar forms, and the dominance of nahenahe (sweet and gentle) Hawaiian vocal styles; (2) ancient Hawaiian music, which is precontact chant along with its accompanying percussion instruments; and (3) contemporary Hawaiian music, which "includes post-1960s Hawai'i-generated music that draws upon commercial pop, rock, reggae, and hip hop idioms" (Trimillos 2009, 25). Hapa haole would fall under traditional Hawaiian music in this schematic, though hapa haole music oscillates from the traditional to the nontraditional depending on context, a sign of its hybrid instability. In the main, however, Trimillos and Tatar provide a widely understood musicological backdrop against which I use terms such as "traditional Hawaiian music" and "slack key."

In this sense, then, slack key falls under traditional Hawaiian music, or folk song, using Tatar's designation. It might also be contemporary, as slack key guitarists compose new music or incorporate rock or other post-1960s musical styles into their music. Contemporary certainly describes Sudden Rush's "Hi'ilawe," a slack key standard, in which the hip-hop group samples venerated slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui's version while superimposing their own rap on top and adding hip-hop beats as the rhythmic bed beneath, displacing ki ho'alu's traditional reliance on hula rhythms, effectively using slack key to produce non–slack key music. While some listeners heard the song as disreputable, the group had asked Gabby Pahinui's sons, Cyril and Martin, for permission to use the song (Martin sings backing vocals on the track). In this way, Sudden Rush's composition is an example of the ways in which Hawaiian musicians disregard Western musicological designations while honoring older Hawaiian ideals of kuleana to kupuna (elders), discussed at more length in chapter 2. For now, however, I continue to think of slack key as a traditional folk music of Hawaiian guitarists, which also raises a number of questions that I tackle throughout this book: Who are these "folk"? What does "traditional" mean when you discuss post-European contact musicking? How did Hawaiians get guitars, and who taught them how to play?

GABBY PAHINUI RECORDED SLACK key with the Sons of Hawaii in the group's 1960 debut, which was successful enough to entice other Hawaiian music labels to release recordings that compiled his slack key work as a sideman. Prior to that, however, as he admits in an interview with Eldon Akamine, "[I performed slack key] very little. I only did it when I [recorded] 'Hi'ilawe' [as the b-side to a single in 1946], that's all. Otherwise just straight guitar, plang-a plang-a chalang-a-dang" (Akamine 1977b, 2). When Dave Guard, one of the founding members of the original Kingston Trio, recorded Pahinui with an acoustic trio in 1961 for a project that would become Pure Gabby, record labels were convinced that no one was interested in a recording exclusively showcasing Pahinui's slack key guitar with vocals entirely in the Hawaiian language. Guard, who spent his teenage years in Honolulu, was motivated by a personal desire to record Pahinui in a setting in which his slack key would be prominent rather than buried in a band arrangement. Pahinui, an obscure Hawaiian musician at the time (though well known to Hawai'i musicians and audiences), generated no interest on his own. Despite Guard's enthusiasm for the project, the recording was shelved and forgotten for seventeen years ("New Gabby Album" 1978, 11). By the mid-1970s, Pahinui's musical career was enjoying a resurgence, thanks to younger musicians, such as guitarist Peter Moon, championing his work and getting him to record again. His biggest boost in visibility beyond Hawai'i, however, stemmed from his collaborations with longtime admirer, roots music aficionado, and fellow guitarist Ry Cooder, with whom Pahinui recorded during this period.

Still, in 1978, Pahinui's legal representation tried to halt the seventeen-year-old recording's release, even as advertising posters were being produced. As Steve Siegfried of Pahinui's label Panini Records (Pure Gabby was released by Hula Records) told Ha'ilono Mele, the Hawaiian Music Foundation newsletter, at the time:

He came into the picture at the last minute because that's when Gabby first heard about the project. He wasn't consulted more than three weeks ahead of time, and it's his wish that it doesn't come out in its present form. Gabby didn't give anyone permission to print his slack key tunings, and the tunings for each song are included in the liner notes. Some of the lyrics provided don't match what he sang. He's not entirely thrilled by the way he's playing. He's come a long way since 1961 and so have recording techniques. The album was recorded in a church on two-track equipment in 15-minute takes between the ringing of the church bell. We agree with Gabby that this record, however interesting it may be historically, doesn't show Gabby in the best light. ("Legal," 1978, 9)

Despite Pahinui's objections, when the record, titled Pure Gabby: "I Just Play the Way I Feel" was released, it became an instant classic, a usually hyperbolic phrase that, in this case, confirmed Pahinui as a leading light of the Second Hawaiian Renaissance and a Hawaiian music master. The title speaks to Pahinui's authenticity, reflected in the rawness of the recording. It also signifies slack key's down-home roots in rural Hawai'i as well as Pahinui's vocal style, including his leo ki'eki'e (falsetto), which has a roughhewn yet nahenahe quality. It is a recording that continues, despite his opinion to the contrary, to reveal him in the best possible light. The Ha'ilono Mele article concludes by suggesting that economic concerns may have driven some of the backstage machinations.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
A Note on the Use of Hawaiian and Japanese Terms  xv
Introduction: Mapping the Polycultural TransPacific  1
1. Getting the "Right Hawaiian Feeling"  37
2. Taking Kuleana  70
3. The Aloha Affect  108
4. Sounding Out the Second Hawaiian Renaissance  145
5. 'Ohana and the Longing to Belong  183
6. Pono, A Balancing Act  219
Notes  253
Glossary  269
References  273
Index  311

What People are Saying About This

Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music - John W. Troutman

“In addition to telling Hawaiian slack key guitar's remarkable history, Kevin Fellezs provides an excellent introduction to the political, social, and economic challenges endured by Hawaiians who live in a homeland dominated by people who have even appropriated the word ‘aloha’ to expedite material and cultural plunder. This book is a wonderful achievement and a significant intellectual feat.”

Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty - J. Kehaulani Kauanui

Listen but Don't Ask Question theorizes a ‘polycultural transPacific’ to highlight Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) as central participants in the cultural production of slack key guitar music while attending to the multiple lineages tradition. Kevin Fellezs illuminates the complications of cultural and material stewardship as they are bound up in the performance and perpetuation of the musical form, Hawaiian principles of reciprocity, cultural revival and the music industry, community and belonging, and aesthetics. This is bold, rich, and important work that is well researched, robustly conceptualized, and finely written.”

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