Here on the East Coast of North America, we have mostly experienced Hawaii's slack key guitar tradition as played by individual soloists. Guitarists such as Sonny Chillingworth, George Kuo, Cyril Pahinui, Bla Pahinui, Dennis Kamakahi, Keola Beamer, Ray Kane and Led Kaapana have demonstrated just how seductive and versatile this genre can be. By tuning down or "slackening" their guitar strings, these artists create many different tunings, all of them yielding gentle melodies and mesmerizing harmonies.
All these guitarists can be found in solo or duo settings on the new anthology, "Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection, Volume 2," an excellent introduction to the field. On the Hawaiian Islands, however, slack key guitar is most often heard as part of a group, sharing the songs with vocals, rhythm guitar, ukulele and bass. The most famous of these groups have been the Sons of Hawaii, the Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, the Pahinui Brothers, the Peter Moon Band and the Tau Moe Family.
Now there's a new supergroup in this tradition, Hui Aloha. Slack key guitarists Dennis Kamakahi and George Kuo are both alumni of the Sons of Hawaii; bassist Martin Pahinui has played with his father Gabby and his brothers Cyril and Bla; and ukulele player David Kamakahi is Dennis' son.
The quartet's debut album, "Hui Aloha," strikes a perfect balance. The choppy ukulele and throbbing bass push along the beat and all four singers contribute to the vocal harmonies, but space is always created for the slack key guitar to step forward and solo. Combining original compositions with reworkings of Hawaiian standards such as "Kaimana Hila," the album provides mainlanders with a door into the world of Hawaiian ensemble music.
Hui Aloha appears Monday and Tuesday at the Barns of Wolf Trap.
To hear a free Sound Bite from "Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Collection, Volume 2," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8125. For a Sound Bite from "Hui Aloha," press 8126. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)