The unique sound of slack-key guitar was born in Hawaii, and this Sunday the annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival happens at Kaua’i Beach Resort. The lineup features local musicians such as Pancho Graham and Paul Togioka, as well as John Cruz, Ledward Kaapana and Dennis Kamakahi. And thanks to sponsorship by ‘MidWeek Kaua’i,’ it’s free
Although it is one of the most enjoyable days of the year, the annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival is about much more than good times with family and friends.
“Essentially, the festival and what it represents is an important cultural treasure for Hawaii,” says event producer Milton Lau, who founded the festival in 1982. “It has gained notoriety around the world.”
The 30th annual festival happens Nov. 18 from noon to 6 p.m. at Kaua’i Beach Resort. And (thanks to generous sponsorship from MidWeek Kaua’i) it’s free to attend, although a $10 donation to benefit Ki-Ho Alu Foundation is appreciated.
Though no one is certain of when guitars were introduced to the Islands, the style of music is thought to have originated in Hawaii in the 1800s after Spanish cowboys, brought to the Big Island to work the cattle ranches, departed and left their guitars behind.
Because Hawaiians were unfamiliar with the instrument, they slackened the strings by turning the keys of the guitar, thus developing the name.
Along with local musicians – including Pancho Graham and Paul Togioka – the festival lineup includes John Cruz, Ledward Kaapana, Dennis Kamakahi, Bobby Moderow and Brother Noland.
While intended to generate awareness of Hawaiian-style music, the festival helps keep the oneof-a-kind art form alive.
“The festival is great because they always pack the place, and everyone is super appreciative,” says Graham, who will play at this year’s gig with his Na Pali bandmates Pat Cockett and Carlos Andrade.
Slack-key is what people have come to know as the sound of Hawai’i, attracting fans from around the globe.
The festival has perpetuated the style of music on Oahu for three decades, and has seen the likes of many well-known slack-key artists such as Gabby Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, Raymond Kane and Uncle Fred Punahou.
“Together and separately, they are responsible for carrying on the tradition when it was not popular, and inspiring a whole generation of new players and advocates,” says Lau.
By the early 1990s, the festival was established on Kaua’i, Maui, the Big Island and Moloka’i, and it has recently expanded to a handful of states on the Mainland.
The festival wouldn’t be possible without artists like Graham and Togioka, who each offer something unique.
Aside from playing at the festival many years ago in Honolulu, Graham didn’t perform again until recent years after receiving an invitation from longtime pal Togioka.
“Although we’ve been friends, that’s the first time we actually sat down and learned some songs together. It was really nice,” says North Shore resident Graham, who played with Togioka in 2010. “We have real different styles, so it’s really interesting for us. There are things about Paul that I respect, including his style.”
What makes Togioka’s style so different is his incorporation of five-string banjo techniques – an instrument he learned to play while attending Colorado State University.
“Before I used to try to mimic other people,” says Togioka.
Lau’s encouragement led Waimea High School graduate Togioka to find his own sound. It also took persistence from Lau to inspire Togioka to branch out on his own.
“I was comfortable in the group,” explains Togioka, who used to perform at the festival with ‘Ohana ‘O Kaua’i.
Persistence pays because, in 2004, after seven years of urging, Lau finally convinced Togioka to go solo and sign on to his label, Rhythm and Roots Records. Since then, Togioka’s musical career has taken off. He was the first artist from Kaua’i to be nominated twice (2007 and 2009) for a Grammy Award under the Hawaiian Music category.
“Paul now has fans worldwide, and all of Kaua’i can be very proud of him,” says Lau.
Attending the Grammy Awards ceremony was a momentous event for Togioka.
“You’re in a room with all the big names. I’m a very shy and private person, and I typically don’t let many people into my life, says Togioka. “As a musician, I’m forced to do things I wouldn’t normally do, and I’m exposed to things I normally wouldn’t see.”
While he says meeting people is the best part about being a musician, performing in 2009 at the Grammy Museum was one of the most meaningful moments of his profession to date.
Even with multiple performances under his belt, Togioka admits that sometimes his nerves still get the best of him.
“I never feel comfortable on the stage,” he says.
The largest crowd he ever played for was 4,500 people on Maui.
“Usually, before I go on stage, I say, ‘This is going to be the last time I ever do this,’” he jokes. “I’ll ask myself, ‘Why did I get myself into this?’ But then, as I’m walking on to the stage, I tell myself it’s not a competition and we’re all here to share. Music is for sharing, not comparing. That’s how I get through it.”
Playing in festivals also can be nerve-wracking for Graham, especially since he typically plays at smaller venues around the North Shore.
“It’s not something you can practice,” he says. “All you want to do is relax and play your best.”
Like Togioka, Graham has had much success in his career. He wrote the song Pine Tree Slack Key that was featured on The Descendants‘ soundtrack, and in 2010, his album of the same title was nominated for a Na Hoku Hanohano award.
“That was a big honor,” he says.
Lau also sees something special in Graham.
“I like the idea that Pancho epitomizes the idea of the artist who has found his niche and is comfortable in it,” says Lau.
Graham, who was born and raised on Oahu, was 9 years old when he developed a taste for playing instruments. Up until a decade ago, he primarily played the bass and ‘ukulele.
But then a surfing accident led him to hone in on his slack-key guitar-playing skills.
“Being laid up with a broken leg finally gave me the opportunity to practice the several hours a day you need to learn something new,” says Graham who, with wife Franziska, a Princeville Ranch Stables employee, has a daughter named Max.
Togioka first picked up the guitar when he was 18. Aside from learning to play the banjo, he became hooked on slack-key guitar by the age of 20.
“And never looked back,”
says Togioka, who won a Hawai’i Music Award for Best Recording by a Slack Key Artist in 1996 and Best Instrumental Recording in 1998.
Despite their many accomplishments, Graham and Togioka feel it is an honor to play at the Hawaiian
Slack Key Guitar Festival.
“It’s a great compliment to be able to play with people you respect so much,” says Graham.
For more information about the festival, visit slackkeyfestival.com.