Tuning Up For The Slack Key Festival

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival

Milton Lau is back for the 18th Kaua’i Style Slack Key Guitar Festival, and looking forward to seeing old friends. It’s happening Sunday

Six hours of Hawaiian music is yours for the taking Sunday, starting at noon at Kaua’i Beach Resort, when the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival 18th annual “Kaua’i Style” kicks off.

It’s free and open to the public, thanks to Milton Lau, whose passion for this style of music and love of sharing it has driven the festival through its 28 years on Oahu and 18 years here.

Kaua’i has some of its own slack key artists participating: Paul Togioka, Norman Kaawa Solomon, Cindy Combs, and Sandy and Doug McMaster. More are flying in to perform, including Dennis Kamakahi, Brother Noland, Makana, Bobby Moderow, Stephen Inglis, LT Smooth, Danny Carvalho, David Kahiapo, Dwight Kanae, Kimo West, Walt Keale and Chris Lau.

“The festival really affects you – for one day, the music can help to heal you,” says Milton Lau, who heads the nonprofit Kiho’alu Foundation that produces the festival on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island.

Kaua’i Style

Lau estimates that, over the course of the festival, about 1,600 people will fill Kaua’i Beach Resort’s Jasmine Ballroom to overflowing. People sit on chairs, on the floor and jam along the walls just to soak it up.

Lau loves sharing the festival on Kaua’i, and he’s not alone.

“Every island has its own special feeling, but Kaua’i is really special – the people, the island, the ambience – it makes for a great experience,” he says.

“So many people e-mail me about coming to the festival, and they all say the same thing: They’ve been to the Hawaiian Slack Key Festivals on Oahu, on Maui, but they love Kaua’i.”

On Maui, for example, about 5,000 show up. Lau says people tell him that on Kaua’i, “They really love to get up front and close with the artist, and it’s an intimate setting.”

Passion for slack key guitar

For Lau, producing the festival fulfills a deep passion he has for slack key guitar music. Early in his own musical career he played Waikiki engagements with Jerry Byrd, Wendell Silva, Lemuel Aweau (Nathan Aweau’s father) and more.

“All these guys had history,” says Lau. “That’s how I got started with the Hawaiian thing – I got totally caught up in it. I started meeting people like Eddie Kamae, Atta Isaacs – I got inspired by all those guys.”

Milton Lau: ‘Music can heal

Lau got the notion of doing a steel guitar festival in 1981. He, Byrd and a friend, Moroni Medeiros, pulled it off.

When Byrd decided to go in a different direction, Lau wished him well and in 1982 launched the Hawaiian Slack Key Festival on Oahu.

In the beginning, says Lau, “We were going from year to year, and didn’t know how long it would go. I think what drove us was passion for the music.”

He’d approach venues and tell managers about the concept and how it helps preserve and portray an art form that turns 180 years old this year – dating from the time when Mexican vaqueros came to train Hawaiians how to corral the long-horned pipi, or cattle, that were running wild. The vaqueros left behind their guitars without instructions on how to tune them; slack key tuning is the result.

“So a lot of venues I approached said, ‘I love the idea and we’ll help you with this.'”

Lau continues, “We never thought about making money from this. We were doing this stuff and preserving it and having fun – everybody had the same vision and passion.”

Eventually, it made sense to form a nonprofit organization, and the foundation was born. For a long while, Lau had a construction company and built custom homes. These days, he’s back into music with his own company, Ka-Hoku Productions.

“We just finished Ledward Kaapana’s latest album. It should be on the streets soon,” he says.

A life built around music suits Lau just fine, and the festival remains a huge calling.

“It’s like visiting with friends,” he says. “I call them my friends. I see them every year, and every year we embrace each other. It’s like a homecoming – I think I’m really blessed in having so many friends. Sure, it’s entertainment, but even more, it’s a piece of our history.”

Relying on grants and good graces can get iffy in tough economic times, so Lau puts out a calabash at every festival and profoundly thanks those who are moved to donate. He’s happy to respond to e-mails at kihoalufoundationinc@yahoo.com and gladly accepts donations for the festival sent to Ki-ho’alu Foundation, P.O. Box 704, Kaneohe, HI 96744.

“Whether I’m here or not here, the festivals will continue,” he says. “It’s not only our mission, but we all have the same passion – we’re all committed to seeing it continue.”

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