Talk Story with Paul Togioka

  • John Steinhorst / The Garden Island

    Kauai’s Paul Togioka has a passion for playing slack key guitar and perpetuating this unique Hawaiian art form.

  • Photo courtesy of Mike Teruya

    Kauai’s Paul Togioka performs at the 2017 Hawaiian Slack Key Festival.

lack key guitar master, 57-year-old Paul Togioka of Wailua Homesteads, was Kauai’s first recording artist to be invited to open the Kauai Style Slack Key Festival.

In 1996, he received Hawaii Music Awards’ “Best Recording by a Slack Key Artist,” then two years later earned “Best Hawaiian Instrumental Recording” for his collaboration with Buddy Panoke.

Since 2004, he has released three solo CDs, including one nominated by Na Hoku Hanohano. He is a featured artist on the two-time Grammy-nominated and Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning “Hawaiian Slack Key Kings.”

In 2016, he was presented the “Ki Ho’Alu Foundation Legacy Award,” and Kauai’s mayor proclaimed “Paul Togioka Day” on Nov. 20.

How did you get started on your path to becoming a slack key master?

I grew up in Kekaha and graduated Waimea High School in 1978. My senior year, I picked up the guitar. I took piano and ukulele lessons before, but when I started on the guitar that’s when I really got hooked on music. I went to school in Colorado for architecture after I graduated high school, and I learned how to play the five-string banjo. I ended up dropping out, I was playing too much music. I was in Colorado for two years, and when I came back I was playing professionally in clubs. So that tells you how much practice I had in college; we just jammed every night.

When I came back to Kauai, there was not much work as a banjo player. I saw this gentleman from Niihau playing slack key guitar, his name was Isaac Kanahele. At that point I wanted to learn how to play slack key guitar. Five-string banjo is tuned to G, and the primary tuning for slack key guitar, which is “Taro Patch,” is tuned to G also. So it made the transition real easy. I just needed to learn the finger- picking patterns, and Hal Kinnamon, who was an instructor here on Kauai, taught me. He had a big impact on my playing. Hal taught me the basics, the foundation on the fingering, the efficiency of how you position your hands.

Once I knew that I was on my own. I’m fortunate I can pick up what I hear. Then in 1996, I did an album which won an award, and this gentleman named Milton Lau, he’s a producer out of Honolulu, picked me up and I went under his recording label. That’s how it started.

How has slack key guitar music evolved over the years since you began?

When I first started, it was very traditional with old- timers like Raymond Kane, Leonard Kwan, Gabby Pahinui. They played in the traditional style. For me I tried to stay traditional, but because I do a lot of functions and weddings on Kauai and I’m a bluegrass banjo player, I incorporate those styles into my playing. I’m still considered traditional but a little bit contemporary too in my playing because of the banjo. The more modern players like LT Smooth and some of the newer guys are very contemporary. It’s still slack key, but it’s more modern. But there’s some of us doing the traditional to keep the old style alive.

What musicians have influenced your style and sound?

I’ve recorded with Raymond Kane, who was a really big name in slack key. I think he won the Endowment of the Arts. Then I also recorded with Ledward Kaapana, who is a giant too in the slack key genre. I also got to do festivals with Dennis Kamakahi. We went to Washington, D.C., to the Smithsonian where Dennis’ guitar was inducted into the museum. I’ve played with just about all the players, maybe not in a jam session setting but we’ve shared the same stage because of all the festivals through the years. I’ve been with the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival tour for 23 years, performing on the West Coast, East Coast, and Japan twice. In March I’m headed to the West Coast; we’re going to tour five cities in Oregon and Washington.

What is the cultural importance of this Hawaiian genre of music called ki hoalu?

I feel it’s quite important for what we’re doing. We’re trying to preserve that legacy. Ki hoalu started by families, who would have their own tunings and would play their own music. But in the old days, it was only meant to be passed on to family members. It was so secretive, it almost died out, because it wasn’t shared with the public. If you weren’t a family member or connected, they wouldn’t share it with you.

In the 1970s, people like Keola Beamer, Raymond Kane, started putting out books. Then in the ‘80s, George Winston with Dancing Cat Records started really promoting slack key, which made it big and shared it with everybody. That’s why slack now is played by more people, because of people like them willing to share the music.

The art form almost died, and people like Milton Lau, who is my producer and also in charge of the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festivals, does these festivals on all of the islands. He’s a big player in perpetuating the art form. He gathers all the players from each island and flies us all over the place to promote the art form. Now slack key has a category at the Hoku’s. Slack key was the first album from Hawaii to win a Grammy. Also there’s a Legacy Award they give out each year to someone who they feel represents slack key or who has done a lot for slack key.

What does receiving these awards and accolades mean to you?

When I first started playing, I thought it was going to be just for fun. When I started winning these awards, at first I was shocked because part of it was luck too. It meant a lot to me, because it was worthwhile. In my early 20s, all I would do was practice. My dad would tell me, “If you just put half that amount of time into your college studies, you’ll get straight As.” Then finally when I won my first award, my dad came over to my house and said, “I guess all that practicing was worthwhile.”

How is it different recording music in the studio?

For me there’s a lot of pressure when I go into the studio, because just psychologically you don’t want to make mistakes. So the first few albums that I recorded, I was under tremendous stress. In fact the very first album I recorded, I locked up because of so much self pressure and I went to take a break.

Now when I go into the studio I’m still a little nervous, but I know we can just redo the songs. It takes a lot of work, because about a year before I go into the studio I start selecting songs. Then I start arranging or writing and try to get it perfect by the time I walk into the studio. Usually when I record, I’m in the studio for a couple days. I come in quite prepared, so I lay down about 12 to 15 recordings in a two- to three-day period. This will be my fourth solo CD, but altogether I have two more solo CDs I did on a different label and I’m featured on close to 15 albums. The rest are compilations.

How does it feel to be an internationally known musician?

I came from a very traditional Japanese family, and I was the only boy. They expected me to choose something as long as it was engineer, doctor, lawyer or one of those. But I wanted to do music, and in the end I became an engineer, I’m an electrical engineer by education. After I got my degree and my first job, all my free time I would practice and play music. Finally, when I won my first award, that changed a lot of things for me.

Once the Honolulu producers or promoters get involved it changes a lot. Before I won my first award, I was only playing at local parties and events on Kauai, but when I won my first award I started getting invited to festivals and toured with them on the West Coast, the East Coast, we did the Smithsonian.

We got nominated for the Grammy two times, I got to play at the Grammy Museum. I got to play at Wolf Trap National Park, got to play at the Birchmere, which is a well-known place for country musicians. All these things wouldn’t have happened in Milton Lau and Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festivals didn’t pick me up. I went under their label and I’m one of their artists. Taylor guitars found me at one of the festivals. Now I’m under their artist program, so I’m kind of sponsored by them. When I went to the Grammys, I let Taylor know we’re going to be there, and when we get to the hotel guitars are there waiting for us. It made things really different; you get to meet people from all over the world, which is nice.

Do you professionally perform music full time?

I still have a day job, I’m an engineer for the county. Because the music is in the evenings, I can just go from my day job. If I need to, I’ll take a couple hours vacation so I can make it. Then I accumulate vacation over time, and when I have enough I can go on tour. I’m really grateful to have a job with the County of Kauai. I have good bosses, and I’m happy to be there. I’m in their engineering division doing regulatory work. If we come pounding on your door, you probably did something wrong. It’s bad for CD sales.

Please relate some stories how your music has impacted listeners.

I do a lot of weddings, so one year I received a letter and a picture of a baby from this couple. They mentioned that I did their wedding about 3 1/2 years ago in Hanalei. Their son was just born, Caleb, and they had my music playing while the son was being born so the mother of the couple wanted to let me know that my music for them was used at the two most important times of their life, their wedding and the birth of their child.

Then recently, someone I know who I haven’t seen since we were in college got sick and went into a coma. While he was in a coma, he suffered some strokes. He came out of a coma, and I called him up to talk to him. It affected his speaking, but he still tries to talk to me. When I spoke to him the last time, his wife grabbed the phone and said while he was in a coma, she was playing my music the whole time. Eventually he came out of a coma. In March, I’m flying up to Arizona to visit him just to say hello. Those were two interesting moments.

What other projects are you involved with?

I do workshops once a year on Maui. It’s myself and a bunch of other slack key player and ukulele players. We do it at Napili, it’s called the George Kahumoku Slack Key and Ukulele Workshop. There’s some big names that come in like Ledward Kaapana, Herb Ohta Jr., you know, those guys.

What are your future plans?

I hope to keep playing music for many more years. But it’s slowly catching up, because I’m starting to have muscle and joint issues. It’s just from overuse, tendinitis from playing too much, because I average close to 200 bookings a year, plus with my day job. I hope to play some more and finally one day retire from it and just watch the younger guys come up and do it.

What do you contribute your success to?

I’d like to thank the people of Kauai for supporting me through all these years, because without the people giving me the opportunity to perform whether it’s a fundraiser or a function or wedding or even the hotel industry for conventions and for Milton Lau taking me around the world playing music. I like to thank all these people for giving me a chance to do it. Because I never thought it would have gone this far. I never thought we would receive a Legacy Award or get to attend and play at the Grammys, never in my wildest dreams. Just going to the Smithsonian was a bucket list for me. To go there and play music was unreal, it’s been an awesome ride. It’s things I would never thought would happen.

I’d like to thank The Garden Island, local radio stations and even Dickie Chang guys. Without you guys putting our names out, we wouldn’t have the credibility.

What do you think the future holds for ki hoalu music?

I hope the tradition keeps on going; we’ll see what happens. I hope the festivals keep on going, and the young kids pick it up.

Slack key is more of a traditional type of music, so to the young kids it’s boring or they’re more into rock-n-roll and things like that. There’s not much young kids picking it up. But hopefully the tradition will keep on; I expect it to.

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