Slack key, or ki hoalu, is the art of making one guitar sound like several instruments by playing the bass line with your thumb and the melody with the rest of your fingers. It is a skill mastered by few.
We are blessed to have two slack key guitar legends living on Kauai: Paul Togioka and Hal Kinnaman.
Soft spoken and extremely humble, Togioka was born to Japanese parents and raised in the sleepy town of Kekaha on Kauai’s west side and expresses himself through music. Performing slack key has opened doors for him while bringing enjoyment to others.
“When I perform slack key, I am able to connect with people from all over the world,” he says. “Visitors will come right up to me and say things like, ‘This is the best part of my vacation.’ It’s a wonderful thing. Music shares aloha.”
Kinnaman’s whole being lights up when he talks about slack key, his youthful face looking like the enamored 26-year-old he was when he first heard slack key played on a California beach more than 40 years ago. A classically trained guitarist and instructor who studied in Spain, Kinnaman moved to Kauai in the 1970s to surf and to learn how to play more slack key. Largely self-taught, he became a slack key master, teaching at colleges on Oahu and Kauai, and through his easy-to-read instructional books, cassettes and CDs. In 1994, Kinnaman received the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Award from the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and Arts for his work perpetuating the art of Hawaiian slack key guitar music.
“Slack key doesn’t have to be intricate when you first start. It has to be nahenahe: sweet, gentle, flowing. It has to be puuwai, from your heart,” Kinnaman says. “To students, all these things seem ridiculously hard at first, then all of a sudden they’re inherently in their system. Pretty soon they’re not thinking about them at all.”
Togioka, who studied under Kinnaman for a couple years until he had a strong foundation in slack key, began his ascent in the music industry after releasing his first CD and being discovered by established music producer Milton Lau. Seven years after being invited by Lau to participate in the Kauai slack key guitar festival, Togioka finally felt confident enough to perform on stage solo.
“That night Milton called me up and offered me a recording deal. From that day on he took me on tour with him. I am grateful Milton believed in me,” Togioka says. “You need people like that who are willing to give you an opportunity.”
Togioka now performs up to 200 events per year: weddings, festivals, touring and all types of private bookings. He has been awarded “Best Recording by a Slack Key Artist” and “Best Hawaiian Instrumental Recording” in the Hawaii Music Awards, and is also one of the performers on two compilation CDs that were nominated for the national Grammy Awards.
“Sharing music is my aloha,” Togioka says.
Kinnaman, who has now gravitated to ukulele, and Togioka will play together in a musical talk story session on Saturday Sept. 7 from 11 a.m. in the courtyard of the Kauai Museum. It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity to get to know these two very talented men in an intimate setting.
• If you have a story you would like to share for Brown’s forthcoming new book, “Kauai Stories II,” contact: email@example.com; 651-3533. Visit www.kauaistories.net.