Slack key salute

LIHUE — The Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar Festival will welcome a new decade on Kauai this week by honoring late musician and surfing legend Michael Young.

Milton Lau started the annual festival on Oahu in 1982. Ten years later, he launched the Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar Festival “Kauai Style.”

Over the years, longevity has been the name of the game, along with a consistently solid lineup of some of the finest musicians in the genre.

Young was scheduled to make his inaugural performance at the festival this year. However, he lost a battle with cancer Sept. 25.

He was 63.   

Lau said Young never mentioned his illness in the months leading up to his death, a testament to his positive outlook. And when Lau tried to reach Young by phone in late September, there was no answer.

Finally, a family member called and delivered the news.

“I was in shock when I was told that,” Lau said. “I didn’t know what to say.”

After speaking with Young’s family, Lau decided to pay tribute to his life by keeping Young’s name on the roster and dedicating the Kauai event to him.

Even today, Young’s name appears at the bottom of the lineup.

“It was just kind of unfortunate for us that we never had his presence at the festival,” Lau said. “But that wasn’t going to stop us from honoring what he’s accomplished in music, and the person that he was.”

In August, the Oahu festival celebrated 31 years. On Sunday, Kauai residents will be treated to a full day of slack-key during the 21st annual “Kauai Style” event.

The festival is from noon to 6 p.m. at the Kauai Beach Resort near Hanamaulu. As always, it is free, although donations are suggested.

Featured artists include Walter Keale, Pancho Graham, Doug and Sandy McMaster, Cindy Combs, Michael Keale, Stephen Inglis, Dennis Kamakahi, Bobby Moderow, Brother Noland, Norman Kaawa, Danny Carvalho, LT Smooth and, of course, the late Mike Young.

Slack key, also known as “ki hoalu,” which literally means “loosen the key” in Hawaiian, is a finger-picked style of playing in which the strings are “slacked” to produce different tunings, creating a lingering sound behind the melody.

Sandy McMaster said she and her husband have long been attending the festivals and first performed at the Kauai event five years ago.

Focusing solely on the traditional style of slack key, Doug and Sandy have routinely earned themselves the event’s opening set.

“We kind of get them kicked off with some old style,” Sandy said.

Above all, she believes the festival offers a wonderful opportunity to see a wide variety of local and state musicians.

“It’s an afternoon sampling of all different syles of ki hoalu, from contemporary to the really old style,” she said. “It will be a fun event.”

Artist Michael Keale — a longtime musician, but somewhat of a “newcomer” to slack key — will perform for the second straight year.

He said he is looking forward to Sunday, and described Lau’s decision to dedicate the festival to Young as a “wonderful gesture.”

“He had this awesome sound,” Keale said of Young. “So many people loved him here on the island of Kauai.”

Over the years, Lau said the festival has continued to turn heads and grow. In March, he takes it to the Pacific Northwest for three shows in Washington and Oregon.

In 2014, festivals will be added in Japan, Holland and Belgium.

The idea is to use the festivals to promote not only the music itself, but also Hawaii as a destination.

“We’re just spreading the gospel,” he said. “Trying to gain fans wherever we go.”

This year, Lau expects upwards of 1,000 people to attend — many to show support for Young.

And, as always, there will be tourists, too.

“For visitors, if they want to truly experience our folk music, this is the event they should come to,” Lau said. “We’re serious about taking this music out to the world.”

Event doors open at 11: 30 a.m. Admission is free, but a $10, tax-deductible donation is suggested at the door to benefit the Ki-Ho Alu Foundation, a nonprofit set up to promote and perpetuate Hawaiian slack key music.

The event is presented by The Garden Island and Midweek Kauai.

Those unable to attend Sunday’s festival can watch a live video stream by visiting

For more information visit the website or call Milton Lau,  (808) 226-2697.


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