For slack-key guitarist Makana, Hawaiian music is a metaphor that is reflective of the Aloha State’s culture.
“We have a living, breathing, evolving art form. … We have so many people in our culture that are mixed ethnicity. The music represents our identity,” he said. “When I sing and kani Hawaiian music, I’m keeping alive that essence. That, to me, is important.”
Makana will perform on the Garden Isle tonight at Waimea Theater and Saturday at Tahiti Nui.
“I never forget when I was first starting my career how much support the people of Kauai gave me,” he said. “It was night and day from everywhere else. It was with open arms and they really got my art. Anytime I play over there, I just feel like it’s my home crowd.”
The slack key virtuoso will play pieces from his new album, “Music You Heart Tonight,” which includes material he’s performed while on tour around the state.
“It’s both my classics of my traditional and contemporary Hawaiian slack key music and then there’s some new, actual Hawaiian material I’ve composed and reworked some traditional songs,” he said. “I do a very select few covers of some folk rock from the ‘60s and have some new originals as well.”
Born Matthew Swalinkavich on Oahu, the 38-year-old musician got his name, Makana, from his high school Hawaiian language teacher.
“She gave me the name Makana Akua, which means ‘gift from the source’ or ‘gift from God,’” he said.
He shortened his name to Makana during the making of his first album when he was 18.
“It means a gift given freely,” he said. “I never signed any big deals. I did it with the help of my community, of my friends, and on my own because I wanted to maintain that artistic freedom.”
Since starting his career singing in the Honolulu Boy Choir when he was 7, Makana has since performed Hawaiian slack key all over the world in venues such as Paris, Australia, Holland and across the United States.
“Hawaiian slack key guitar has a very unique … tuning that evokes Hawaii,” he said. “They are tuned to special chords, so it frees up my hand. I now have a free hand and I can alter the melody. With my picking hand, I play three parts at once: bass, rhythm and melody.”
Before every show, Makana explains what ki ho‘alu (Hawaiian slack key) is.
“By demonstrating what slack key is — how it works, how the tuning works, how the picking hand works — immediately there’s this deepened appreciation and they can enjoy the show more,” he said.
Makana, who first picked up his first guitar when was was 8 or 9, started to learn Hawaiian slack key when he was about 10.
For the past six years, the Oahu native has been composing most of his songs on piano.
“I’m going into a stage of my career where I’m going to focus on the songs — not the playing,” he said. “I’m going to produce those songs, put together a band, get backup singers, instrumentation, and really focus on not just solo guitar, but focus on putting together a new sound and putting out my songs.”
Another project the Hawaiian slack key guitarist is working on involves bringing the community together.
“What I’m working on is an all-star, community-inclusive record of Hawaiian music — very old and very new — woven together with a lot of the top musicians in Hawaii,” he said. “The themes of the songs on this Hawaiian album are going to be a lot of the aloha aina scenes that have been coming up in the past five years.”
Makana will perform at Waimea Theater tonight. Doors open 7; show starts at 7:30. Tickets are $20. Saturday, Makana will have two showings at Tahiti Nui, 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tickets are $25.