LIHUE — For Stephen Inglis, performing in the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival is special.
“I play gigs at bars and restaurants when I’m not touring. There’s a lot of background noise, it can get chatty,” he said. “But this is a real concert feel, and people really enjoy the music.”
He loves the energy created between the audience and performers.
“It’s a feeling you can’t manufacture,” he said.
Milton Lau founded the festival in 1992 as a way to pay tribute to the masters of slack key guitar. It also serves as a way to promote and preserve Hawaii’s 185-year-old indigenous guitar art form that has its origin on Hawaii Island in 1830.
“It’s exciting for us because it tells us we’re not the only ones who are the keepers of the culture,” Lau said.
This is the 24th year the festival will be held on Kauai.
“We started on Oahu and traveled to go to outside islands 10 years later,” Lau said.
The festival will be noon to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Kauai Beach Resort. Entry is $10, and proceeds will benefit the Ki-ho’alu Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Hawaiian slack key music. About 1,5000 people are expected to attend.
“Kauai is a special island to play,” Lau said. “It’s a combination of the island itself and the people.”
Inglis, who is from Oahu, credits the festival with keeping the slack key guitar alive.
“The art form of the slack key guitar is unique to Hawaii. It almost died, but went through a renaissance in the 1960s,” he said.
Each musician gets a 15-minute set, said Paul Togioka, another performer.
The Kauai man has been involved with the festival for 21 years.
“I’ve been to all of the festivals on all the islands,” he said. “I just love doing it.”
His set will be dedicated to his cousin, Nelson Togioka, whose son, Jon Togioka, died earlier this month.
Inglis, who has been touring with the festival for 15 years, said everyone — from his fellow musicians to the audience — is like family.
“There’s a true sense of aloha,” he said. “Everyone’s got solo sets, then pickup bands happen, with four or five of us playing.”
James Kimo West, another fixture at the festival, agreed.
“Backstage, we have a room where the musicians hang out, and we all end up jamming together,” he said.
While West is originally from California, he considers Maui a second home.
“I visited the little town of Hana years ago. That’s where I first heard slack key guitar,” he said.
That trip kick-started a 25-year career as a slack key guitarist.
“I feel really good doing it,” he said. “It feels good to sit down and play. I always tells people that even if I didn’t play professionally, I’d still be sitting on my couch, playing guitar.”
For West, it’s the crowds that keep him coming back year after year.
“You have an audience that listens to and appreciates the slack key guitar,” he said.
Inglis said he recognizes familiar faces every year. Fans will plan their vacation around the festival, he added.
“Some people are hard-core slack key guitar fans who come every year and go to multiple concerts,” he said.
While Inglis said he was exposed to the slack key guitar at a young age, he didn’t appreciate it until he moved away.
“When I was in California, I realized I really wanted to play,” he said.
After moving back home in 2006, he dedicated himself to learning the art of the slack key guitar.
“I play different kinds of music, but for the last 15 years, this is what I really put my time and study into,” he said. “I’m grateful to be part of the slack key guitar family.”
West, who just back from touring with Weird Al Yankovic playing the electrical guitar, said the slack key comes with a different mentality.
“(With Weird Al), they were big shows with thousands of people,” he said. “With slack key, it’s just me.”
West said he’s looking forward to returning to Kauai.
“It’ll be great to be back, hanging out with friends and making music,” he said.
Other musicians slated to perform Sunday include Brother Noland, Blayne Asing, Michael Keale and Kawika Kahiapo.