KILAUEA — When he was under the tutelage of Sonny Chillingworth, Makana said he didn’t realize how big of a star the slack key guitar legend was.
“I was so young. I was 13 when I started learning from Uncle Sonny. I just thought ‘let’s go to uncle’s house and jam,’” he said.
Makana, born and raised on Oahu, started playing the ukulele when he was nine. Two years later, he picked up the art of Hawaiian slack key.
One of Makana’s favorite memories of Chillingworth is learning how to pick up speed on the guitar.
“When he used to teach me, he played so fast. When he would teach me, he had to slow down and get frustrated because he didn’t know how to slow down,” he said. “Our first performance together, he said ‘pretty good job, but why did you play so slow?’ I was totally crushed. I worked so hard to be able to shred like him.”
After Chillingworth died in 1994, Makana took it upon himself to preserve his legacy and perpetuate the slack key guitar.
“He entrusted me to legacy of music, and I felt this huge responsibly,” he said. “I had music industry offers at the time, but I decided to turn everything down and dedicate myself to slack key.”
In his professional career, Makana has released eight records and a music video anthem called “Fire is Ours” for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He has also co-headlined a music festival with Nahko and Medicine for the People and scored the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau’s 2016 campaign.
Makana, who has opened for Sting, Carlos Santana and Elvis Costello, will get a chance to honor his mentor on Kauai this month at Kauai Christian Academy.
“His love for music and music styles was diverse. He loved Latin, R&B, Blues and Country, so the show isn’t going to be just Hawaiian music — it’s going to be all of the music he loved,” Makana said.
On April 22, Makana and a host of Hawaii musicians will perform “A Tribute to Sonny Chillingworth” at the community center at Kauai Christian Academy.
Other performers include Nina Kealiiwahamana, George Kuo, Sashamon, Yoza, Lono Kaumeheiwa, Lopaka Colon and Kirk Smart.
“I wanted to take people through a journey of old Hawaii, all the way to today’s music, which you usually don’t get in one show,” Makana said.
Proceeds will go toward boosting teacher’s salaries at Kauai Christian Academy.
“The people we end up hiring really want to be here and really invest in the kids,” said Jimmy Johnson, president of the school board. “They’re not doing it for the money.”
The school, which teaches students from preschool to 12th grade, employs eight teachers.
The benefit concert is a 5-year passion project, Johnson added.
“I contacted many Hawaiian artists over the years, and nothing clicked. When I contacted Makana, it did,” he said. “This is going to be quite a production, and he has gone all out to helping us make sure it happens.”
For Makana, that means mixing it up and planning surprises.
“A lot of the magic happens when it’s spontaneous,” he said.
The concert will begin at 7 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased at makanamusic.com. Premium seating is $55 and general admission is $35.