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Hawaiian classic

Keola Beamer, Slack key master teams with Native Amercian flutist R. Carlos Nakai for Friday concert

March 20, 2008
By JON WOODHOUSE, Contributing Writer
In the liner notes of his most recent CD, “Ka Hikina O Ka Hau — The Coming of the Snow,” Keola Beamer emphasized that his new work, where he eloquently interpreted compositions by classical composers such as Eric Satie and Maurice Ravel, was never intended as a slack key recording. Thus, he was a little perplexed when he received the news that his unique recording had been nominated for a Best Hawaiian Music Grammy Award.

“I was completely shocked,” says Keola.

“I was in Japan when I got the news. I thought it was clearly stated it was not a Hawaiian record. There are some great musicians in Hawaii and some beautiful music comes out every year, and it was sort of taking the place of something else more worthy in terms of Hawaiian music. I love the record and I worked very hard on it, but it’s clearly not Hawaiian music.”

And so because it wasn’t pono, one of our greatest musicians announced he would decline to participate in any activities associated with the 2008 Grammy Awards.

“In many circles it would be regarded as artistic suicide not supporting your own Grammy nomination,” he continues. “I talked to my mom (Aunty Nona Beamer) and she told me, ‘You’ve got to do what’s right in your heart.’ ”

Recognized worldwide as a master of the slack key guitar, in recent years, Keola has enjoyed exploring beyond ki ho‘alu’s traditional borders. In 2005, he teamed with acclaimed Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai for “Our Beloved Land.” He’s currently working on an album project with jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer, and his Grammy nominated “Ka Hikina O Ka Hau,” was the culmination of a five-year journey to discover how slack key’s unique palette could enhance the music of some classical greats.

“The music of the classical masters has always been inspiring to me,” he explains. “The more I progressed in my own studies with Hawaiian slack key guitar, after about 30 years of playing, a path began to come together for me. I was fascinated by the beautiful colorations of the Hawaiian slack key guitar. When you get into it very deeply, each tuning is like a total palette. Each tuning has a beautiful coloration; it’s like painting with tones. You can go places with Hawaiian slack key that you would not be able to go with a regular classical guitar. I thought it would be a wonderful new approach to classical music, taking these modal tunings from ki ho‘alu.”

Working with producer/pianist George Winston and arranger Daniel O’Donoghue on the classical project, the multitalented artist accompanied himself on two and three guitars, sometimes contrasting acoustic nylon strings, steel strings and electric guitar. Among the imaginative interpretations — Satie’s various signature “Gympodies” and “Gnossiennes,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India,” Stravinsky’s “Lullaby of the Cat,” Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Boat Song” and Renaissance composer John Dowland’s “Come Heavy Sleep” (which Sting also interpreted on his “Songs From the Labyrinth”).

While two Hawaii-inspired pieces are included on “Ka Hikina O Ka Hau,” this exceptional album bears little relationship to what we know as Hawaiian slack key.

“It doesn’t work for Rimsky Korsakov and Eric Satie to be called Hawaiian music,” he adds, chuckling. “They weren’t surfers.”

Keola hopes that his stand drew needed attention to the Hawaiian Grammy.

“Maybe the category could get a little more consideration,” he notes. “It would be great if there was a category for instrumental music and vocal music, too. We’re all friends in the slack key world and I have respect for all the nominees.”

On Friday evening, he will make a rare concert appearance on Maui performing with his friend, Native American musician and Grammy nominee R. Carlos Nakai, and accompanied by his wife, hula dancer Moanalani Beamer.

Classically trained on the trumpet, Nakai is acclaimed as the contemporary pioneer of the Native flute. A member of the Navajo-Ute tribe he is probably the best-known Native American musician. Worldwide he has sold more than 3 million records. His exquisite albums “Canyon Trilogy” and “Earth Spirit” have been certified gold, and he’s been nominated three times for a Grammy.

Besides playing flute as a traditional instrument, Nakai has employed it in a jazz setting with his band Jackalope, and in New Age-styled albums, both as a solo performer and with collaborators including keyboardist Peter Kater, classical composer James DeMars, flute legend Paul Horn, and experimental musician William Eaton. His work has also been featured on many film and television soundtracks.

“I didn’t realize it, but he had been a fan for many years,” Keola recalls. “And I had listened to his work. His music had a sensibility that appealed to me and a beautiful spacialness, and great tone and technique. He called and asked me to think about working together.”

The unique cultural fusion of the Native American flute virtuoso and the multi-Na Hoku Award-winning Hawaiian musician was first debuted on Maui at the MACC in 2005. It was followed by the wonderful, innovative album project, “Our Beloved Land,” featuring instrumental and vocal songs with both artists sharing compositional credits.

“You have this whole suite of native instruments,” Keola explains. “It’s a really interesting journey, two different cultures, one plains-based and one Pacific Ocean-based, finding the commonality we share as native people.

“It’s ironic, we won a New Age magazine award, which is hilarious because here we are, two middle-aged guys playing music that is 1,000 years old. I hope we’ll do another one again.”

Next up, Keola will release an album with San Francisco-based jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer, who has worked with Chick Corea, Diane Krall and Joshua Redman. Their collaboration is being documented by PBS Hawaii for national screening.

“We’re working on a jazz Hawaiian infusion thing that’s turning out really interesting,” he reports.

One of our most gifted slack key artists, Keola released his groundbreaking solo album, “Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in the Real Old Style,” back in 1972. Over the years, he’s wondered about the future of this treasured art form, and has taken steps at preservation by holding annual camps for guitar students from around the globe. Having recently set up a nonprofit entity, he now offers scholarships to at-risk local kids.

“We’re bringing in young local kids who are at a point in their lives where they can make wrong decisions,” he reports. “They’re sort of in crisis, and in some cases their parents are incarcerated. So far, it’s been very promising. We finished a camp in February and it was such a joy to watch these kids start off with no concept of Hawaiian slack key and by the end of the week the guitar was glued to them, through breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“They were using borrowed guitars and I was wishing I could figure out a way to get them some guitars so they could continue their studies.

One of our campers from Denver said he could help. He had a friend at the Martin guitar factory. Within two weeks these Hawaiian kids got FedExed to their door a beautiful instrument.”

• Contact Jon Woodhouse at

Article Photos

Keola Beamer, Slack key master

Fact Box


• WHO: Keola Beamer and R. Carlos Nakai
• WHERE: McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
• WHEN: Friday at 7:30 p.m. Food and beverages are available starting at 5:30.
• TICKETS: $35 and $30 plus applicable fees, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or



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