ORIGINS OF SLACK KEY (Kiho ‘Alu)
There are different theories about the beginnings of slack key guitar in the Islands. Music is one of the most mobile art forms. European sailors around the beginning of the 19th century possibly introduced Hawaiians to the gut string guitar–ancestor of the modern nylon string guitar.
Mexican and Spanish vaqueros (cowboys), hired by King Kamehameha III around 1832 to teach Hawaiians how to handle an overpopulation of cattle, brought over guitars. In the evenings around the campfire, the vaqueros–many of whom worked on the Big Island, especially around the Waimea region–probably played their guitars, often two or more together with one playing lead melody and the other bass and chords. This new instrument would have intrigued the Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, who had their own strong, deep-rooted music traditions. Given the long work hours, however, the Hawaiians probably didn’t have time to learn a lot about this new music.
The vaqueros returned to their homelands a few years later and some gave their guitars to the paniolo. Geniuses of assimilation, Hawaiians wove what they had learned of the Mexican and Spanish music into their traditional chants, songs and rhythms and created a new form of music that was completely their own. Unique Hawaiian musical traditions were the dominant force in this guitar music, as they have historically been with other musical influences that have come from the rest of the world. Hawaiian music never stops evolving, and yet it always remains in touch with its deep roots and inspiration …