In Seattle, music of the Hawaiian Renaissance

Led Ka'apana and Mike Kaawa, two legendary string virtuosos, tap the bottomless well of Hawaiian music at the Triple Door.
Crosscut archive image.

Slack key guitarist Ledward "Led" Ka'apana.

Led Ka'apana and Mike Kaawa, two legendary string virtuosos, tap the bottomless well of Hawaiian music at the Triple Door.

No popular American musical genre is less understood by mainlanders (and many Islanders) than Hawaiian music. We were reminded of this recently when the death of Don Ho immediately sent billions of tiny bubbles effervescing through the grey matter of millions of Americans. The reminder was not entirely pleasant. To be fair, the immensely popular Waikiki entertainer, a sort of Dean Martin of Hawaii, was a much more versatile and talented musician than his unfortunate theme song suggests. But he greased a convenient categorization for all of us, and we're the losers for it. Some know better. Serious pop musicians such as Taj Mahal, Jimmy Buffet, Ry Cooder, Bob Brozman, and others have drunk deeply from the bottomless well of Hawaiian music and enriched their repertoires. But the only notable Hawaiian musician to cross over into the mainstream in recent memory is the late Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole, and he had to do it with a hapa haole version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." An entirely different perspective was on stage at the Triple Door last week when Ledward "Led" Ka'apana, indisputably the most versatile Hawaiian slack key guitarist currently playing, brought with him Oahu's 12-string virtuoso, Mike Kaawa, making his Seattle debut. This mainland tour was the first opportunity for these two amazing musicians to play together extensively, and the local Led Heads quickly sold out the show. The coconut telegraph was humming. Calling Led Ka'apana a slack key guitarist is sort of like calling Benjamin Franklin a pretty good electrician. Led can play any instrument, any time, any way, even if it's the first time he's encountering it. He performs on guitar, ukelele, and autoharp. He does credible work on the East Indian sitar and harmonium. He once was handed a restored 1920s banjo, detuned it, and played an hour of slack key Steven Foster melodies. While recording his Country and Western album Waltz of the Wind, Chet Atkins accused Led of having 11 fingers. At the Triple Door April 24, Led opened a short solo set with one of just a few of his original instrumental compositions, "Slack Key Melody." (For an excellent primer on slack key guitar, see George Winston's Dancing Cat Records site and click on "A brief history of slack key guitar.") Having warmed up his voice, which ranges from a deep resonant baritone to a remarkably facile Hawaiian falsetto, Led gave his audience a haunting version of Dennis Kamakahi's "Koke'e," inspired by the mists of Kaua'i's Waimea Canyon. Led is an inexhaustible improviser; he learned to play by ear in a remote village in the Puna district of the Big Island, as part of an immense musical family. He and his eight siblings listened to his parents, and most carefully to his uncle, Fred Punahoa, Hawaii's most famous unrecorded musician. A decade or so later on Oahu, Mike Kaawa was being tutored by three now-deceased and equally legendary slack key masters: Sonny Chillingworth, Atta Isaacs, and the God-like Gabby Pahinui. On Sunday afternoons, at his regular gig on Oahu at Honey's in Kaneohe, Mike Kaawa plays with another legend, Sons of Hawaii co-founder and musicologist Eddie Kamae. Kaawa definitely has his own sound – bluesy, twangy, slightly Latin. Cachicachi 12-string rhythm backing up a deep, resonant, oceanic baritone. Together they are a force of nature. Songs from and about the island of Kaua'i were a theme of the evening, and the pair roared into a deft and complex version of "Hanohano Hanalei," paying tribute to the lyricist Andy Cummings, as well as to Gabby Pahinui, who popularized the song in the 1970s. A natural follow-up was Henry Wilfred Waiau's "Kaua'i Beauty," with Led doing a spot-on, note-for-note recreation of Andy Cummings' falsetto lyrics. Another tribute was a rollicking version of Leonard Kwan's "'Opihi Moemoe," the signature song from his 1960 LP, Slack Key, believed to be the first record ever to reveal the style as a solo instrumental vehicle. Perhaps the number that showed off the myriad nuances, musical references, and historical footnotes of almost every influence in the Hawaiian musical pantheon was an effortless version of Jennie Napua Hanaiali'i Wood's "Hale'iwa Hula," with instrumental acknowledgments to Sam Ku West, Sol Ho'opi'i, Eubie Blake, and in a sly joke at the finale, a tip of Led's lei to John Coltrane. Led also showed his dexterity on the ukelele, playing "Early Morning Dew" and "Killing Me Softly With Your Song." There is a new generation of immensely talented uke players in the Islands, headed by Jake Shimabakuru, Herb Ohta Jr., and David Kamakahi. Led likes to remind them that they're not the first ones to stretch the limits of this somewhat disrespected and neglected instrument. The Hawaiian musicians tried to get off the stage with Led's blistering version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," full of Fred Punahoa gimmicks, tricks, changes, and prestidigitation, but the audience wouldn't let them go. "I Kona" was the fitting finale. Not only is it the name of one of Led's early bar bands from the Hawaiian Renaissance, but the lyrics speak of the hospitality of the natives in Kona to the visitors or malihinis. We couldn't have felt more welcome.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors