The beach at Napili Bay on Maui’s west side is a Hawaiian paradise, with gently curved coconut palms, white sand and turquoise water gently lapping the shore. But one week a year, the air is filled with Hawaiian music.
“Git da bass! Git da bass first!” comes the gruff voice of George Kahumoku, shirtless in shorts and slippers, in the shade of an awning a stone’s throw from the water.
Obediently, a dozen students, from beginner to advanced, thumb the bass strings of their guitars, creating the basis for the slack key style.
Kahumoku’s weeklong Maui Slack Key Guitar Workshop allows non-Hawaiians to learn from the living legends of island music – akin to getting batting tips from Barry Bonds.
Similarly, the Aloha Music Camp on nearby Molokai offers a “weeklong immersion into Hawaiian music and culture,” said camp administrator Mark Nelson of Jacksonville, Ore.
Participants in both camps learn from “kumu,” acknowledged masters of Hawaiian traditional arts. Both camps are held the same week in June each year.
The average student is from the mainland, an empty nester or retiree indulging an enduring passion for island music. A few have lived in Hawaii, but most are visitors who want to experience authentic Hawaiian ways, something rare among the tourist hotels and million-dollar mansions dotting the coast of modern Maui.
While there is plenty of laughter, the tone is serious when approaching the native Hawaiian traditions. There are no drunken hula spoofs or mai tai drinking contests.
Traditional Hawaiian music is a blend that includes native dance rhythms, church hymns, Mexican and Spanish folk music and modern styles, like march, swing and ragtime. It’s commonly played on the guitar, steel guitar, ukulele and hand percussion like the “ipu,” a gourd drum.
Slack key refers to a guitar with strings retuned, or “slacked,” into an open tuning and played finger-style. It began when Mexican cowboys came to the islands with their guitars more than 150 years ago to help herd cattle. Hawaiians quickly adopted the guitar into their own musical style. In recent years, the Dancing Cat record label, founded by pianist George Winston, has propelled slack key to new popularity around the world.
Hawaiian families handed down the songs and different tunings for generations, but rarely shared this knowledge with outsiders. The camps are a departure from that tradition.
Workshop participants can also study Hawaiian language and pronunciation with native speakers to help them speak, chant and sing in the native tongue.
When tens of thousands of native Hawaiians died from disease brought by outsiders more than 200 years ago, Hawaii quickly became a melting pot of Asian, Portuguese and Caucausian people. Once forbidden to be taught in public schools, the Hawaiian language almost faded from use. Now it is gaining new speakers through classes and long-term immersion programs.
Keola Beamer, founder of the Aloha Music Camp with Nelson, is a well-known singer and guitarist in the islands with a musical family heritage going back more than a century. He wrote the popular Hawaiian standard “Honolulu City Lights,” and his recordings showcase the contemplative sound of the acoustic guitar and the Hawaiian language.
His workshop is held at Kaupoa Beach Village, a rustic waterfront getaway on Molokai. Despite the remote setting and limited electricity, 100 people attended the 2004 camp.
“It’s more of a retreat,” said Nelson.
George Kahumoku, a slack key master who’s also from a musical family, founded his guitar workshop seven years ago after doing cultural programs at the Mauian Hotel. Kahumoku, who played a concert at The Met in Spokane in February 2003, is also a sculptor, schoolteacher and storyteller.
The workshop takes the mystery out of the music and makes Hawaiian culture more accessible to those who want a deeper understanding of it, Kahumoku said. He limits participation to about 50 students plus spouses and family, totaling no more than 80.
Jim Garson, a college professor from Houston, first heard slack key guitar while visiting Honolulu and attending a slack key festival. He bought some CDs, became “hooked” and picked up the guitar he hadn’t played for many years.
He learned of the music workshops at Taropatch.net, a Web site dedicated to slack key guitar and other things Hawaiian.
“After several years of frustration trying to learn from listening to CDs on my own, I realized I needed help,” he said. He went to Kahumoku’s workshops in 2003 and 2004.
Garson loved the evening “kanikapila,” a group jam session where students play beside slack key legends like Led Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui. Guitar and uke players gather in a circle each evening after dinner under an awning lit by a few bare bulbs. Songs and tunings are called out and everyone joins in. And after planned activities are over, many students play music on the beach late into the night.
Kahumoku’s camp ends with a short group performance at the Maui Slack Key Festival.
At the Aloha Music Camp, the campers are treated to nightly concerts by Hawaiian artists and give their own performances for each other at the end of the week.
Keith Marzullo, 51, of La Jolla, Calif., became interested in Hawaiian culture four or five years ago after several island visits. Beamer’s instruction book inspired him to take up slack key guitar and he heard about the Aloha Music Camp from Nelson.
Now he is a camp veteran, already registered for 2005. Each year he rekindles friendships and brings home fond memories, like when he played well at the student concert and received a congratulatory hug from Beamer.
Depending on which workshop you attend, you’ll find classes in Hawaiian language, chanting, songwriting, storytelling, history, dance, ukulele building, weaving and food preparation.
“Everything is related,” said Nelson. “When you’re taking slack key guitar (class), you’re learning the song for the dance” that another student is learning.
Kahumoku takes his students to Kahakuloa, a remote Hawaiian village, to work in taro patches like the Hawaiians of long ago. Later, students pound the taro into paste and wrap meat in ti leaves to create a traditional meal.
Both camps welcome families with older kids who can take part in nonmusical classes or play on the beach while adults strum guitars and ukuleles nearby.
“If you love Hawaii and Hawaiian culture, you’ll love it,” said Nelson.