By Pamela Varma Brown
Legendary Kaua’i guitarist and teacher, Hal Kinnaman first heard slack key guitar played on a California beach as he emerged from the surf. He moved to Kaua’i to learn the craft, and, of course, to surf. A classically trained guitar instructor, Kinnaman believed that by learning how to play slack key well enough, he could then teach anyone who wanted to learn, so that this distinctly Hawaiian musical tradition would live on.
“I love teaching for the joy of sharing and seeing people play when they didn’t think they could do it,” Kinnaman says. “I had one student who was so shy, she couldn’t even look up at me when she first started her lessons. Now she comes in and says, ‘Hi,’ sings and plays slack key.”
Slack key is an intricate form of guitar playing in which the musician’s thumb plays the bass line and the rest of his or her fingers play the melody, making one guitar sound like several.
One of Kinnaman’s students, Paul Togioka, a shy Japanese man who grew up on the sleepy west side town of Kekaha on Kaua’i, is recognized as one of Hawai’i’s most accomplished slack key artists, having won numerous Na Hoku Hanohano, Grammy and Hawai’i Music awards in the past 16 years.
Blending what Kinnaman teaches him with his love for all types of music, including rock and roll and banjo playing, both of which he became adept at during his high school and college years, Togioka has taken slack key guitar music to new heights.
“When I perform slack key, I am able to connect with people from all over the world,” Togioka says. “Visitors will come right up to me and say things like, ‘This is the best part of my vacation.’ It’s a wonderful thing. Music shares aloha.”
While it’s important to recognize certain arts as traditions of specific cultures, it’s important to share them, so they remain alive for all of us to enjoy. Through Kinnaman’s and Togioka’s talent for Hawaiian slack key guitar and their aloha in sharing it with us, we all get to enjoy this lovely Hawaiian music.
Pamela Varma Brown is the author of “Kauai Stories: Life on the Garden Island told by Kauai’s People,” a collection of more than 50 touching, humorous and inspiring personal stories about life on Kauai. She has lived on Kauai for 24 years. For more stories about Kauai and about some of our island’s musicians and to see a video of Hal Kinnaman playing Flemenco on a ukulele, visit kauaistories.net.