Photo by Marsha Forsythe
Slack key guitar master Led Kaapana talks about making music the Hawaiian way. [27:19]
Transcript of conversation with Led Kaampana
Led Kaapana: See, in Kalapana we never had any electricity. Yea, everything was run by kerosene. The first I had guitar I had was run by kerosene.
Jo Reed: That was slack key guitarist and 2011 National Hertiage Fellow, Ledward Kaapana. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host Jospehine Reed.
To call Led Kaapana a master of the slack key guitar doesn't begin to do him justice: he's also an extraordinary ukulele player and one terrific singer with a voice that somehow encompasses a soaring baritone and a yearning falsetto. Little wonder that he's been a celebrated performer for over forty years entertaining audiences in Hawaii, on the mainland and around the world. He's not exactly a slacker in the recording department either; he has 31 cds to his name and performed on almost 40 others. Although Led Kaapana has dedicated himself to perpetuating the traditional style and musical repertoire of Hawaii, he's also worked with a wide range of musical talent, including Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Wayne Henderson, and Chet Atkins. The traditional Hawaiian virtues of ohana (family,) aloha aina (love of the land), and lokomaika'i (generosity) inform Led's music and his life. All roads lead to the small town of Kalapana where Led's family settled in the mid-1950s and music was a way of life
Led Kaapana: Kalapana is a place that is so isolated from everything else. So I learn how to live the old style, surviving off the land, go hunting for meat and go fishing for food, learn how to respect people, and just learning the old style was great, and the music was one of the most important thing that happened, because where we lived we didn't have no electricity, no TVs, no nothing. So we was recreated our own environment to have fun, climb coconut trees and guava trees and mango trees and <laughs> had fun like that. My dad, my mom, my uncles, grandmas and grandpas, they all played music, so as I was growing up, I was growing up in an environment and just listening and watching what they were doing, observing and just learn how to carry on the tradition.
Jo Reed: Tell me about the house parties. What were they?
Led Kaapana: In Kalapana, from the first house to the last house, everybody was related, and everybody played music. And the further in Kalapana you go, the music gets better and better. And I come from the last house. <laughter> I'm just joking. No. No, but we used to have parties that used to go -- I remember the parties used to last, like, one month. We have the parties for one month because...
Jo Reed: A month?
Led Kaapana: A month, yeah. Dad them used to go work, and we're back home helping mom and everybody just to get the food prepared, and every family used to come over and, like potluck, everybody used to share the food. And that's why the things just go on and on and then you have different families that comes and they also play music, and they have their own style of playing, their own keys, their own tunings.
Jo Reed: And your family was very musical.
Led Kaapana: My family was all musical, yeah. We had 11 of us and we all played music.
Jo Reed: And your mother was a renowned singer.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, my mom sang. She's the one that taught me how to play the guitar and the ukulele, and my dad played slack key guitar. He played steel guitar. He played autoharp, saxophone, piano, and none of them read music. In Kalapana, nobody read music. Until today, I still don't read music. <laughs> It just comes from within. I do a lot of festivals now, and I play with all these different entertainers, and Iâm not afraid to play with different entertainers because I think it's so deep down in me that the music just comes from here. And you know what I found out about playing with other entertainers is that you have to have a good ear, and that's what it is. If you don't hear it right, you're not going to get it. So I always compliment my ears.
Jo Reed: I think that's so right. So much of good music is about good listening.
Led Kaapana: Good listening, yeah. That's what it is.
Jo Reed: Yeah, absolutely. If you had to explain what a slack keyed guitar is, what would you say?
Led Kaapana: I would say the slack key guitar is a style that the Hawaiian people created. Actually, let's go back. Mexican cowboys, I guess, came to the Islands to help upgrade the cattle industry, to teach the Hawaiians how to rope cattles, and then they the one brought the guitars in. And after they got through roping cows, in the afternoon around the fire, they used to sing and play, and after they left, they left some of the guitars back in Hawaii. And then the Hawaiians got a hold of the guitar, and they taught themselves how to play the guitar. So what they did, they retuned the guitar to how they felt. And retuning the guitar from a standard tuning to a slack key tuning, a slack key tuning is that you have all these strings that they relate to one another. In other words, if you're on a standard tuning, if you hold the key G, you have to put the finger on the fret board to hold the note G. What the Hawaiians did, they retuned the guitar where you don't have to put your finger there. All you have to do is strum the strings from the sixth string down to the first, and you have a G chord. And from there they started creating their style of playing, and the style is the thumb plays the bass notes while the fingers do the melody chords. So it sounds like two or three guys playing because of the way the finger picking is done.
Jo Reed: When I was listening to your work and I was listening to your solo work, and I kept looking at the CD, saying, "This is solo. How is this solo?" <laughter>
Led Kaapana: Yeah. A lot of people say it.
Music up and hot....
Jo Reed: And I just use two fingers, my thumb and my first finger.
Jo Reed: Fascinating. And you play eight tunings of slack key. Probably more by now.
Led Kaapana: That's one thing about the tunings. Every time you retune the guitar, then you have to learn the fingers, because the fret board changes.
Jo Reed: Everything changes.
Led Kaapana: Everything changes, yeah.
Jo Reed: Okay, hot finger style.
Led Kaapana: <laughs> Hot finger style?
Jo Reed: What is that? <laughs>
Led Kaapana: I guess it's the way I play the guitar. I play standard tuning and I play slack key. So when I play standard tuning, I guess they mean they way I pick on the guitar, because I play over the neck. And that's what my uncle used to do. He used to play over the neck of the guitar, picking above, on top of the guitar and playing melodies and singing along with the songs.
Jo Reed: Your uncle, that's Fred Punahoa?
Led Kaapana: Fred Punahoa, yeah.
Jo Reed: And he was a wonderful slack key guitarist.
Led Kaapana: Yeah. And my Uncle Fred, he told me this story about how he learned to play his guitar. He dreamt for about seven nights of how to play. In his dream, someone came into his dream and taught him how to play the guitar. This guy sat under the coconut tree. In his dream, he sees the guy on a coconut tree, but he couldn't see the guy's face. All he seen was everything was white with a red chest. You know the Hawaii style, they always had the red chest, and sitting there and teaching him. And as he was getting ready to go to school, his dad used to make him home lunch to go to school then, and the dad could hear him playing in the room, his guitar. So on the seventh day when he told his dad, the dad gave him one slap. So in other words, he was not supposed to say anything, because after that, that dream was gone. Never had that dream. Then you know what he told me? My uncle told me, "If I didn't tell my dad about this dream, I could have been playing with my eyelashes." <laughter> Because he plays with his nose. He plays with his toes. He plays over the guitar.
Jo Reed: Wow!
Led Kaapana: And then me, as young, watching him do all that, I was just amazed.
Jo Reed: You follow both the tradition of your mother, because you're an incredible vocalist, as well as your uncle, an extraordinary guitarist. You sort of weave them both together.
Led Kaapana: yYeah. And on top of that, because of all of my other uncles that I have that, I guess in me, I have some of them in me. So I like putting everything together. So when I play this guitar, I guess it comes from within. So when I'm playing, I also surprise myself, because I'm creating something that I feel, and it's happening right there, and I'm surprised. And sometimes people look in the mirror, and I'm on the stage playing. They -- "Whoa!" And the same for me, like, whoa! <laughs> But it always comes back. So I guess it's like a gift, you would say. And it makes you so happy. I'm so happy. Never a dull moment, always want to play music. I've been having these feelings since I was young to now, and I still have the same and keep on creating.
Jo Reed: And you play the ukulele.
Led Kaapana: I play the ukulele, yeah. And the autoharp. <laughs>
Jo Reed: And you're considered a master at that, and it's rare. A master vocalist, master slack guitarist and a master ukulele player.
Led Kaapana: Yeah. Well, like I say, just because I love music so much and growing up in a musical family and to this, I always tell myself, I wish those days was like today, because the people of today could see how my dad, how my mom -- you know like today, they have all this technology and recording, video, and those days wasn't -- never had such thing as. We had reel-to-reel tape. That was it. That was about it.
Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, and this comes completely out of my ignorance. But do you reach for the ukulele for some songs rather than the slack guitar? What's the difference in the way you use those instruments?
Led Kaapana: When I'm doing my show, I'm playing the music that I love to play, and then the reason why I reach for the ukulele, because if it feels like I'm running out of songs, so I'll go to the ukulele. <laughs>
Jo Reed: I see. So the different instruments inspire you.
Led Kaapana: Inspire me, and I grab it, and then when I done with the ukulele, I feel some more on the guitar. So I switch over and that's like I'm going back and forth.
Jo Reed: Oh, that's so interesting.
Led Kaapana: So as I playing, I can feel the ukulele or the guitar. Like, do the ukulele now, and then it just comes natural.
Jo Reed: Wow! Okay. That's really interesting.
Led Kaapana: Or even if I have the, sometimes I have the autoharp with me. The autoharp, so I play autoharp, ukulele, guitar.
Jo Reed: Obviously, you've taken traditional Hawaiian music, but you also listen to music from the mainland as well.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, yeah. I started, you know, like I say back in those days, back there, I used to listen to The Ventures. I used to listen to country music all those days when I was growing up, so that's when I used to go to school. In school days, I used to have friends that walk around with transistor radios with the batteries. You had those old -- <laughs> so I hear songs.
Jo Reed: The little antenna. <laughs>
Led Kaapana: Yeah. Then I hear the songs, like, oh, man that's nice. So in my head, I keep the melody and everything, and I just go home and grab my guitar or ukulele and just play the song.
Jo Reed: Would you try to merge Hawaiian sensibility into it or just do it straight, or both?
Led Kaapana: Well, both. Yeah. I just feel the song, how it feels, try this and try that and try this and have fun with it.
Jo Reed: I have a question. What makes Hawaiian music Hawaiian music?
Led Kaapana: Hawaiian music, makes it Hawaiian music, I guess because of maybe could be the vocal, the way they sing, the...
Jo Reed: The falsetto that comes in.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, it's called...
Jo Reed: The combination.
Led Kaapana: The combination of the falsetto.
Jo Reed: What's it called?
Led Kaapana: Falsetto.
Jo Reed: Oh, in Hawaiian?
Led Kaapana: In Hawaiian, it's called leo ki'eki'e. Ki'eki'e, yeah. And that, with the feelings, the music is like it comes from the soul. That's why I think for my music, the Hawaiian music comes from my soul, and the music goes out and grabs people and makes them cry. I just did the Lowell festival. I made a lot of people cry, and they come up to me and says, "I cannot believe; you made my day and you made me cry." And I said, "You know what? That's a blessing. And I love when I hear people say it, because I know I did the right thing. I took you back to your days. You reminisce whatever happened." And they tell me, "That's what it is. I just sat there with my eyes closed." So the Hawaiian music is like a healing to me, it's like a healing music. Back home, we have people that they're feeling ill, they're sick; all we have to do is go over there and play for them, go visit them and bring them a guitar and start play slack key music and singing leo ki'eki'e the falsetto.
And next thing you know, they're smiling, tears coming out of their eye, and they feel so great. So it's like a medicine to them. You know, in Hawaiian say chicken skin. You can feel all the goose bumps.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Led Kaapana: Yeah. <laughs> In this music. That's something the Hawaiian music -- that's how I feel about Hawaiian music.
Jo Reed: In listening to it, it seems to me kind of a visual music.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, you just can see all, and it's all good. To me, it's all good, and I always thank the man above when I get the comments from people, good comments, I always thank the man above, every day, I thanking him for this gift to make people happy. And to me, I always say that for me I always have to play from within, from the heart, always say, "Play from the heart." Sometimes, people just want to play music or they want to impress. My dad told, "You don't have to impress nobody." So I'm just like my dad. I don't impress.
Jo Reed: Somebody said to me, "Hawaiian music is about sharing. It's not about showing off."
Led Kaapana: Yeah. It's sharing the love. That's why the Hawaiians always write about love stories, about the mountains, about the ocean. Because it always bringing a group together and having a nice time and a lot of, we call it Mana is like the Lord above, the blessings.
Jo Reed: Do you remember your first public performance?
Led Kaapana: Oh, my first public performance. Yeah, I think back in 1962, probably. I was in this battle of the band, just me and my twin brother, and just two of us and my cousin. She was the female. She was the singer, and then were battle of the band, and we're the only group that had three musicians. Every school, they had, like, six of them. They had drum. They had guitar players. And here was us from Kalapana with a small amplifier and we were good. Actually, we were good. We came in second place, and the reason for that was because they say they couldn't hear. We were in the [Hilo] civic auditorium, and you know how big the civic auditorium, and with a small amp. So the judges couldn't hear. The music was in -- like those guys with the big Fender amps and <laughs>...
Jo Reed: Well, you and your twin brother and your cousin, Dennis, formed a trio called...
Led Kaapana: Hui âOhana.
Jo Reed: Hui âOhana, and that means?
Led Kaapana: A family group.
Jo Reed: A family group. And your first CD was "Young"...
Led Kaapana: "Young Hawaii Plays Old Hawaii"
Jo Reed: And it was a huge hit.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, yeah. The three of us, we used to hang around my dad them. And we loved the music. That's why today, I never thought that this was going to be my thing that I -- traveling the world. I'm so happy that it turned out that way, and I get to share all this music that was passed on. And when we started Hui âOhana, from 1972 to 1976, we played together.
Jo Reed: And your mother would sometimes come and sing with you, wouldn't she?
Led Kaapana: Oh, yeah, yeah. And on our third album, we invited my mom to record with us.
Jo Reed: Oh, that must have been so special.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, because all those years, my mom, my dad didn't even have any public -- outside of Hawaii, nobody knew who my mama, Tina, was, who my dad and my Uncle Fred. And so we put it on a CD and a lot of people love her voice. And after that, we backed her up on two of her CDs. One was "Mama Tina" and the other one was called âAlania.â That was her solo album.
Jo Reed: You're known as the great improviser, which is the other thing you do. Whenever you do a tune, it's always going to be a little bit different, because you're just approaching it differently each time.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, yeah. Because that's what I always talk about, yeah, about the music. I can play this song today this way, and tomorrow I play the same song and it's different. But because it's the feeling. It's the mood that everyday you feel different. It's not the same. So the music changes. And when it changes, it gets better and better and better. You know, like I've thought, wow, man. I've got something new here. <laughs> And people notice that. We've got a lot of friends and families that they're noticing. "Oh, you played it different." Or if I have a workshop, I do a workshop, I teach the students of how to play the song. And the next time they see me, they, "Oh, Led. We got it down." They played for me. Okay. Then they would say, "We want to hear you play it." So I play it. When I play it, there's all these different -- and just like notes flying out of the instrument. And they look and they're telling me, "You didn't show us that." Because it's always different. I tell them, because every time I play it, I always have a good feeling about playing. That's why I never get tired of playing. And like, say, if you do a music sheet and everything's the same thing; every day, you just do the same line, nothing. There's no feeling. But when you play with feelings, it comes out the way you feel. So it's my personality and my feelings that I have is coming out every day different.
Jo Reed: 1989. You performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival here in Washington, DC. That was a game-changer for you. Tell us about it.
Led Kaapana: Yeah, that show time, that was my first time of playing solo. <laughs> Yeah, I was afraid of playing solo. After Hui âOhana disbanded, I was going to give up. But my wife told me, "You cannot give up. You have to -- coming from Kalapana, playing with your brother and your cousin, and that's the only one you played with all those years. And then when the thing disband, you just got lost. What are you going to do now?" And she just had the feeling that she knew I could do -- she knew there were a lot of things that I could do. <laughs> And I wanted to give up, but I kept on going and going. And then I ended up in -- that was my first solo. And you know what? It started from there. It actually started from there, because after that, there was guitar players for the Smithsonian, we went around the world, I guess. Play all over, East Coast, West Coast. We did it all with Jerry Douglas, myself. Tal Farlow was a jazz guy. Wayne Henderson. Rockabilly Albert Lee. <laughs>
Jo Reed: All playing together?
Led Kaapana: All the same, yeah. And we were all different guitar players with different culture, and Joe Wilson put the thing together. And that's where I was playing all solo and learning and just watching all these professionals up here and learning the same time and got more confident in myself at playing solo. But the feeling for me was just to play with somebody from a different world you know, to share what we did. That was a great feeling. The same like the festivals, when I go to the festivals and they put you on the stage with all these guitar players. And when you don't know nobody, everybody just go there, and from there it start. And that's what it is to have that feeling. It's so awesome. It feels so great to be sitting there to play with guitar players that you just met now and you share in this music or this "mele," what we call it in Hawaii, the music.
Jo Reed: Somebody said I had to ask you about the paper bag trick.
Led Kaapana: <laughs> Oh, I learned it from my Uncle Fred. I don't know. I never asked him how he learned that or how he got it. I was just amazed to watch what he was doing with the bag like that. And he used to just smile as I was growing up, watching him, and he's just smiling at me. And then he told me like this, says, "Look, man, no fingers." <laughter> And his hand is in a bag, and he's playing the guitar, and you think there's no bag because you don't hear this muffled sound. You hear all the notes. It's all clean and you cannot tell if you have a bag on. So that's how I started playing around with the bag.
And then when I went to Tahiti -- one year I went to Tahiti -- I played the paper bag. I think it was 1985. I went with the group Ikona, took him down there, and there's another guitar player in Tahiti. He's a good friend of mine too; his name isâ¦.. He's the number one guitar player in Tahiti. So he was playing with a towel over his guitar, and he played on the towel, and the towel was covered, you know, the whole neck. And he's playing on the neck. And I played with the paper bag. But we had fun. He was doing that and I was doing the paper bag.
Jo Reed: When did you start teaching?
Led Kaapana: I start teaching -- let me see now. Oh, man. I started teaching, let me see -- <talking to woman> Okay. Three years ago. I'm teaching solo.
Jo Reed: Do you find that there are a lot of younger people in Hawaii who are interested in learning traditional Hawaiian music, learning slack guitar?
Led Kaapana: No. I don't find Hawaiian people. I find mostly people from the mainland.
Jo Reed: Really?
Led Kaapana: Yeah, a lot of haoles (howlies) that want to learn it, because back in '89, from '89 when me and the late Ray Kane we came -- actually, I think just we were the ones paved the way for all these entertainers in Hawaii. But as we were going around and the people in the mainland, the first time they ever heard slack key, they're just like, "Whoa!" Like, "What's that?" And, "Oh, this is Hawaiian slack key." The reason for that, because in the old days, you wouldn't hear this music anyplace -- back in the â60s, you wouldn't hear it. The only place you would hear it is if they have a luau, you hear the -- but you don't hear it in public like you hear today. It's well known all over the world. Back then, because in those old days, every familythey used to keep that as a secret. They used to just keep it in their family. But as we, Ray Kane and myself, went with Dancing Cats, they're the ones that opened the door, and they're the ones brought all the tuning and that's how we share just tuning today. And it's good to share the tuning, because when I'm not here I know the thing will live forever. Like some of our uncles have certain tunings that are forgot about. They took it to the grave with them. So it's nice for me to share and just pass on to the next generation. And I find out a lot of people from the mainland, they just love the music, so they go to Hawaii to learn. And now we get workshops, Maui and Honolulu. And we have the slack key concert every year all over the islands. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Now, how did you find out about getting the National Heritage Fellowship?
Led Kaapana: I forget what the fellow's name is, but....
Jo Reed: Barry Bergey.
Led Kaapana: The guy called me in and he said, "Well, I just wanted to let you know, I got the good news. You're one of the recipients." I was just stunned. I'm still stunned. I'm happy for that because I feel so happy representing Hawaii. I feel happy bringing this music out, spreading the music for Hawaii, the big part of the right to go out and share this music.
Jo Reed: Spreading the joy.
Led Kaapana: Spreading the joy, yeah. Aloha. Yeah. That's what we usually say. The spirit is where it comes from. For me, it's all spirit and love, a lot of love, lot of love in the music, a lot of feelings. And it covers all that. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Thank you so much and many congratulations.
Led Kaapana: Thank you. God bless. Thank you.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That was musical legend and 2011 national heritage fellow, Led Kaapana. You can hear Led and the other National heritage fellows perform live at the NEA NATIONAL HERITAGE CONCERTâ¨Friday, September 23 at 8:00 PM The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland. But if you can't make it, not to worry -- we're webcasting it live! Go to arts.gov and click on National Heritage fellowships. For more information about this free event and the live webcast.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "I Kona" and "Mauna loa Slack Key" from the cd Led Live Solo, performed by Ledward Kaapana, used courtesy of Dancing Cat Records.
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Next week, Arab-American oud player and 1994 National Heritage Fellow, Simon Shaheen.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.