Ledward "Led" Kaapana is a master of the two leading string instruments in Hawaii: the Hawaiian ukulele and ki ho'alu, the slack key guitar, a finger-style guitar art form that originated in Hawaii. This talent, combined with his vocal skills in the baritone and leo ki`eki`e (falsetto) range, have made him a legendary performer who has been entertaining audiences in Hawaii and abroad for more than 40 years.
Kaapana grew up in Kalapana in the southernmost district of Hawaii Island in a family of musicians. His teachers included his mother, Mama Tina Kaapana, from whom he learned to sing leo ki'eki'e, and his uncle, Fred Punahoa. "We didn't have electricity, not television, not even much radio," says Kaapana. "So we entertained ourselves. You could go to any house and everybody was playing music."
Over the course of his career, Kaapana has dedicated himself to perpetuating the traditional style and repertoire of his home village, beginning in his teens when Kaapana and his twin brother Nedward and cousin Dennis Pavao formed the musical group Hui Ohana. The group produced 14 best-selling albums, made hundreds of live appearances, and became a key figure in the resurgence of traditional Hawaiian culture and music during the 1970s.
Kaapana later formed the trio I Kona, releasing six albums, including Jus' Press, which received a Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts Na Hoku Hanohano award. He has also released solo albums, among them two Na Hoku Hanohano Instrumental Album of the Year winners: Lima Wela and Black Sand. Kaapana has earned Grammy nominations in 2006, 2007, and 2009. In 2008, Kaapana formed his own recording company called Jus' Press Productions. The same year, he released Force of Nature with 12-string virtuoso Mike Kaawa, earning a Grammy nomination and Favorite Entertainer Awards for the duo at the 2009 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.
Kaapana has worked with Nashville musicians Dolly Parton and Chet Atkins and collaborated with Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and other bluegrass musicians for Waltz of the Wind. In addition, Kaapana has recorded with numerous renowned Hawaii musicians, including NEA National Heritage Fellows Aunty Genoa Keawe and the Ho'opi'i Brothers and Barney Isaacs.
NEA: I want to begin by having you tell me about living in Kalapana.
Ledward Kaapana: I moved to Kalapana in 1956 or '57. Actually, I was born on the island of Hawaii in a place called Pahala, a small village in the Ka'u district, then moved to Kalapana. Kalapana is a place that is so isolated from everything else. So I learned how to live the old style -- surviving off the land, hunting for meat and fishing for food. I learned how to respect people and call them by the right names. Learning the old style was great, and the music was one of the most important things that happened because where we lived we didn't have electricity, or TVs, nothing. [We created] our own environment to have fun. We climbed trees -- coconut trees and guava trees and mango trees. We went swimming, picked opihi. Opihi is like escargot, it's in the shell. That's how we live in Kalapana. My dad, my mom, my uncles, grandmas and grandpas, they all played music, so as I was growing up I just listened and watched what they were doing and just learned how to carry on the tradition.
NEA: Tell me about the music parties you had, the house parties.
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! I'm just joking. I remember the parties used to last, like, one month. Every family used to come over and, like potluck, everybody used to share the food. And that's why the [parties] just go on and on. You have different families that come and they also play music, and they have their own style of playing, their own keys, their own tunings.
NEA: Your family was very musical.
Kaapana: My family was all musical. We had 11 of us and we all played music.
NEA: And your mother was a renowned singer.
Kaapana: My mom sang. She's the one that taught me how to play the guitar and the ukulele. My dad played slack key guitar, he played steel guitar, he played autoharp, saxophone, piano. Neither of them read music. In Kalapana, nobody reads music. Even today, I still don't read music. It just comes from within. I do a lot of festivals now, and I play with all these different entertainers. 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. And if you don't hear it right, you're not going to get it. So I always compliment my ears.
NEA: If you had to explain what a slack key guitar is, what would you say?
Kaapana: I would say the slack key guitar is a style that the Hawaiian people created. First of all, the cowboys -- Mexican cowboys -- came to the islands to help upgrade the cattle industry, to teach the Hawaiians how to rope cattle. They were the ones that 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. They re-tuned the guitar to how they felt, from a standard tuning to a slack key tuning. Slack key tuning is when you have all these strings that relate to one another. In other words, if you're on a standard tuning and 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 re-tuned 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. From there they started creating their style of playing where 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.
NEA: When I was listening to your solo work, and I kept looking at the CD, saying, "This is solo? How is this solo?"
Kaapana: A lot of people say that. And I just use two fingers, my thumb and my first finger.
NEA: Fascinating. And you play eight tunings of slack key. Probably more by now.
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.
NEA: Okay, hot finger style. What is that?
Kaapana: I guess it's the way I play the guitar. I play standard tuning and I play slack key. When I play standard tuning, I guess they mean they way I pick on the guitar, because I play over the neck. 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.
NEA: Your uncle was Fred Punahoa, a wonderful slack key guitarist.
Kaapana: Yes, and my Uncle Fred, he told me this story about how he learned to play his guitar. He dreamt for about seven nights about how to play. In his dream, someone came and taught him how to play the guitar. In his dream, he sees the guy on a coconut tree, but he couldn't see the guy's face. All he saw was that he was white with a red chest. In Hawaiian style, they always had the red chest, and the guy was sitting there and teaching him. And as he was getting ready to go to school, his dad used to make him lunch for school, and the dad could hear him playing guitar in his room. So on the seventh day when he told his dad, the dad gave him one slap. In other words, he was not supposed to say anything, because after that, the dream was gone. He never had that dream again. 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!" Because he plays with his nose. He plays with his toes. When I was young, watching him do all that, I was just amazed.
NEA: 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.
Kaapana: And on top of that, because of all of my other uncles, I guess I have some of them in me. So I like putting everything together. When I play this guitar, it comes from within. 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 at me, and I'm on the stage playing. They're like, "Whoa!" And the same for me, like, whoa! But it always comes back. So I guess it's like a gift, you would say. And I'm so happy. Never a dull moment. I always want to play music. I've been having these feelings since I was young, and I still keep on creating.
NEA: You play the ukulele and you're considered a master at that, and it's rare. A master vocalist, master slack guitarist, and a master ukulele player. Do you reach for the ukulele for some songs rather than the slack key guitar? What's the difference in the way you use those instruments?
Kaapana: When I'm doing my show, I'm playing the music that I love to play, and the reason why I reach for the ukulele? Because if it feels like I'm running out of songs, I'll go to the ukulele. They inspire me. I grab it, and then when I'm done with the ukulele, I'll feel some more on the guitar. So I switch over; I'm going back and forth. As I play, I can feel the ukulele or the guitar. It just comes naturally. Sometimes I have the autoharp with me, so I play the autoharp, ukulele, and guitar.
NEA: Obviously, you've taken to traditional Hawaiian music, but you listen to music from the mainland as well.
Kaapana: Back in those days, I used to listen to country music. In my school days, I had friends that walked around with transistor radios with the batteries. Then I heard the songs and was like, oh, man that's nice. So in my head, I kept the melody and I went home and grabbed my guitar or ukulele and just played the song.
NEA: Would you try to merge Hawaiian sensibility into it or just do it straight, or both?
Kaapana: Well, both. I just feel the song, how it feels, try this, and try that and have fun with it.
NEA: What makes Hawaiian music Hawaiian music?
Kaapana: I guess because of the vocals, the way they sing. In Hawaiian, [falsetto] is called leo kiekie. The feelings, the music, it comes from the soul. 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 say, "I cannot believe it; you made my day and you made me cry." And I say, "You know what? That's a blessing." I love when I hear people say that, because I know I did the right thing. I took you back to your [previous] days. You reminisce [about] whatever happened. And they tell me, "That's what it is. I just sat there with my eyes closed." And so the Hawaiian music is healing music. Back home, we have people that are feeling ill, they're sick, and 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 kiekie, the falsetto. The next thing you know, they're smiling, tears coming out of their eyes, and they feel so great. It's like a medicine to them. In Hawaii, we say "chicken skin" -- you can feel the goose bumps.
When I get comments from people, good comments, I always thank the Man above for this gift to make people happy. I always have to play from within, from the heart. Sometimes people just want to play music or they want to impress. My dad told me, "You don't have to impress nobody." I'm just like my dad. I don't impress.
NEA: Somebody said to me, "Hawaiian music is about sharing. It's not about showing off."
Kaapana: Yes, it's sharing the love. That's why the Hawaiians always write about love stories, about the mountains, about the ocean. It's bringing a group together and having a nice time and a lot of, we call it mana. Mana is like the Lord above, the blessings.
NEA: Do you remember your first public performance?
Kaapana: I think it was back in 1962, probably. I was in this battle of the bands, just me and my twin brother and my female cousin. She was the singer and we were the only group that had three musicians. Every school, they had, like, six of them. They had drums. They had guitar players. And here we were from Kalapana. 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 a civic auditorium, and you know how big a civic auditorium is, and with a small amp. So the judges couldn't hear.
NEA: Well, you and your twin brother and your cousin Dennis formed a trio called Hui' Ohana. What does that name mean?
Kaapana: "A family group."
NEA: What was your first CD?
Kaapana: Young Hawaii Plays Old Hawaii.
NEA: It was a huge hit.
Kaapana: Yes. I never thought that this was going to be my thing -- 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'Ohana, from 1972 to 1976, we played together.
NEA: Your mother would sometimes come and sing with you, wouldn't she?
Kaapana: Oh, yeah. And on our third album, we invited my mom to record with us.
NEA: That must have been so special.
Kaapana: For all those years, outside of Hawaii, nobody knew who my mama, Tina, was, who my dad and my Uncle Fred were. And so we put her on a CD and a lot of people loved her voice. After that, we backed her up on two of her CDs. One was Mama Tina and the other one was called Alania. That was her solo album.
NEA: Is there a difference for you between doing studio work and performing?
Kaapana: Not that much of a difference. When you [record in the] studio, you want to make sure it's the same thing they hear when you're live, because sometimes in the studio, you get too many things that they put in, that you're adding to make it sound good. But for me, you don't have to put in anything. I do it. It just comes natural. So when they come to see me live and they hear me on the CD, it sounds like the same guy.
NEA: Except you're known as the great improviser. And didn't you say that whenever you do a tune, it's always going to be a little bit different, because you're approaching it differently each time.
Kaapana: Yeah. I can play this song today this way, and tomorrow I play the same song and it's different. Because it's the feeling, it's the mode. Every day you feel different, it's not the same, so your music changes. And when it changes, it gets better and better and better. And people notice that. I've got a lot of friends and family that notice. Or if I have a workshop, I teach the students how to play a song. And the next time they see me, they say, "Oh, Led. We've got it down." They play it for me. Then they would say, "We want to hear you play it." So I play it. When I play it, there are all these different notes flying out of the instrument. They tell me, "You didn't show us that." Because it's always different. I tell them, because every time I play, I always have a good feeling about playing. That's why I never get tired of playing. And like, say, if you [play from] a music sheet and everything's the same thing, every day, there's no feeling. When you play with feeling, the music comes out the way you feel. So it's my personality and my feelings that I have coming out every day.
NEA: Do you remember the first time you came to the mainland to play?
Kaapana: Not really. I went to Canada the first time in 1968 or '67 and stayed about a month or two months. My first time playing solo was at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife in 1988. I was afraid of playing solo. After Hui â€˜Ohana disbanded, I was going to give up. But my wife told me, "You cannot give up. Coming from Kalapana, you've played with your brother and your cousin, and they're the only ones you have played with all those years. And when the band disbanded, you got lost. What are you going to do now?" She knew there were a lot of things that I could do. I wanted to give up, but I kept on going. And then I ended up in Washington for my first solo show. And you know what? My solo career started from there. After that, I got a call from Joe Wilson, who took me to do the National Council of Traditional Arts tour Masters of the Steel String Guitar from 1990 to 1992. We played all over, East Coast and West Coast, with Jerry Douglas, myself, Tal Farlow (a jazz guy), Wayne Henderson, Albert Lee. We were all different guitar players from different cultures. And that's where I was playing solo and learning and just watching all these professionals. I became more confident playing solo. I worked hard on my music and now I just enjoy it. I can do it, and I love doing it, and people love it. They don't want me to stop so I just keep on going.
NEA: You also did Waltz of the Wind with Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, and a host of other bluegrass people. How did that happen?
Kaapana: A producer came to Hawaii looking for a guitar player and he found me. I was playing in Waikiki. At that time, I had a trio called Ikona. Â We were playing and he came to listen. That's how I got to go to Nashville, with the help of another fellow. His name was Jay Junker from the University of Hawaii. We went to Nashville and did these songs. And from there, it kept on going and going and going.
NEA: You also played with an East Indian artist, Debashish Bhattacharya, who plays the sitar. What was that collaboration like?
Kaapana: It was wild. But the feeling for me was just to play with somebody from a different world. Just to share what we did. That was a great feeling. Like when I go to the festivals and they put you on the stage with all these guitar players. When you don't know anybody, everybody just goes there, and from there it starts. It's so awesome. It feels so great to be sitting there and playing with guitar players that you just met and you're able to share in this music or this mele, as we call it in Hawaii.
NEA: After experimenting in several styles, you went back to Hawaiian classics with the CD Black Sand.
Kaapana: Since I came from Kalapana, and Kalapana was known as the Black Sands because of a famous beach we have there, I named the album Black Sands. I learned all my music from Kalapana. That's where it all started.
NEA: Tell me about the paper bag trick.
Kaapana: Oh, I learned it from my Uncle Fred. I never asked him how he learned it. I was just amazed to watch what he was doing with the bag like that. He used to just smile at me as I was growing up and watching him. And then he says, "Look, man, no fingers." 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 clean. You should be able to tell if you have a bag on. So that's how I started playing around with the bag.
And then one year I went to Tahiti and I played the paper bag. I think it was 1985. I went with the group, Ikona. There's another guitar player in Tahiti, he's a good friend of mine too; his name is Petoit. 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 covered the whole neck. I played with the paper bag. Just two guitar players, the number one guitar player from Tahiti, and one from Hawaii -- we had fun. He was doing that and I was doing the paper bag.
NEA: When did you start teaching?
Kaapana: I started teaching three years ago. I'm teaching solo lessons. I'm teaching a boy back in Hawaii.
NEA: Do you find that there are a lot of younger people in Hawaii who are interested in learning traditional Hawaiian music, learning slack key guitar?
Kaapana: No. I don't find a lot of Hawaiian people that are interested. I find mostly people from the mainland. Me and the late Ray Kinney, I think we were the ones who paved the way for all these entertainers in Hawaii. The people in the mainland, the first time they ever heard slack key, they're like, "Whoa! What's that?" We tell them, "Oh, this is Hawaiian slack key." The reason [no one recognizes it] is because in the old days, in the '60s, the only place you would hear it is at a luau. You don't hear it in public like you do today. It's well known all over the world today. Back then, no one was taught how to play. They used to keep it a secret. They used to keep it in their family. But as we, Ray Kinney and myself, Dancing Cats [Records], they're the ones that opened the door, and they're the ones brought all the tuning. And it's good to share the tuning, because when I'm not here I know the thing will live forever. Some of our uncles [played] certain tunes that have been forgotten. They took it to the grave with them. So it's nice for me to share and pass on to the next generation. I found out that a lot of people from the mainland just love the music, so they go to Hawaii to learn. And now we have workshops in Maui and Honolulu. We have slack key concerts every year all over the islands.
NEA: How did you find out about getting the National Heritage Fellowship?
Kaapana: I knew I was nominated. I found out when Barry Bergey called while I was in Arizona. Barry called me and he told me that I won. I just was struck. He says, "Are you there?" "Yes. Yes, I'm here." And he said, "Well, I just wanted to let you know, I got the good news. You're one of the recipients." I just was stunned. I'm still stunned. He said, "You can tell your family, but don't let it get out to the media until after [the announcement] on June 24th." I still was stunned when the thing came out, just what a feeling. I feel so happy representing Hawaii. I feel happy bringing this music out, spreading the music for Hawaii, sharing this music.
NEA: Traditional Hawaiian values really seem to embody the music that you do: Ohana -- family; aloha aina -- love of the land; and loko maika -- generosity. The music you make really seems to embody that. Family, the love of Hawaiian tradition, and a generous spirit.
Kaapana: Yes. 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. There's a lot of love in the music, a lot of feelings. And it covers all that.
Photo by Marsha Forsythe
Slack key guitar master Led Kaapana talks about making music the Hawaiian way. [27:19]