Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Slacked Keys

My family goes to Hawaii often. Not that every trip has been flawless – there was the time we rented a motor home only to have most of us come down with diarrhea - but there is something wonderfully relaxing about being in the tropics. It meets the twin goals of vacations, a place both to rest and to explore.

On a Tuesday night we ventured to the Ritz Carlton in Kapalula for an evening of the Masters of Slack Guitar series. It cost a mere $35, but we knew someone who Hulas there who let us in for free. Behind the stage was a tapestry of a Hawaiian sunset made in the same artistic style that decorates the interiors of airplane's economy class cabins, and our chairs had little desks in case we felt the urge to take notes. A balding man went to the front to introduce the headliners, Dennis Kamakahi and his son David. "Hello, I am slack head. Five years ago I heard this style of music and it changed my life. I follow it around." Looking at the rest of the audience I realized that he was not unique.

The two musicians took the stage. The son played the Ukulele. The father played slack guitar – an ordinary guitar adjusted down to the singer. When guitars were first left on the islands, the natives did not have an idea of how to properly tune them so they made up their own scales. It has an opaque effect like a puzzle that you have assembled the edges of, but still aren't certain how it fills in the middle.

Dennis and David would introduce each song with a lengthy narrative. The father wore a wide brim hat and looked a decade older than he actually was. He began to explain his extensive mileage, "Do you remember the time I woke you up at two during New Years Eve?"

The son, young enough to not understand that he would one day have his fathers shape, replied, "I thought we were just going to play a couple of tunes. We kept going to dawn."

The father added, "We went to the best barbeque afterwards. They had rice and pork and poi. Sometime you just get what you really needed."

They launched into a breezy instrumental number called "Monterey Sunrise", which they composed that New Year's morning. Their gentle plucking had the same daydream texture as classical music that makes me mentally drift. It was tune that you could listen to in a hammock.

Dennis talked about the tour he had been to on the mainland and mentioned towns as if they were from the most remote part of the world. He started, "We had just been to Santa Cruz," and then pauses for the audience to nod their heads if they had heard of it. "And a couple of weeks we are going to a fund raiser in Petaluma for treating disabilities with horse riding." More nodding.

At some point he had been to Louisiana and fell in love with Cajun music. They played a song called "Dancez Par La Nuit" The son sang and the father added a harmonic rift that sounded like an Arlo Guthrie and plucked unfamiliar chords with the guitar. The menagerie worked. I never would have thought that Hawaiian and Cajun music could be blended, but I know afterwards the barbeque must have been amazing.

We learned about the time Dennis told his son that they were going to play at funeral because he did not want him nervous when he walked out into the Hollywood Bowl. There was the time they met Stevie Wonder and David had no idea who he was. They then launched into an improvised cover of "Sir Duke."

My family had to leave before the second set. My parents were mixed about the show – my mom went to the lobby quickly to buy an album; my father was upset they did not play "Tiny Bubbles."

I realized that we as a family didn't have any two o'clock in the morning drinking stories. I would not want to hear about my father's benders from college any more than I think he would want to hear mine. Our time together was better spent swimming in the afternoons or figuring out where to eat in the evenings. Our discussions wandered somewhere between about the war in Iraq and troubleshooting what two flashing green lights meant on the printer – I didn't solve either.

But except for the time we backed the rental car into some rocks, we had fun. Sometimes my father would spend the day at home and read a mystery novel. Sometimes my mom would get up early to play golf with three strangers. We were like most there – harmonizing at times to our own particular slacked key.