Bits 'n' Pieces: Guitar fest says 'aloha' to spring

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter

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Picture the warm, friendly, comfortable weather in Hawaii. Ahhh. Now tilt your inner ear and listen to the natural musical accompaniment.

What you're hearing in your head is the mellow, slidey, tropical tone of the slack key guitar. That's a Hawaiian guitar technique that's all about sweet-sounding open tunings and a delicate finger-style touch. Ahhh.

So let's evict this cold, slimy Pacific Northwest winter with some of that warm Ahhh. On the first day of spring, Vancouver's own Hawaiian arts and culture organization, the Ke Kekui Foundation, will host the first Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival in the region, as part of its 2014 schedule of offerings.

"We at the Ke Kukui Foundation are bringing Hawaiian culture, music, dance and spreading it wherever we can," said Executive Director Deva Leinani Yamashiro.

Ke Kukui hosts an annual Cultural Lu'au every winter as well as a huge summer festival featuring hula classes and competitions, craft workshops, music and more. This "Three Days of Aloha" festival draws thousands from across the nation. Plus, Ke Kukui offers ongoing courses in Hawaiian language, history, cooking, culture, horticulture and music. There are even monthly music jams.

And now there's what's being called the First Annual "Portland Style" Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival. It will be emceed by Harry B. Soria, the same Hawaiian gentleman who comes to Vancouver every year to emcee those "Three Days of Aloha." Yamashiro said Soria has long wanted to get Ke Kukui involved in bringing the annual festival, a tradition in Hawaii since 1982 that has recently spread to other U.S. cities, to Portland.

"He's been wanting us to be a part of this for a long time, but we've never been able to make it work until now," she said.

The slack key guitar style started in 1830 on the Big Island of Hawaii, not long after guitars first arrived there. "Slack key" means just what it sounds like: you slacken, or loosen, strings from standard tuning until they are in automatic harmony — so for example you can strum a sweet, open G chord without fretting anything. When you do start fretting, you've got this lovely droning background already embracing your notes.

If that sounds easy, the experts say it can be — at first. But there are dozens of ways to retune your instrument, and every time you do it's like learning a whole new language. So it may be easy to start but difficult to master.

Take note, acoustic guitar lovers: The original Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival is considered one of 50 "must-see" events by Acoustic Guitar Magazine, and the "Portland Style" event will feature a stellar lineup: triple Grammy Award winner the Rev. Dennis Kamakahi, LT Smooth, Steven Inglis, Danny Carvalho, Chris Lau and special guest Taimane.

The First Annual Portland Style Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival is set for 6:30 p.m. March 20 at the Alpenrose Dairy Opera House in Portland. That's over near Beaverton, Ore., at 6149 S.W. Shattuck Road. Tickets are $20 and available at slackkey.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 360-921-8816 or emailing hapamac@msn.com. Learn more about the Ke Kekui Foundation at kekukuifoundation.org.


Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.