‘Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival’ at Wolf Trap

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There was a lovefest last night at Wolf Trap with the traveling Hawaiian Slack Guitar performance in front of a full-house of aficionados many of whom could sing along in Hawaiian due to their familiarity with the genre and these amazing artists. Many of the men in the audience wore Hawaiian shirts and there was no shortage of lei’s on the ladies. This is an annual event with a rotating cast of featured musicians, assembling from various countries (as well as Pennsylvania and New Jersey). Their ethnicity is a cornucopia of sources, ranging from Chinese, Japanese, Irish, and Maori. Many told stories of how they became Hawaiian, by marriage, mentorship or through the aftermath of the WWII persecution of the Japanese.

The musicians were accompanied by hula dancers, whose undulating bodies and expressive hands and arms were a revelation for anyone who expects the commercial version with grass skirts. These dancers are well trained students of Halau hula, an ancient dance that has been passed down through the generations.

Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap
Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap

The first half of the concert was performed almost exclusively in Hawaiian, and it was difficult to identify each song as the program was not annotated.

First up was New Jersey based Bill Wynne, known for his ukulele and slack key guitar as well as his proficient falsetto. He sung exclusively in Hawaiian, and described his dress as “Hawaiian Johnny Cash.” He was an audience favorite with “Lily Blossom.”

Then there was Danny Carvalho, who recently released his third album, Ke Au Hou, and who described his grandfather’s experience as a Japanese American during WWII, which led to his relocation to Hawaii. Carvalho honored his grandfather with his original composition, “Nisei.” He showed off a modification of guitar technique, which involved dangling a chain across the guitar strings. The chain reverberated while the guitar was played, adding an interesting percussive element.

He was followed by Andy Wang, who gained his Hawaiian street cred through marriage. Also a composer, he sang in Hawaiian.

Ian O’Sullivan has a master’s degree in classical guitar from Yale and teaches at the University of Hawaii. He  seems to represent yet another ethnic group in the Hawaii guitar scene. He played selections from his new CD, Born and Raised.

Next was Stephen Inglis is a brilliant guitarist with a deep engaging voice and a similar reverence for those who came before, whom he referred to as “uncles.” Like the others, he played with frequent tuning changes. His songs provided a welcome switch to English so the narrative could be actually understood. Most memorable was “Learning You by Heart,” a passionate love song he dedicated to his wife.

Leon Toomata, aka LTCool, a New Zealander with Maori and Irish roots, displayed rapid finger picking, bluesy references, and contagious humor. He is a multiple winner of the Hawaiian Music Awards and most of his songs were his own compositions, which he apparently chose on the spur of the moment. My favorite was “The Redemption Song.”

The producer and bass player, Chris Lau, is a seven-time Grammy Award nominee, but he performed in a backup role here.

The master of ceremonies was Harry Soria, Jr., the host of the radio program Territorial Airwaves. He was the source of abundant jokes, some of which were pretty lame. Now in its 36th continuous year, Territorial Airwaves is devoted to the preservation and understanding of traditional Hawaiian Music. During the performance he announced that he had recently achieved 100 days of sobriety; however, he qualified this attainment by assuring the audience that it wasn’t 100 consecutive days.

This event was enthusiastically received by a very knowledgeable audience, thrilled to hear some of their heroes in person and able to sing  along with many of the traditional songs offered. Wolf Trap is an ideal setting for this intimate sort of performance, with great acoustics, great sightlines, and good parking. Despite the heavy rains the hall was full, and there was a long line waiting to purchase CDs at intermission and at the end.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival performed on Saturday, April 25, 2015 at The Barns at Wolf Trap – 1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future events check their calendar of performances.