Slack key guitarist Raymond Kane, winner of a 1987 National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowships, died February 27. Kane, who was 82, had been hospitalized for three months with respiratory difficulties.
Raymond Kaleoalohapoina’oleohelemanu Kane was born in 1925 in Koloa on the island of Kaua’i. His middle name can be translated into English as "the voice of love that comes and goes like a bird and will never be forgotten." It describes his outgoing personality, which has earned him status as one of slack key’s most beloved and colorful characters.
Ray grew up in Nanakuli on O’ahu’s rugged Wai’anae coast where his stepfather worked as a fisherman. On his mother’s side, Ray was related to many famous Hawaiian musicians, including Andy Cummings, Genoa Keawe, Marlene Sai, Mekia Kealakai and others. From an early age he immersed himself in their traditions. His natural father, Herman "Manu" Kane, was by all reports an extraordinary slack key player, but left home when Ray was only two. At age nine, when Ray felt a call to play slack key, he had to turn outside of his family for lessons. This was very difficult at the time.
"Back then people wouldn’t teach you unless you were family," Ray said. "But I was a good diver, so I made a deal with Albert Kawelo. I gave him fish and he gave me lessons." Ray also credited Henry Kapuana and the radio with teaching him songs in the early days. "Back then I used to take my guitar everywhere," Raid said. "My favorite spot was Zablan’s beach. It was so quiet at night. There was nobody around. I’d sit and play and watch the moon shine down on the waves."
In the 1940s, Ray joined the military and traveled to Europe and the Mainland. "I didn’t have a guitar," he said, "so I didn’t play much, but I thought about it a lot and even dreamed about it." When he got back home, he heard the first records by the legendary slack key guitarist Pops Gabby Pahinui. "That inspired me to start playing again," he said. "After Albert, for me, it’s Gabby. He had the true Hawaiian style; his voice, his timing, his touch: you can really feel it in the heart. I play a lot of his songs. I owe him a lot."
In 1961, the Tradewinds label invited Ray to make his first recordings. "It was a great experience, but there was no money in it," he said. "I had a family, you understand, so I just played out a little on the weekends."
The 1970s brought new attention to traditional artists in Hawai’i, often elevating them to the position of media celebrities and role models for the young. It all began for Ray in 1973 when the newly created Hawaiian Music Foundation asked him to give formal concerts. This was something new for slack key. It brought the music and musicians to an entirely different audience. "I don’t know why they picked me," Ray said. "I wasn’t famous. I wasn’t playing steady anywhere. I was just trying to stick to the style I learned back in the 1930s. Maybe that’s why, but the next thing I knew people were asking me to play all over the place. All kinds of people came to those concerts. They’d just sit there and listen, then applaud after each song. I was in a state of shock."
Ray’s humor delighted concert audiences. His soft, romantic music made them relax and even cry. "Hey, sometimes it makes me cry too," Ray said. Unfortunately, at the height of his new-found fame, he had to quit playing due to serious medical problems. In the 1980s he resumed playing and teaching. "I like to teach one-on-one," he said. "I tell all my students to do it your own way, from the heart. And don’t talk stink about the other guy. Humble yourself. Play the best you can and share what you know."
In 1987, in recognition of his performing and teaching, Ray received a National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for a traditional artist. He was also recognized by the Hawai’i state government and the city & county of Honolulu. That same year, Ray appeared in Robert Mugge’s Hawaiian Rainbow documentary and made triumphant appearances across the Islands.
Around this same time he began recording for Dancing Cat Productions, a label specialized in Hawaiian guitar music. "Meeting the folks at Dancing Cat was a dream come true," Ray said. "They’ve helped me, my family and all the slack key guitarists in so many ways. They really love the music and it shows. They’re taking real good care recording us and taking our music all over the world."
Punahele, Ray’s first album for Dancing Cat, came out in 1994. Mixing familiar standards with songs Ray had never previously recorded, it quickly became a local favorite. His second release on Dancing Cat was titled Wa’ahila (1998). The album featured Ray’s wife, Elodia Kane. In 2003, Hana Ola Records released The Legendary Ray Kane, subtitled the Complete Early Recordings.
Kane was the cousin of Hawaiian music great "Aunty" Genoa Keawe, who passed away two days before Ray Kane died.