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Introduction to Ghazal

Westerners have become increasingly familiar with the classical music of India since it first became fashionable in the 1960s. But the Persian tradition, without a Beatles/Ravi Shankar collaboration to promote it, has remained a mystery, although it is becoming more recognized.Several centuries of Mogul rule in northern India left a strong imprint on Hindustani music: a result of the mysticism, poetry, and musical subtleties of the Persian language and culture.

The name Ghazal reflects that link: in the Persian tradition, a ghazal is a specific genre of poetry, characterized by an unusual blend of ecstatic spirituality and very earthy desires.

Ghazal in India

In India, ghazal has evolved into a form of semi-classical music that remains popular to this day, and usually takes the form of a love ballad. In both cases, the imagery of the texts often obscures the difference between spiritual and physical love.

Desire for a lover can be described in such exalted terms that it transcends the purely physical aspects of love. While these poems and ballads can be serious artistic and spiritual endeavors, they also reflect a sense of play – almost daring the audience to determine whether it’s really what it appears on the surface, and suggesting that spiritual and romantic love are two sides of the same coin.

(Excerpted from the liner notes by John Schaefer from “Moon Rise on the Silk Road” by the ensemble Ghazal. Courtesy of the World Music Institute)


Welsh Music


A revival of traditional folk music and a renewed interest in the use of its native Welsh (Cymreag) language took place in Wales in the 1970s. With the help of local media and record companies like Sain, artists who represent the Welsh tradition and language can now get exposure.

One of the most influential musicians in Wales is Robin Huw Bowen, a virtuoso of the triple harp. He researched the music and techniques of the old Welsh harpists by studying their old manuscripts. Huw Bowen has performed extensively around the globe, as a soloist and also as a member of the Welsh folk groups Crasdant and Cusan Tán.

The most famous Welsh language singer is Siân James. In addition to her solo career, James also performs with dub reggae and rock groups.

On the traditional folk side, Calennig’s dance music stands out. The group is led by Pat Smith and Mick Tems. Their repertoire includes Welsh, Galician and Breton tunes. Other Welsh folk acts that stand out are Julie Murphy, Heather Jones and Hin Deg.

One of the most exciting new groups in the modern folk style is Carreg Lafar. Welsh-Breton band Bob Delyb a’r Ebillion leans closer to rock. An interesting release was Hen Wlad Fy Mamau (“Land of My Mothers”). It is a world beat collection of re-mixed Welsh folk music, samples and electronic sounds featuring Welsh singers Siân James, Lowri Ann Richards, June Campbell Davies and Elinor Bennett, Punjabi rapper Harvinder Sangha and African dub collective Zion Train.


Classical Persian Music

Classical Persian music is an ancient art form and one of the earliest musical traditions known today. Because of the geographic location and sociopolitical role of the ancient Persian empire, Persian music and culture has contributed enormously to the foundation of many other musical traditions in Central Asia, Asia Minor, China and North India. Since becoming associated with Islamic culture after the Arab invasion (7th century AD), it has traveled throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean.

The classical music of Iran is in some ways similar and analogous to the classical musics of the Arabic world, Turkey and even India, but it is also a self-contained system more or less independent of its neighbors. In the twelfth century, a second system, that of Western classical music, has grown up parallel to that of the Persian art , and today the two coexist, largely leaving each other alone but in various ways cross-fertilizing each other.

The term "maqam," as a modal entity, for the first time appeared in a Persian musical treatise, i.e. the music section of Durrat al-Taj by Qutb al-Din Shirazi, in the 13th century. This concept with its nominal variants (maqam, makam, maqom, mugham, etc.) has dominated many musical cultures in the Islamic world, from Chinese Turkistan and Kashmir to Turkey and the Arab world. Although it has been the main modal concept (along with other modal entities such as avaza/avaze and shu’ba/sho’be and later gushe) in Persian music for a long time, seemingly around the late Safavid period (ruled 1502-1736) and afterwards gradually a new concept, the dastgah, was introduced to Iranian music.

The history of Persian music in the twentieth century has seen the development of strategies for survival in the face of Western music, and these strategies often involved borrowing from those elements in which Western music is strong. For example, Western notation has been adapted to Persian music and while it has done its share to change the character of Persian music, it has also increased the degree to which Iranian music students are willing to learn their tradition.

Persian music is mainly melodic. It makes almost no use of harmony, and its performance is most typically solo, although sometimes a soloist is accompanied by an instrument which echoes and recapitulates each phrase as the artist performs it, a technique also widely used in Arabic, Turkish and Indian music. Its essence is neither the dramatic nor is it the intellectual or cerebral, but rather its quality is mystical and contemplative. Persian musicians recognize this, for in speaking of their music they never fail to relate it to the great lyrical tradition of Persian literature and to Sufism, the mystical movement of Islam whose special home is Iran.

Much of the music has no meter, no beat, but proceeds with a rhythm akin to that of speech. Its rhythmic structure is surely related to the rhythms of Persian poetry. Nevertheless, there is also a great deal of metric music, and this, normally accompanied by a drum.

Improvisation is the most important tenet of classical music of Iran. The musician creates in the moment and simultaneously performs for the audience. The presence and spirit of the audience plays an important role in the feeling and the creative process of the improvisation. The improviser combines creativity and technique with the internalized melodies and rhythms to express his or her individual feelings. To become an improviser is to reach the ultimate stage in the musician’s creative development. To reach such a level of mastery the musician must be rich in technique, emotions, innovation, experience and knowledge. The musician becomes a master once he or she has achieved such a level of virtuosity and has cultivated the art of performance and teaching.

The collection of melodies in Persian classical music called Radif is organized into twelve modes. Seven larger ones called dastgahs (Mahour, Shour, Nava, Rast Panj-gah, Homayoun, Segah, Chahargah) and five smaller sub-sets to these called avaz or maqam (Abu-Ata, Bayat-E-Zand or Bayat-E-Tork, Dashti, Afshari, Bayat-E-Isfahan). Each of these modes are divided into smaller melodic forms called gushehs, which vary in terms of meter, length, expression and importance.

Each dastgah is thought to have a specific character and mood. The material of the dastagh is, then, the basis for actual performance. During the early part of the twentieth century, a model for what might be called a complete performance evolved. It consists of five parts, all cast in one dastgah, but, in fact, not all of them need appear and it is quite common to hear one or two of them used alone. These five pieces are: pishdaramad, chahar mezrab, avaz, tasnif, and reng.

The Radif is memorized by musicians and students, which is how the repertoire has been preserved throughout the ages. The Radif also serves as a musical vehicle to teach, and as a reference point for improvisation.

[This article is partially based on texts by the World Music Institute in New York and Hooman Asadi, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, Director of the Ethnomusicology Program, Music Department, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Tehran].

Recommended recordings:


Classical Persian Music (Radif) (Paperback) by Freydoon Arbabi. Publisher: Freydoon Arbabi (December 12, 2000).
ISBN: 0971840806.

Traditional Persian Art Music: The Radif of Mirza Abdullah (Bibliotheca Iranica – Performing Arts Series , No 3) (Hardcover) by Dariush Tala’I. Bibliotheca Persica; Bk&CD edition (August 1, 1999). ISBN: 1568590393.

Classical Persian Music: An Introduction (Hardcover) by Ella Zonis. Harvard University Press (January 1, 1973).
ISBN: 0674134354.

Music and Song in Persia: The Art of Avaz (Persian Art and Culture) (Hardcover) by Lloyd Miller. University of Utah Press (October 1999). ISBN: 0874806143.

Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Annemarie Schimmel. University of North Carolina Press (June 1975). ISBN: 0807812714.


History of the Celts

Who Were the Celts?

Ancient Greek historians, like Herodotus (400 BC) and Hecataeus of Miletus (500 BC), wrote about the Keltoi, a group of Iron Age “barbarian”tribes with a common language and culture that inhabited vast territories of Europe. The Keltoi’s dominion stretched from Ireland and the western Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the west to Bohemia (Czech Republic), Bavaria (Germany) and Austria in the east. The Celts were a mixture of western Indo-European peoples who created vivid ornamental art and spoke a language described by the Romans as Celtic. Their social power structure included warlords and priests known as druids. They lived in hill towns made to defend populated areas from other warring Celtic tribes. With the arrival of the Roman Empire, Celtic civilization nearly disappeared. Most of western Europe, except Ireland, was Romanized.

The Celts in Ireland

In Ireland, the Celts prospered. Ireland was linguistically untouched for many centuries, protected by the sea which made it inconvenient and inaccessible to Roman invaders. It was also unique in being the only western European country, with the exception of the Viking north, to which Christianity came without the Roman conquest. Old pagan festivals like Bealtaine, Samhan and Lughnasa, became saints’ days. From the 8th through 10th century, Vikings raided and set up colonies in eastern Ireland. Later came the Norman invaders and the English, who subdued Ireland and suppressed its Gaelic language until the early 20th century.

The Celts in the British Isles

With the arrival of the Romans, the Celts in the British Isles were pushed to inaccessible regions. Celtic traditions and language were maintained in the remoter parts of Great Britain: Cornwall, western Wales and the Highlands of Scotland. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Great Britain was conquered by northern Germanic tribes: Angles, Saxons and Jutes, in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

The Celts in the Iberian Peninsula

Most Celts settled in the northwestern Iberian peninsula (Galicia, Asturias, Tras-os-Montes). In other parts of western Iberia they became known as Celtiberians. Far from home, they mixed with the local population. It took two centuries for the Romans to subdue Iberian Celts because of widespread guerrilla fighting. In the end, most of Spain and Portugal were Romanized and Latin replaced all pre-Roman languages except Basque. When the Roman Empire fell, most of Spain and Portugal were conquered by the Visigoths, except Galicia where a Germanic tribe known as the Sueves formed an independent kingdom. Galicia and Asturias in Spain and Tras-os-Montes in Portugal are currently the Iberian regions with deeper Celtic roots.

The Celts in France

The “barbarians”who inhabited France during the Roman invasion were known as Gauls, a Celtic culture. The Celts, who were already a mixture of peoples, mingled with the conquered population. With Romanization, the Celtic language disappeared from France. After the Romans, Franks and Burgundians took over most of France, including Brittany. The Breton language was re-imported from the British Isles in the 6th and 7th century when Celts from Wales colonized the region. It was a re-Celtization of Brittany, ethnically and culturally.


Celtic Music

Celtic_Patterns_2-smallIt’s difficult to know what the music of the ancient Celts really sounded like. What we know as Celtic music today is really the traditional music developed recently in several western European Atlantic regions that used to be inhabited by Celtic tribes over 2,000 years ago. This common heritage, in addition to centuries of trade and interaction, has created strong cultural bonds.

The great Celtic music renewal took place in the 1970’s thanks to various influential artists. Breton musician Alan Stivell introduced the Celtic harp to large audiences. Gwendal, also from Brittany, toured Europe extensively for two decades with its blend of Celtic music, jazz and rock. Scottish seminal band Silly Wizard played some of the finest Scottish music and created a school of followers. Irish groups like Plantxy and The Bothy Band attracted worldwide attention with their concept of Irish folk music. In Galicia, singer and harp player Emilio Cao, the now legendary group Milladoiro and the influential Vigo School of Bagpipes initiated the amazing Galician Celtic renaissance.

Thanks to the proliferation of Inter-Celtic festivals since the 1970’s, musicians from Brittany, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Galicia, Asturias, and other locations, have exchanged tunes, musical instruments and participated in mutual recordings. The Celtic reawakening has brought the recovery of the hurdy gurdy in Brittany and Galicia, the Celtic harp in most Celtic regions and a new found respect for the bagpipe.

The major European centers of Celtic music today are Ireland, Scotland, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain), Asturias (Spain) and Wales (Great Britain). Other smaller regions with a strong Celtic music heritage are: Cornwall (Great Britain), Northumbria (Great Britain), Trás-os-Montes (Portugal) and the Isle of Man (Great Britain). Outside Europe, the music from the Irish, Scottish and Galician diaspora has found a comfortable home in eastern Canada, the United States of America, Argentina and Australia.

Celtic music today has crossed over into the pop mainstream thanks to artists like Afro Celt Sound System, Enya, Altan, Loreena McKennit, The Chieftains, Ashley McIsaac, Connie Dover, and to the new age market by way of numerous compilations and concept albums.


The History of African American Music

Yaya Diallo

The History of African American Music By Yaya Diallo

When I saw this title, I was afraid and I’m still afraid regarding my opinion about the subject. The subject is complex and difficult so I cannot resolve it overnight. I am an African. I do things the African way. I cannot write about African American music like a Western scholar. In my culture we live the past and the future in the present. When I listen to some African American music I can feel the past, the present and the future all at the same time. Now, the best way for me to handle this subject is to work by questions and answers.

Q: Yaya! Who do you think you are?

A: I don’t think! I am Farafin, which means I am a dark skin man. The word Africa is the Arabic name for our continent. In Bambara we call the so-called “Africa” Farafina. Farafina means the land of dark skin people. I am from Farafina and I am proud of it. I don’t want to be somebody else. People in general say African American. I would say American Farafin, which means dark skin human being who lives in America. Q: What is your African background?

A: I come from far away. I was born in 1946 in Fienso (French Sudan), now Mali. My parents were nomadic. When I was very young I used to travel a lot. I grew up in the bush far from any western civilization. The music that I heard was very traditional and played live. I did not have a radio or TV. I had the opportunity to listen to the music of the different ethnic groups from the Ivory Coast, Burkina and Ghana. In some villages I heard Muslim songs coming from the mosques. By night, I would enjoy the frog symphonic orchestras. From 1946 to 1960 I was living in complete nature. My musical training is a long story but you can learn more from my book The Healing Drum.

Q: What are your feelings about the civilized world?

A: In the city I had strange feelings. I saw people listen to music through what I thought was two kinds of boxes. The first was a radio. You could change the singer with the tuning button, I thought. The second needed records. It read 78, 45 and 33 1/2. You had to adjust everything with something but I did not have a clue as to what. Even still, the only music that I heard was the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Johnny Holliday.

Q: What do you think about the word African American?

A: Dark skin people living in America are not different from people I met in Africa (Farafina). To me they are just different ethnic groups like the Yoruba, the Bantu, the Zulu or the Tuareg. Africa is not one culture. We have thousands and thousands of languages and different music. My wife is an African American from Louisville, KY. Her mother is from Dark Corner, MS and her father from Jackson, TN. Like my wife and family there was one African American man, James Brown, who saved my life with his music.

Q: How can an African American man save the life of a traditional African?

A: In 1967 I left my country to go to Montreal, Canada. On my way, in Paris, I saw a big picture of James Brown in the Olympia Theater. In my mind I thought, “Oh! A black man in Olympia in Paris, France.” In Montreal I was looking for a place to dance or listen to the music that I loved. One day I found a radio station that played black music. I heard James Brown and felt at home.

Q: What do you think about African American music?

A: I always say that I don’t think, I feel. When we talk about African American music we talk about Spirituals, Blues, Funk, Jazz, Gospel, Rap, dance music, etc. I want to talk on each one by one.

When people in Canada were dancing the twist, jerk and go-go, in my country a French man named Johnny Holliday was playing bad versions of Wilson Pickett and Ray Charles’ music in French. In America I found out this French man was a robber. He stole the music, sang it in French and looked like a genius for us Africans.

Q: What did you feel when you started to dance?

A: I used to go out to dance to Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone’s music. For me they were Africans. They had good beats, good feelings and most important, African Soul. I did not feel that from Chinese or European music. In the 70’s I discovered the Funk music, The O’Jays, Parliament, Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang and JR Walker and the All Stars. I felt I was at home when I knew the Motown Family (Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder). I could survive because I had those kinds of musicians.

Q: In terms of music, what is the link between African and African Americans?

A: African Americans are Africans from the village and sadly they just don’t know it! When you listen to the music you can find out. Kool and The Gang played Funky Stuff. When you listen to the drum part you will get the Dounouba part of the dance Sounou. Sounou was played in the 15th century and today is the dance young people love. In Africa we learn the past in the present and teach it to the next generation. The African Americans sometimes do not know how African they are.

Q: Why can you say that they are African?

A: The first time I heard the Four Tops I thought I was listening to the Bambara Farmers in the evening after a hard working day. The Temptations reminded me of the men Fire dancers and singers. I can listen to the Temptations but I am afraid to see them. I am not initiated to the Fire dance and the music brings out memories about the secret ceremonies that happened afar in the village. Aretha Franklin is for me a great Djeli-mousso coming from the Empire of Mali in the 13th century. When I listen to African American music I don’t worry about the meaning, only what I feel.

Q: What do you think about Jazz?

A: Really, to tell the truth, I don’t feel jazz. Many people coming from Africa feel the same way. I learned about jazz in 1980 when I recorded my first album, Nangape, on Onzou Records. That opened the door for me with jazz. Jazz magazines like Cadence and Down Beat wrote articles on me like I was a “jazz man.” I was invited to do workshops at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY. I met big jazz names like Art Blakey. He said, “When I play with Yaya I feel comfortable, he’s the only African that I can play with and I don’t worry.” I completed a trio with Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell in the Symphony Space in New York.

Q: What about Gospel?

A: To me gospel means religion or church but my father-in-law changed my mind. When going to church with him I saw a big band and a big choir. People were singing and I forgot that I was in church. I was surprised; I saw ladies in a trance like in my village but they called it shouting. This reminded me of the Mania Secret Society where only woman go into a trance when praising god (See The Healing Drum).

Q: What is rap?

A: I love rap! I use to lie about buying rap and say that it was for my children. Rap is the old tradition of the Fulani people in Mali. It tells life stories through poetry that is recited quickly. Nomadic people have to explain their daily journey through this same quick form, but without the foul language. Today, the young people think that they have reinvented the wheel.

Q: Yaya, what is wrong with African American music today?

A: Today everything is easy. Instead of buying a drum set you buy a drum machine. Computers do everything. You can get almost every sound by pressing a button. This is the type of world that we live in today. The young Africans love it like we used to love James Brown. Time is the only thing that has changed!

Q: How did African American music change American Society?

A: We changed everything! We changed the style of dance; we created new sounds, new styles, and new way to dress…EVERYTHING! Country music is the white version of the Blues. Rock-n-roll comes from our music. People forget that Jimmie Hendricks was a Blues player that just changed his sound and look. Without James Brown, Sly and Family Stone and the Motown Family there would be no Madonna, no Celiene Dion, no techno, and no disco. African Americans brought this to the world. It is sad because people do not recognize it. We changed the world and it will never be the same again.

Q: How do people know you in America?

A: I am the author of two books, The Healing Drum and At the Threshold of the African Soul. I have four CDs, Nanagape, The Healing Drum, Dombaa Folee, and Dounoukan. I thank Onzou Records, the first company that trusted me to make my first album in 1980. That was not easy!


This article is edited and submitted by Stephen Conroy, producer of Onzou Records, promoting the work of musician/author Yaya Diallo, a native of Mali, West Africa. The article originally published in Music Dish on March 1, 2003 was written in response to their call for articles to celebrate Black History Month.
Refer to Music Dish Article:

Listen to Yaya Diallo’s acoustic instrumental album Nangape with African drums, balafon and flute music on New Music Canada.

Yaya Diallo CD Nangape online media kit with audio link:, Onzou Records, Yaya Diallo’s West African Music



Bhangra was born sometime between the 14th and 15th centuries and is now regarded to be the one of the oldest folk dances in the world. Originating from the state of Punjab, split between India and Pakistan, Bhangra is the culmination of the hard season of harvest when farmers celebrate by singing and dancing to Bhangra songs and beats and thanking the heavens for what rich grain they have reaped.

The music and dance was also performed during sewing celebrations.In the early 1980s, Punjabi expatriates living in Great Britain developed it into a British musical genre. In this era, the dhol – the double barreled drum banged with two sticks – is the foundation of Bhangra events world-wide, whether it be a live stage performance or the recording of the latest Bhangra song. no Bhangra event can do without it!

Bhangra and its modernized sound still retains its classic and raw elements but also utilizes the modern instrumentation of music and language, producing Bhangra songs that can appease any type of audience.

This hybrid of traditional Indian music fused with a range of reggae, R&B, and pop beats gives it a more universal sound and appeal – drawing in a wider array of fans. With the constant hard-hitting dhol beats and tumbi strings leading the way for the vocals, Bhangra songs portray a whole plethora of emotions tempting the listener to throw their arms in the air and make tracks towards the dance floor.

The hi-energy beats and the contagious rhythms of Punjabi melody continue to spread themselves to a global audience as the music keeps traveling to shores further and further afield. The up-tempo vibes of the music and the panache of the artists continue to popularize this music genre which is rapidly making Bhangra an essential and integral part of global musical culture.

Bhangra recordings

The Rough Guide to Bhangra (Second Edition)
The Rough Guide to Bhangra Dance
The Rough Guide to Bhangra (1st edition)
Bhangra: Original Punjabi Pop
Bar Bhangra


A Brief History of Slack Key Guitar

Keola Beamer
Keola Beamer

Hawaiian slack key guitar (ki ho’alu) is truly one of the great acoustic guitar traditions in the world. Ki ho’alu, which literally means “loosen the key,” is the Hawaiian language name for the solo fingerpicked style unique to Hawaii. In this tradition, the strings (or “keys”) are “slacked”to produce many different tunings, which usually contain a major chord, or a chord with a major 7th note, or sometimes one with a 6th note in it. Each tuning produces a lingering sound behind the melody and has a characteristic resonance and fingering. When the hired cowboys returned to the Mainland a few years later, some of them gave their guitars to the Hawaiians.

The Hawaiians incorporated what they had learned of the Mexican and Spanish music into their traditional chants, songs and rhythms, and thus created a new form of guitar music. Hawaii’s own unique musical traditions tended to dominate, as they did with the other musical influences that came their way from the rest of the world, and over time, it blended into a sound that became completely the Hawaiians’ own. To hear the sound of the Hawaiian slack key guitar click here. To learn how to play the song you just heard click here.

At first, there possibly weren’t a lot of guitars, or people who knew how to play, so the Hawaiians developed a way to get a full sound on one guitar by picking the bass and rhythm chords on the lower three or four pitched strings with the thumb, while playing the melody or improvised melodic fills on the upper two or three pitched strings.

The gut string guitar (the precursor to the modern nylon string guitar) brought by the cowboys had a very different sound than the steel string guitar, which came to the Islands later, probably brought in by the Portuguese around the 1860s. The steel string sound caught on with the Hawaiians, and became very popular by the late 1880s, by which time slack key had spread to all of the Hawaiian Islands.

The slack key tradition was given an important boost during the reign of King David Kalakaua, who was responsible for the Hawaiian cultural resurgence of the 1880s and 1890s. He supported the preservation of ancient music, while encouraging the addition of imported instruments like the ‘ukulele and guitar. His coronation in 1883 featured the guitar in combination with the ipu (gourd drum) and pahu (skin drum) in a new form called hula ku’i, and at his Jubilee (celebration) in 1886, there were performances of ancient chants and hula. This mixing of the old and new contributed to the popularity of both the guitar and ‘ukulele.

Kalakaua’s conviction that the revitalization of traditional culture was at the root of the survival of the Hawaiian kingdom became a major factor in the continuity of traditional music and dance, and his influence still shows. This was a great period of Hawaiian music and compositions, actively supported, and many of the monarchy composed superb songs that are still well-known today. After Kalakaua passed away, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani, Hawai’i’s last monarch. She was the greatest composer of this period, writing classic pieces such as Aloha ‘Oe, Sanoe, Kuu Pua I Paoakalani, Pau’ahi O Kalani, Lei Ka’ahumanu and many other beautiful songs still played today.

Until the mid-20th Century, vocals were usually the most important element of Hawaiian music. The guitar was mainly relegated to a back-up role, often grouped with other instruments, and was played in a natural, finger picked style, with a steady rhythm, to accompany hula and singing. The guitar usually did not play the exact melody of the song, but played a repeated fragment with improvised variations using ornaments such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonics and others.

A wide variety of tunings in several different keys were created to back up the singers effectively. When the strings were tuned too low, they lost their tone, and when they were tuned too high, they were likely to break, thus tunings in six keys were developed. (Most Hawaiians did not have a guitar capo, a strap or clamp which fits on the guitar neck and raises pitch, allowing the same guitar fingerings in a higher key.) The Hawaiians often retuned the guitar from the standard Spanish tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E, from lowest- to highest-pitched string), resulting in sweet sounding tunings with “slacked”open (unfretted) strings. The guitar was often tuned to a major chord, like the popular G Major “Taro Patch”tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D), or tunings containing a major 7th note (called “Wahine”tuning), or tunings with the top two pitches tuned a wide fifth interval apart (called “Mauna Loa”), and other combinations. The many ingenious tunings the Hawaiians invented fall into five basic categories: Major, Wahine, Mauna Loa, Ni’ihau/Old Mauna Loa, and miscellaneous.

When two or more guitarists play together, they often use different tunings in the same key. For example, one guitarist might use G Major tuning, and the other might use G Wahine tuning. Guitars can also be played together with different tunings in different keys, capoed up to various frets to sound in the same key. This is one way to appreciate the slack key sound.

Due to the distance between the islands, styles particular to each developed, sometimes specific to regions of an island. The Big Island, probably because of its size, has engendered the greatest variety of regional styles. Some O’ahu players, especially from Honolulu, have sometimes had more modern and varied styles because of their greater exposure to different musical traditions from the Mainland and other parts of the world. To this day, each slack key artist draws from the traditions of the area where they grew up and from the music of their ‘ohana (family), adding to it their own individual way of playing.

Slack key guitar became part of the music that the paniolo would play after work or with families and friends at gatherings, and this paniolo tradition continues to this day on the Big Island and Maui. Since the 1960s, and especially now in the 1990s, Hawaiian slack key guitar has also evolved into a highly developed instrumental art form, in both solo and group formats. It is when played solo that the beautiful and unique intricacies of the slack key guitar can be fully appreciated, as the music of the masters has great depth and individuality.

The most influential slack key guitarist in history was Gabby Pahinui [1921-1980]. The modern slack key era began in 1947 when Gabby (often referred to as “the father of modern slack key guitar”) made his first recording of Hi’ilawe on an Aloha Records 78 rpm (#AR-810). Gabby was the prime influence for keeping slack key guitar from dying out in the Islands, and his prolific guitar techniques led to the guitar becoming more recognized as a solo instrument. He expanded the boundaries of slack key guitar, making it into a fully evolved solo guitar style capable of creatively interpreting a wide variety of Hawaiian traditional and popular standards, original guitar pieces, and even pieces from other countries. Many have also been inspired by Gabby’s beautiful, expressive vocals and his virtuoso falsetto voice.

The Gabby Pahinui Band of the 1970s is a good example of the complexity of sound slack key can achieve. Along with Gabby, this band featured late great slack key guitarists Leland “Atta” Isaacs, Sr. and Sonny Chillingworth, and Gabby’s sons Cyril and Bla Pahinui. Usually on the band’s recordings, each of the guitarists would play in a different C tuning, providing a thick, textured sound.

Besides Gabby, two other highly influential slack key artists have been Leonard Kwan and Sonny Chillingworth. These three are notable not only because of their artistic virtuosity, but also because of the availability of their recordings, Gabby’s in the late 1940s, and Leonard’s and Sonny’s in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Four of Gabby’s earliest recordings from the late 1940s or early 1950s (on Bell Records 78 rpms) are especially impressive: Hi’ilawe (#505)Key Khoalu (#509)Hula Medley (#506)and Wai O Keaniani (#510). Other slack key guitarists were astounded and inspired by these four recordings, because of the level of Gabby’s playing, and because each was in a different tuning. He also made many recordings in the 1950s for the Waikiki label, issued on three different albums: Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 1 (#319), Hawaiian Slack Key, Volume 2 (#320), The Best of Hawaiian Slack Key (#340).

Awareness and popularity of slack key guitar were further increased by the release of several great slack key albums in the 1960s by Leonard Kwan, Ray Kane, Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui on Margaret Williams’ Tradewinds label.

These four, along with Sonny Chillingworth, recorded in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (Gabby Pahinui started recording in the 1940s) and influenced all the younger slack key guitarists. Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan and Ray Kane have also continued to record and influence many others in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1970s, albums were issued by the new generation of influential players such as Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana (with his trio Hui Ohana), and Peter Moon (with his trio The Sunday Manoa).

There are four basic types of slack key guitar. The first is the simple but profound style, most evident in the older playing styles, such as that of the late Auntie Alice Namakalua. The second is a sort of “slack key jazz,”with lots of improvisation, used prominently in the music of Atta Isaacs, Cyril Pahinui, Ledward Kaapana, Moses Kahumoku, George Kuo and Ozzie Kotani. The third kind creates a unique sound using ornaments like hammer-ons and pull-offs. These techniques are featured on Sonny Chillingworth’s Ho’omalu Slack Key, Ray Kane’s Punahele, and George Kuo’s Kohala Charmarita.

The fourth, performance-oriented slack key style, features entertaining visual as well as sound techniques. These include playing with the forearm, playing with a bag over the fretting hand (performed by the late Fred Punahoa and by Ledward Kaapana), and the intriguing needle and thread technique, where the player dangles a needle, hanging from a thread held between the teeth, across the strings while otherwise playing normally, which creates a sound a bit like a mandolin or a hammered dulcimer. This can be heard, performed by Sonny Chillingworth, on the fourth verse of the song Wai Ulu, on his recording Sonny Solo (Dancing Cat 08022 38005). The technique can be seen on the song Kaula’ili in Susan Friedman’s film Ki ho’alu, That’s Slack Key Guitar and in Eddie Kamae’s great slack key film “The Hawaiian Way.”

In the old days, there was an almost mystical reverence for those who understood ki ho’alu, and the ability to play it was regarded as a special gift. To retain and protect the slack key mystique, tunings were often closely guarded family secrets. This practice has changed with the times, as respect has increased for the preservation of older Hawaiian traditions, and now slack key guitarists are more willing to share their knowledge outside the family circle with those who sincerely wish to learn. Because many of the beautiful old traditions in Hawai’i have been changed by outside influences, this greatly increased respect for the older slack key traditions and the sharing of tunings is helping to ensure that traditional slack key guitar will endure and be shared.

Since the early 1970s (often called the era of the Hawaiian Renaissance), Hawaiians have increasingly looked to their cultural roots, and because of this, slack key guitar has steadily grown in popularity. The Hawaiian Music Foundation, founded by Dr. George Kanahele, did much to increase awareness through their publications, music classes and the sponsoring of concerts, including the landmark 1972 slack key concert.

Currently, there are several major slack key festivals. The Gabby Pahinui/Atta isaacs Slack Key Festival is held annually in or near Honolulu on the Island of O’ahu, every third Sunday in August, and the annual Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival is held on the next to last Sunday in July at the Hilo Civic Auditorium on the island of Hawaii. Other festivals also take place on Maui and Kauai, on the Mainland, and occasionally internationally.

Because Hawaii is one of the crossroads of the world, its music has always had many influences: Latin music from Mexico, Spain and Portugal-Polynesian music, especially from Samoa and Tahiti-European music and music from the Mainland, including jazz, country &western, folk and pop. All have been absorbed by Hawaiians, and they have enriched it with their mana (soul).

Hawaiian music has always enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with music from the American Mainland. Hawaiians began touring the U.S. during the early 1890s with acts such as the Royal Hawaiian Band, small string bands, steel guitarists and vocal ensembles.

The 1912 Broadway show Bird of Paradise helped introduce Hawaiian music (although not slack key guitar) to the Mainland, as did Hawaiian shows at the big Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915. By the late teens, Hawaiian recordings were the biggest selling records in the U.S., especially acoustic steel guitar and vocal recordings.

Starting around 1912, blues slide guitarists and country &western steel guitar players became more and more influenced by the Hawaiian slack key guitar sound, due to increased recordings and tours by Hawaiian performers. The pedal steel guitar was developed from the Hawaiian steel guitar, which was invented in the 1880s. Some Hawaiian steel guitar tunings (and thus, some of the Mainland steel guitar tunings) evolved from slack key tunings, especially the G Major tuning for the dobro and lap steel guitar, and the C Major 6th tuning (similar to the C Mauna Loa tuning) for the pedal steel guitar. (Steel guitar means any guitar played with a metal bar, regardless of what material the guitar is made.)


Gabby Pahinui - Pure Gabby
Gabby Pahinui – Pure Gabby


In return, the hot jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, especially the great trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Biderbocke, influenced the Hawaiian steel guitar players, most notably Sol Ho’opi’i (1902-1953). In the modern era, the late Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio grew up in Hawaii, where he was inspired by Gabby Pahinui. In 1961, he produced and recorded the Pure Gabby album, which was eventually released in 1978.

Although Hawaii’s guitar tradition is the richest in the Pacific, many other Polynesian countries also have guitar traditions closely related to slack key. For example, in the Cook Islands, especially on the island of Aitutaki, it is called Ki Mamaiata (or sometimes Ki Amoa), which translates as “early in the morning,”a favorite time to play guitar there.

More slack key guitar recordings are now available in Hawaii and on the Mainland and other countries, and several guitarists are touring more often outside of Hawaii. With these factors and the increase of techniques and influences of today’s players expanding the range of slack key guitar, the future looks good for ki ho’alu.

Dancing Cat Records is currently producing albums, mainly solo, by some of the best players. The entire repertoire of each of the players are being recorded, as well as experiments beyond. The guitarists include Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui, Leonard Kwan, Ozzie Kotani, George Kuo, Moses Kahumoku and others. Also, an album of duets is planned featuring Barney Isaacs on acoustic steel guitar (dobro), accompanied by George Kuo on slack key guitar, a combination curiously never found in a century of Hawaiian recording history. Ultimately, seventy or more albums are planned in this ongoing series.

(Courtesy of Dancing Cat Records and Keola Beamer)