". . . I improvised, crazed by the music. . . . Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone."
Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975) French "jazz singer, dancer
worldbeatcanada radio: Music is informed by culture and by geography. It follows that in the islands of paradise, music is harmonious, gentle, warm and sublimely beautiful. Slack key guitar evolved as a Hawaiian tradition. Makana is paying forward the legacy of the slack key masters, retooling it for the digital age. For his latest album, Venus and the Sky Turns to Clay, Makana steps back from the mic and lets his fingers do the singing on 15 tracks of instrumental innovation and technical achievement. Makana joins the program. Aloha, what kind of a day is it shaping up to be in paradise?
Makana: Oh, the typical ... absolutely gorgeous, like a moving painting.
WBC: Where have we reached you exactly and how would you be spending an average weekday?
Makana: I'm 17 floors above the Outrigger Canoe Club, right on the Gold Coast, Diamond Head in Waikiki. On my left, there's a clear shot of Diamond Head and on my right, there's a sailboat cruising out right behind Tong's surf break in front of Diamond Head. And, on my typical weekday, I'm 200 emails deep in my computer and on the phone for about 8 hours but other than that (laughs). That's why I live here, so I can pull myself away and look at the beauty beyond. I usually pull away to do a swim or a surf and then we play music at night.
WBC: The slack key method of tuning to a single chord has been passed on from the original masters like Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth. What would they think of your innovations?
Makana: I have a feeling in my heart that my teacher, Uncle Sonny, who was one of the legends and played with Gabby, only because if I look at his history as well as Gabby's and all these people we refer to as the traditional masters, they in their time were actually pioneers and innovators, and in their life span, were first looked at as kind of radical and non-traditional and as they became accepted by society with their music and the times changed, the perception of their music turned to the term traditional. So, that's what happens with everyone in an art form that's passed down through generations. It starts out as non-traditional, "Whoa, that's radical! You can't do that!" Later on, people say, "Well, that's what it is. That's the tradition." Because, tradition is a living thing.
WBC: The pioneers are always breaking the rules.
Makana: You got it! It's like jazz. Jazz is about mastering the rules then shattering them.
WBC: There's another discipline that tap players like Michael Hedges developed and folks like Kaki King and Naoki Jo are continuing. Do you borrow from that style as well?
Makana: No. Although my guitar looks like a family of woodpeckers got to it, I have a master percussionist I play with when I want percussion. The reason is, I really don't like the sound of hitting the guitar. If I was going to buy a drum, I would never buy a drum that sounded like that. That’s just not my bag. I love the resonance. I feel like when you hit the guitar it stops the resonance. Slack defy guitar is not only about the tuning, it's about how you play. The reason we tune to open chords is first, to establish the guitar in a tuning where the player no longer has to hold the chord. The guitar is doing that for him. The next thing is that by having it in an open tuning; now you don't have to hold a chord. When you don't have your fingers fretting every string, the strings resonate much longer. So, you get these droning resonant strings playing and it gives the impression to the listener that there's a lot more music going on than there really is. So, I don't like to break that continuity. I like to let it ring out.
WBC: Thanks for defining that. That was a great answer. worldbeatcanada radio is on the pod with Makana. His gorgeous new instrumental album of slack key guitar for the 21st century is called Venus and the Sky turns to Clay. Visit makanamusic.com for a taste of a few of his tracks and his philosophy. There's even a recipe for a Life Smoothie to help you take the bumps and snags out of your everyday. So does playing help you achieve the right state of mind or vice versa?
Makana: Oh absolutely! I mean, playing takes me out of my mind and into my heart. I could say it a hundred different ways but that's really what it does. It really gives me freedom from mind. I've been playing for 20 years now so the muscle memory in my hands is very exacting. So, I can kind of turn off a lot of the intellect, and just let the music flow through and that's so healing. It's just a great feeling.
WBC: As your art exposes you to more and more of the world, are you discovering other influences out there that feel like they might meld neatly with slack key?
Makana: Oh definitely! People look at it as a style or genre; I look at it as a language. And, words are just meaning carriers. Slack Key guitar can be applied to many different approaches to music. Of course we know about the Hawaiian approach, but slack key guitar is a way of making music. You're doing an alternating bass line while playing rhythm and a melody. Now, almost all music has that. So, if you take that theory you can see how it could apply to many forms. Some of my peers like Jeff Peterson are playing slack key jazz, where they have a traditional jazz training or classical training and they apply the techniques of slack key to that style. I like to integrate bluegrass, blues, folk, even raga. While the art form is cultural, the approach is universal. So it can be applied to almost any kind of music.
I think what's interesting is sometimes I'll take a song like Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd, and you have drums, bass, keyboards, guitars, vocals. What I do is treat each string like an instrument of its own. I assign a different instrument or sound to that string. So, what you get is a very clear and interpretive version of the rock classic. It totally changes the song, while maintaining the integrity and people love it! Because, it offers the melody you know. It's got the rhythm you know, but it's stripped down and really pure.
WBC: We introduced this album last week with the electric Touch of Deviance and I'd like to end this segment with another one of my favorites, Dance of the Red Poppies. Can you set this up for us, Makana?
Makana: Sure! Dance of the Red Poppies is played in at DADGAD tuning. It's really a further evolution from Dick Gaughan and Jimmy Page who stole from Dick Gaughan. Dick Gaughan is one of the master Irish/Scottish pickers. Jimmy page you could say 'borrowed' from him to create 'White Summer/Black Mountainside'. I've, in turn, borrowed from him and twisted and changed it so it's not the same composition but it references it. It kind of takes slack key in to the realm of blues, bluegrass and raga.
Makana was interviewed by Cal Koat on September 9th for broadcast on worldbeatcanada radio