A Time for Music

George Kahumoku Jr. is truly Hawaii’s Renaissance man. In addition to being a Grammy-winning artist, he is also a teacher, farmer, visual artist, sculptor, writer and mentor. He spends his days tending to his farm, sometimes with the students he mentors, and performing his music. His days living off the Earth and communing with nature are reflected in his lyrics and melodies. He specializes in the slack-key style of guitar, which is traditional in Hawaiian guitar music.

In 2003, Kahumoku started his Masters of Hawaiian Music show, which still tours today. The show features Kahumoku performing with other slack-key guitarists. The music pays respect to the islands of Hawaii and spreads the local music to people throughout North America.

In 2006, Kahumoku and his fellow artist, Daniel Ho, won the 48th Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Album for their compilation recording, Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Vol. 1: Live in Concert from Maui. The next year, Kahumoku’s Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Live from Maui won the 49th Grammy also for Best Hawaiian Album. In 2008, Kahumoku again took the Grammy for Best Hawaiian Album with Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar. As a man with such a busy and fulfilling life, Kahumoku has a lot to say about his music and beyond.

Caroline LaMotta: Can you say how long you have been writing and performing music?
George Kahumoka Jr.: I was blessed to be born into a musical family in Kealia, South Kona, on Hawaii Island. I grew up with 26 cousins living in the same household, and was raised by an extended family of great-grand parents, parents, aunties and uncles. We had no TV or radio. We were cowboys, farmers, ranchers and fishermen. Our great grandfather, Willy Kahumoku, raised pigs and pigs were the centerpiece of family celebrations, and rites of passage in our Hawaiian culture. There was the party to prepare for the celebration, the Party or Celebration itself, then the party after the celebration to clean up.

Music was shared at all of these events, and celebrations with children, parents and elders or grandparents participating. Because we were so isolated in South Kona, Kealia, we became family oriented. We entertained ourselves through our music. Most of the songs I have learned are old chants set to music or hymns from church, composed & shared by our elders from generation to generation.

I started playing the ukulele at 3 years old and graduated to the guitar at 8 years old, when my fingers were big enough. I started being creative at 4 years old, mostly through drawing, painting, woodcarving and ceramics. Like my drawings and artwork, I began writing songs at about 16-years-old, based on themes of the environment we lived in. My creativity and art was based on the Aina or Land & the Kai or Sea of what we call Wahi-Pana or a sense of place.

My great grandmother Lottie Koko'o Ha'ae Kahumoku also composed songs about where we lived in Kealia. Our family were famous chanters, entertainers, songwriters and hula dancers. I was blessed to be born into the Kahumoku (means Priest of the Land) Hawaiian Musical Family.

How would you describe the style of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar method?
In 1793, George Vancouver gifted our chief Kamehameha the Great a few head of cattle and a lame bull. They landed in Kealakekua Bay about 10 miles by sea from our place in Kealia, South Kona. The animals were Kapu or considered sacred, and were released and allowed to roam freely. In less than 50 years, the herd grew into the hundreds of thousands. What do cattle like to eat? Grass. What were our houses thatched with? Grass. So now we had a housing problem thanks to the cattle.

In the 1830's King Kamehameha the Third commissioned Samuel Parker (a sea captain who married Kapaka - the great granddaughter of Kamehameha The Great) to go Monterey, Mexico then, (Monterey, CA today) to bring over the Spanish speaking Vaquero, or cowboys, to teach our Hawaiians how to manage the cattle by day. At night they shared their music & guitars. They had 3 different guitars, the four-string guitar on- that played the bass, the 6-string catgut guitarra that played the rhythm, and the 4-string tenor guitar, that played the lead. It took three guitars to produce that wonderful Spanish Mariachi sound. Unfortunately, when their two year contract in 1832 was over, they left a few guitars behind, but forgot to teach us Hawaiians how to tune these instruments. We combined 3 guitars into one and slacked or lowered a few strings to an open tuning, and the art form, kiho 'alu or slack-key guitar was born.

What makes slack-key guitar open tunings unique is that we play bass, rhythm, and lead by fingerpicking all on one guitar, so it sounds like 3 people playing at the same time.

What have you enjoyed most about your recent Masters of Hawaiian Music shows?
What we enjoyed most was meeting the people on the road all across the USA that frequent our Masters of Hawaiian Music Slack-key Show on Maui in Napili. We also enjoyed all the various foods, fruits and vegetables of various Cultures on the road. We get to experience their climates and see why they leave their cities to visit us on Maui. We are also blessed to be able to share our Hawaiian music, culture and stories in the great performing arts centers, various colleges, and even some elementary and middle schools all across the US.

How do the things you experience day to day influence your music?
I'm a Hawaiian native planter, farmer, rancher, teacher, healer, and mentor as well as a musician. My music is about the land, the sea and our relationships towards each other as well as our environment.

How does your story telling tie into your music? And what inspires you?
I'm inspired to write and tell stories about my reactions and observations, and using all my senses to write stories, poems, and songs about my day to day experiences and events.
Here's a partial list of themes I'll be writing songs about for my next Album
Songs to start recording in August 2017
1. King Pool - swimming 6 a.m. -10 a.m. in Berkeley, CA
2. Salt water pool at Chaminade Pool and Spa in Santa Cruz, CA
3. Sunset at Santa Cruz, CA, moon rise over Monterey, Bay
4. We can see Maui from CA -- from Santa Cruz, or Prismo Beach
5. It's in the Air
6. Renaissance Man song -- one hand stuck in the dirt, the other hand stuck in the cloud influence Aunty Nona Beamer
7. 20 years of teaching. Workshop Songs for CDs
8. Traveling songs with Nathan and Kawika
9. Trail ride song with Peter Baldwin and Suzy on Piiholo Ranch on Maui
10. Sugar cane plantation songs
11. Storm's a coming songs -- riding on the tail of the sun
12. Coming home to Maui after 6 weeks on the road
13. Santa Cruz Mountain Men -- chain saw carrying mountain men on Hwy. 17 in CA - clearing felled trees
14. Pulling weeds and weed whacking songs. Fence post digging songs
15. Genealogy of her goat herd, sheep herd, mini horses, dogs on the farm songs
I also draw [on] my day-to-day experiences.

Can you recall the most memorable advice you received by an artist?
I had many great mentors in my lifetime. One of my greatest mentors was Eddie and his wife, Myrna Kamae, who was mentored by an Elder, Tutu Kawena Pukui. Tutu's advice was to always to create & play music for our children. I continue in that legacy left by our Elders: to play for the Children of Hawaii Nei and beyond.

by Caroline LaMotta