Story by Paul Wood
Photo by Elyse Butler
Maui has few buildings that echo inside, that fill with vast reverberations in which voices bounce off of faraway corners. But you get this effect in the lobby of Ka‘a‘ike, the new media building at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College. Something about the structure of this three-story, glass-faced space with its stone-hard steps does the trick. And on a recent Saturday those echoes were full of ‘ukulele string plucking. Slack key guitar strums. The occasional nahenahe (soft and gentle) crooning of Hawaiian musicians. Artists of antique styles were waiting to audition in a hightech studio, hoping that they would find a place in the college’s new Institute of Hawaiian Music.
The man behind this moment, the welder of yesterday and tomorrow, is fivetime Grammy-winning slack key guitarist George Kahumoku, Jr. “The college will become the center of Hawaiian music on Maui,” he predicts. To that end Kahumoku has been pulling together an alliance of his fellow slack key and ‘ukulele masters, including Richard Ho‘opi‘i, Keli‘i Taua and Benny Uetake, not so much to teach classes as to mentor—to play the role that family members provided during front-porch jam sessions of previous days. They’ll make sure a new generation learns the culture, the language and also the business of managing gigs and layering audio tracks on iPads.
“The institute is going to be huge,” Kahumoku forecasts, having just returned from performing on the West Coast. He talks about multi-artist slack key concerts bound this spring for Branson, Missouri, and remarks that Canada has millions of ‘ukulele players. Every Wednesday night Kahumoku hosts the Masters of Slack Key concert at the Napili Kai Beach Resort, the single best way to experience Hawaiian music on Maui. He’s that busy.
And yet he’s still nahenahe. Perhaps that equanimity is due to the fact that he’s also a farmer and has mentored two hundred small Maui farms into sustainable food production. He drives his trailer out to the resorts to collect vegetable trash for compost. Recently his trailer broke on the threadbare cliff road of Kahakuloa. “I’m a welder, too,” he says. “But I still haven’t had the chance to weld up my own trailer.”