Jammin’ with John Keawe
~ by Keeley Acosta
Johnny McElree loves nothing more than a cold beer and some great guitar music. Upon moving to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2004, he quickly discovered John Keawe, one of the most talented songwriters and master slack-key guitarists in the Hawaiian Islands, and a Grammy and multi Na Hoku Hano Hano award winner. Luckily for Johnny, John Keawe plays frequently at not only two of his favorite island restaurants (Blue Dragon in Kawaihae and the Bamboo in Hawi), but right down the road from his Kolea home every Tuesday evening from 6-7 pm, at the Kings Shops at the Waikoloa Beach Resort. These twilight performances, Music with the Island Touch by John Keawe, may feel like a priceless luxury when surrounded by the beauty that is Waikoloa, but it is indeed free for both locals and visitors to the island to enjoy.
John Keawe was born and raised on the Big Island, growing up in the small town of Hawi on the northern tip of the island’s Kohala Coast. He liked rock and roll and, in particular, singer/songwriters making their own music. John joined the Navy, returning to Hawaii when his time was done. It was at this point in his life that the Hawaiian slack-key guitar and John Keawe began to groove. John started to study this genre and is a self-taught slack-key guitarist, which is no small feat.
Slack-key is the English term for ki ho’alu, which means “loosen the (tuning) key” in the Hawaiian language. Slack-key guitar is a fingerstyle genre of guitar music, in which most tunings are achieved by started with a classically tuned guitar and detuning (“slacking”) one or more of the strings, until the six strings form a single chord (frequently G major). This type of guitar-playing originated here in Hawaii. It is believed that Mexican cowboys, known as paniolos in Hawaiian, brought over guitars in the late 19th century, teaching the Hawaiians the very basics of guitar and then leaving, which allowed the Hawaiians to develop their style on their own. There is some speculation that merchants from whaling boats also brought guitars over, contributing their playing style as well. The Hawaiians adapted the slack key guitar to accompany the rhythms of Hawaii dancing, such as hula, and the harmonic structures of Hawaiian music and chants. It began to integrate the music of all the different cultures that have come to the Hawaiian Islands, including North Americans, Portuguese, Filipinos, and South Pacific Islanders. Slack-key remained a truly Hawaiian musical style, not receiving the same attention as the ‘ukulele or steel guitar that mainland listeners associated with Hawaii. The first recordings of slack-key guitar were made in 1946-47 by Gabby Pahinui, and then during the 1960s and especially the 1970s it experienced a boost in popularity, coming to be seen as a great expression of Hawaiian spirit.
John Keawe not only taught himself all the intricacies of the slack-key guitar, but developed a style all his own that is respected and admired in the Hawaiian Islands and around the world. As he learned, he also began to perform in public, and began writing his own songs. His music is reflective of the things he loves the most: Hawaii and his ohana (family). His music is a sincere and realistic interpretation of his life. John has released ten recordings under the label Homestead Records. Of these ten, seven were nominated for Na Hoku Hano Hano Awards (the Hawaiian “Grammys”). He won the 1994 award for best instrumental performance for his CD “Ho’onanea”. In 1998, John won the best slack-key artist at the Hawaii Music Awards for his “Mana’olana” CD. In 2003, he received a Hawaii Music Award for “Aloha Kaikua’ana”. He also won a Hoku Award for Ki-ho’alu, which is a special award given to an artist for perpetuating the art of the slack-key guitar. In 2005, John was honored as a contributing artist on Hawaii’s first Grammy award for Best Hawaiian Music Album, titled “Slack-Key Guitar Volume 2” by Palm Records. In 2009, John Keawe received one of the biggest honors of his career as he was the recipient of the first Na Hoku Hano Hano Award for Slack-Key Album of the Year for his CD “Hawai’i Island… Is My Home”. 2011 brought his fourth Na Hoku award, Slack-Key Album of the Year, for his 10th album “Play With Me Papa”.
John continues to spread his music and message of Aloha around the world, most recently completing a short tour in Japan. He is often accompanied by his beautiful wife, Hope, who performs graceful hula interpretations of his songs, adding another magical layer to already wonderful performances. Hope was also born and raised on the Big Island, in North Kohala. She and John married in 1973, and have 3 sons and 9 grandchildren. John and Hope raise their granddaughters in the same town he grew up in, Hawi, and they also frequent the stage with him, singing back-up or dancing hula with their tutu (grandma).
Whether you are living your dreams here on the Big Island, or just coming to bask in the sunshine for a short time, a John Keawe show should be on your list of must-sees. Chances are, you will see Johnny McElree there, cold beer in hand, living HIS dreams.
For a current schedule of John Keawe performances:
Video of John, Hope and their granddaughters performing: