Makana is on the Move
Playing gigs across Hawaii and on the Mainland. Recording new material in Los Angeles. Even meeting President Obama at the White House. His incredible slack-key guitar skills are on display for those lucky to catch one of his live shows. Called “Dazzling” by the NEW YORK TIMES and “The greatest living player” by ESQUIRE MAGAZINE, Makana’s progressive and energized musical style is igniting renewed widespread interest in the slack-key guitar genre.
Amidst a hectic and very busy schedule, Makana graciously took some time to sit down with us via phone and riff on a variety of topics including his next musical goal (to fuse slack-key and classic rock), his impromptu jam session with Jimmy Buffet at the “Lost” TV series wrap party and even his favorite Hawaiian beach.
OutriggerHawaii: Aloha, Makana. What's coming up for you in the near future?
Makana: Well, I am going to be spending the second half of 2010 in Los Angeles working on a number of record projects. One of the projects has the working title, Slack Rock... I decided two years back I needed to introduce slack-key guitar music to a wider audience in order for it to survive, because it's a niche, traditional art form.
So I've taken the technique and distilled it down to something less cultural and more universal. I’m planning to apply that in a style where I take the fundamental attributions of slack-key and utilize them in songs I would classify as classic or folk rock. Like James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or Cat Stevens. And in doing this, allow a new listener-ship to develop a relationship to this art form.
OutriggerHawaii: So to clarify, are you actually re-recording some of those classic rock recordings, like a Led Zeppelin song?
Makana: Yeah, yeah – I am. Slack key is so amazing because what you're really doing is slacking the strings into an open chord. What that allows the me to do is no longer have to hold that chord. It frees up my hand – the guitar's doing half the job. That means I have more potential to change the sound, to alter it to make music. Once it's tuned to that open chord, I establish an alternating bass line and also a lead melody part. I'm doing it all on a single guitar because I'm in slack key tuning.
This is a uniquely Hawaiian approach. What I'm talking about is taking that same approach and applying it to other forms of music to reach a broader audience – to show that it's really a universal approach Hawaiians created to playing the guitar and it's beautiful – and you can apply it to any kind of music.
OutriggerHawaii: Has tapping into those other influences changed the way you approach the instrument and your music?
Makana: Yeah, it's a symbiotic evolution. I mean…everything is an influence. And my roots are so incredibly strong because I learned from the greatest masters of this art form and they were so strict and so adept at conveying it that I can stray really far. You know, it's like a tree. The deeper the roots, the higher the branches.
OutriggerHawaii: Let’s talk about your early learning on the guitar.
Makana: Well, I started out on the ukulele when I was 9 and then discovered slack-key guitar when I was about 11. My first teacher was Bobby Moderow. He was a protégé of the master from Nanakuli, Uncle Raymond Kane. Bobby was about 21 at the time I met him and he became like my big brother, gifting me with all of his knowledge, giving me a titanium foundation.
One of the reasons why there are hardly any slack-key players is because it takes a few years to retrain your hands so that you can actually perform an alternating bass line and not mess that up while you're ripping lead.
It's really tricky and you have to rewire your hand, your synapses and your nervous system so your thumb and your fingers are nearly independent. And Bobby was very disciplined with me in that regard. He gave me a great gift, and it allowed me to learn from the ground up and really master the art form.
And then when I was 13, I met the grandmaster, Uncle Sonny Chillingworth. Uncle Sonny and I studied together for almost a year under a grant from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. His style was extremely complex: a very fast, very nimble technique – and very different from Uncle Raymond's style, which was a bold style, but very simple. And so I got these two very different styles as my foundation.
When Uncle Sonny passed away, I had no teachers, after learning from the best – so I started picking up recordings and became obsessive about memorizing every single note and tuning. By the time I was in my late teens, I would sometimes play 17, 18 hours a day and kind of went into this other world. It became my world.
Once I had devoured all the older styles, I wanted to do something new. My friends began giving me CDs of other kinds of music. My parents had been so strict, only allowing me to listen to Hawaiian music when I was growing up, that it was overwhelming for me to hear Celtic, African, Brazilian or even pop music, for that matter. It was an intense flood of influence and I assimilated those genres into what I did as well.
OutriggerHawaii: That new music exploded into your life in a big way.
Makana: Huge, yeah. I mean, I'm really blessed to have a completely original and unique approach to the guitar.
OutriggerHawaii: So, with all that - where do we find that influence of Hawaii in your music?
Makana: Music just happens to be the sound of this place, but this place is what influences me, the values, the environment, the feeling of nature here. It's so present, it has not been wiped out like it has in other places in the world. And it's so powerful – the ocean, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers. That’s a huge direct influence on everything I do in my life, including the music I create.
Another huge influence is the kupuna, the elders. My kupuna, whether they're in bodies or in their spirit form, directly influence my life. And my art is a reflection of that. So whether I'm doing a Hawaiian song that's obvious or a song that's not so obviously Hawaiian, the spirit, the values are still inside of that music. You can never separate it out, because that's who I am.
OutriggerHawaii: How are you growing as an artist?
Makana: Well, I'm happy to say that contrary to my own misunderstanding of this possibility: my abilities as a vocalist, as a guitarist, as a performer and as a composer are exponentially growing every few months. It is such a rush to walk up on stage and feel more power and more freedom to instantaneously create whatever sound comes to your mind. You feel like Superman. It's so great to have that kind of freedom, to be spontaneous, to create in the moment, to create according to what you feel from the crowd. It's really exciting for me.
OutriggerHawaii: So are you taking songs to places you've never been before when performing them live?
Makana: Oh, yeah, all the time. And it's just mind-blowing. The other night I played at this private party, (a TV show wrap party … one of the biggest shows on TV). My band was there and we had a couple rehearsals – then Jimmy Buffett shows up at the party, ends up getting on stage, I hand him one of my guitars and all the plans went out the window. Jimmy and I switched off – one moment we’re playing "I Don't Know Where I'm Going to Go When the Volcano Blows," the next moment we're doing Bob Marley, the next moment I was singing a Dylan song.
None of it was rehearsed, but it was exploding because we all knew the language and we all were just at ease with our own abilities. Spontaneity is such a key ingredient. I think that when you have a hit, and don’t get me wrong – I'm not anti-hit – but it can become a burden unless you can reinterpret it and your audience will allow you to, because performers have to go up there and play that same song 100,000 times and they end up hating it or resenting it.
So with this cultural music, it's really nice; because we can reinterpret it every time.
OutriggerHawaii: Let's talk about one of your centerpiece songs: “Koi.” Nine minutes long– lightning fast with amazing technical wow-power, yet a deep humanistic melodic sensibility – even when it’s roaring by at 100 mph. I find myself hanging on to every moment.
Makana: Well, that's a great one. There's a lot to that song. First of all, the original song was composed by Willie K. I hadn't heard the recording in five years, but one day it just popped into my head and I starting tooling around with it and it started to evolve. Miles Davis used to do this a lot: take a song that would pop into his head and then retool the chordal structure, simplifying it – I call it “distilling.” Distill it down and reinterpret it. And that's what happened with that song.
The basic melody in the beginning came from the original song and everything else built around it, the whole evolution and the high-speed jam and all that just grew out of it. A lot of times I'll take a song by someone else and another song will grow out of it, because that's what I hear inside of it. That's what happened with "Koi."
I've got four different versions of it. There's the mellow version, the stadium version,I do it solo and with a full rock band. So it's fun. Songs are just form, right? But the music is formless. I don't get too caught up in the form. The form needs to be flexible.
OutriggerHawaii: Do you think about making a social statement or taking a political stand with your music?
Makana: Well, I'm not a policy maker, but I can influence people and I use my art to do that as much as I can. I had to get my career to a point where I could have the respect and the fan-base where they would actually listen to my opinions. I'm starting to get to that point.
I don't like using the word "political." It's more directional issues of Hawaii. I like to say it that way. You know: where are we going as a society, how does the host culture fit into that? My main focus and concern is maintaining the value of our islands by not turning into just another state with a bunch of money-spending opportunities. I think that there needs to be a balance maintained for Hawaii to maintain its integrity and for it to be available for the future generations.
I've also supported many organizations and donated my music and am very much involved in the community in a wide range of fields, from political action in the sense of whether it's equality issues or anti-war issues or land issues, zoning issues, cultural issues, education.
I do have school outreach. It's called I Hoili Kamalii, which means leaving a legacy for the children of the land. I do a lot in terms of supporting friends with health issues and fundraisers and benefits, raising money for teachers in schools and all kinds of things. I'm playing Earth Day this year. We just try to raise awareness.
OutriggerHawaii: When you travel, what do you miss about Hawaii?
Makana: I try not to miss it, it gets too painful. I get depressed when I'm leaving. But I'm also very present wherever I go and I try to find the beauty and the magic of wherever I am in the world.
OutriggerHawaii: Is there something that you like to do, something that you do every time when you return?
Makana: Well, first I have to get in the ocean, of course. I try not to eat out too much, but there's one restaurant that I think is a must, and it's actually, ironically, a Mediterranean restaurant called The Olive Tree Café in Kahala. You would think in Hawaii that everywhere you go has fresh fish, but it's not true. And this place has such incredibly fresh fish. You'll see the fishermen walk in there and four hours later it'll be on a plate. It's just awesome, very affordable food and one of my favorite places. As far as the beach goes, I really enjoy Waimanalo Beach. I don't like to talk about it, because I don't want too many people going there, but it’s my favorite across the islands. And then I love Kauai. Kauai is the whole of my heart on the earth.
OutriggerHawaii: So what do you think it is that mainlanders love about Hawaii so much?
Makana: Well, there's one word that I've heard from millions of people, and it's home. People feel a sense of home. They seem to get a very, very physical feeling when they're here. When they look out and see the mountains and the ocean and the sun, they feel the warmth. It fills the soul with something that's right, something that's necessary. And I think they start to subconsciously realize, wow, this is what's missing. I mean, it's so healing to be here.
OutriggerHawaii: So if I'm planning a trip to the islands, what's one song of yours that I should hear before I go?
Makana: "Kuulei 'Awapuhi," which is track five from Ki Hoalu: Journey of Hawaiian Slack Key, because it's my favorite Hawaiian song.
I was talking to a friend in Australia two weeks ago and he said, "I've got this beautiful girl going to Hawaii and she needs a tour guide…"
So she emails me and I sent her that song back. So she visits and we had a wonderful experience on Kauai in Limahuli Valley. Later she told me "I heard that song and I almost started crying because I knew that I was making the right decision to come to Hawaii." It's a song that is just so full of aloha. You can't intellectualize it. It's just too authentic.
OutriggerHawaii: Hawaiian music, both new and traditional: why is it essential to the world and to world culture?
Makana: I feel that the melodies in Hawaiian music are some of the most, what we would call “chicken-skin” melodies in the world. They feel so good. And that's because they include all of these other influences that found their way to Hawaii. It's a romantic music. It's a music that has the power to convey a sense of place in a moment. And that's what I love about it. I could be anywhere and open my throat chakra, place my fingers on the guitar and boom, Hawaii is present.
And it's a healing music. It is, I think, one of the most alkaline sounds. And what I mean by that is, upon hearing the sound of Hawaiian music, it alkalizes the blood. Slack key guitar affects the brainwaves with its alternative bass line: boom, boom, boom, boom. It entrances the mind. It puts the brain into a deeper state of relaxation.
Have you ever heard a music that sounds like the sunset? That's slack key.
OutriggerHawaii: Mahalo, Makana. Be well.
Makana: Okay, you too. Aloha.
Restaurants mentioned by Makana:
The Olive Tree Café
4614 Kilauea Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96816-5309
OutriggerHawaii proudly features Makana’s music on the following videos throughout our website:
Learn to Surf
Greenwell Coffee Farms
Preserving Hawaiian Culture at Keauhou
Taste Hawaii’s Finest Flavors
Go Whale Watching