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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 31, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 53
Arts & Entertainment
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Hawaiian artist Makana talks slack key, food, and Seattle favorites

by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

Don Ho may have popularized Hawaiian music with 'Tiny Bubbles,' but this particular genre is far more sophisticated and diverse than a pop song cradled by a ukulele. Slack key, a form of freestyle acoustic guitar that originated in Hawaii, is widely recognized in the industry as a true art form - often recorded on compilations by multiple artists and earning Grammy Awards year after year. One musician carrying the tradition of slack key guitar is Makana, an Oahu-based singer-songwriter who's opened concerts for Santana, Elvis Costello, Sting, Jason Mraz, and No Doubt. And he's no stranger to Seattle audiences, having played Bumbershoot and selling out concerts at venues like The Triple Door (www.thetripledoor.net), where he returns on January 9. The show, featuring ukulele virtuoso Taimane Gardner, is part of 'Perfect Moments in the Islands of Hawaii,' a marketing blitz aimed at increasing tourism to the Aloha State. For more on Makana, visit www.makanamusic.com or www.facebook.com/makana, and if desiring some beach time with mai tais, visit www.gohawaii.com for travel information. I spoke with Makana earlier this month (as he battled a slight cold), and here's what he shared with me in The Music Lounge.

Albert Rodriguez: For those who aren't familiar with your music, describe your particular sound.

Makana: The first thing I would say is it's rooted in the acoustic guitar style that is indigenous to Hawaii called slack key - that's the foundation from which I create all my music. It's an open-tuned guitar style that has a rhythmic pattern to it, so that the player plays the bass, rhythm, and the lead all on a single guitar - it's a very symphonic sound. I can make one guitar sound like three guitars without any effect.

Rodriguez: Did you teach yourself to play guitar?

Makana: I learned from the greatest living masters of my art form, by tradition. I learned directly from them when I was a child, so I'm a torchbearer of the tradition. But my music has expanded to include a lot of different ethnic music influences, as well as rock, pop, and folk. I'm moving into other things, [like] electronica.

Rodriguez: Has Hawaiian music changed in recent years?

Makana: Hawaiian music has changed a lot, just as all music has. In the 1970s, there was a grand renaissance of Hawaiian music, and from the '80s there [have been] less drugs and Hawaiian music became less exploratory and a lot more rock. My Hawaiian music is very, very eccentric, in the context of other Hawaiian music. I pull in a lot of different influences. On one of my albums, Koi Au, I use Portuguese music, Balinese music, Chinese harp, classical strings, bluegrass elements & so there's a lot there. Hawaiian music is made up of many different kinds of music because all these different influences came to Hawaii, and from there they were assimilated, and so what we consider traditional Hawaiian music today didn't exactly exist - it's an amalgamation of all these other influences, and that's what makes it universal.

Rodriguez: You've played Seattle several times. What do you like or remember about Seattle?

Makana: I love the food, I love the blackberry lemonade in the summer, I really like Hotel 1000. I, of course, like the [Pike Place] Market and being on the water. I have a lot of friends there, I have some family there. I just love the town, it's got a beautiful history and I like the way it's organized - you have Queen Anne, you have these little streets that have a different feel, an incredible farmer's market, and the fish is fresh and wonderful - it's totally different than the fish we have here in Hawaii.

Rodriguez: Are there places in Seattle that you always go to?

Makana: I really like Serafina, an Italian restaurant, I usually go there when I'm there. I've done the Tom Douglas thing for so long that I've kind of moved on, but I've definitely had a lot of good dinners over at Palace Kitchen.

Rodriguez: It appears you're a foodie, so for anyone on their way to Hawaii - whether their first time or a return trip - where should they eat?

Makana: If you want to have a cultural experience and want to try what we consider to be traditional Hawaiian food, I recommend People's Cafe. People's Cafe is a little hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown and it serves all Hawaiian food. Anytime I get off a plane and return to Hawaii, that's my first stop. For fine dining, there's a place owned by a friend of mine, Kenney - his father was a very famous Hawaiian crooner back in the day, before Don Ho - called Town in Kaimuki, and it is at the forefront of the local organic, local-sourced movement, and their ingredients and preparation are second to none in Hawaii. My equally favorite place, owned by a dear friend of mine, is called The Olive Tree [Café] and it's 'not-so-fast Greek food,' as he calls it. It's in Kahala, right at the edge of the mall, and the food is consistently good and very affordable. I always base food on ingredients, and their ingredients are top notch, their presentation is simple and clean, and you'll see fishermen bring in a fish that, four hours later, is on your plate.

Rodriguez: What do you remember about your previous shows and audiences in Seattle?

Makana: [In] every single one, people are just ecstatic. I don't know if it's because they're freezing and it makes them feel warm. I played lot of different places there. I remember that I did 'Summer Nights on the Pier' one year. That was awesome - what a beautiful concert that was! I did 5th Avenue Theatre with Jason Mraz. I sold out The Triple Door a few times.

Rodriguez: Tell me about your upcoming Seattle performance. Will you and Taimane Gardner perform one big set together, or will you each perform your own sets?

Makana: I'm going to do a combination of everything. I'll do some solo, she'll do some solo, I'll play some with my band without her, she'll join us, my band might back her without me. It's gonna be a variation on the theme, in a number of different configurations, and the material is gonna consist of a broad range of material. It's a very dynamic show, it's not like one song sounds like the next. We might go from something that's almost a chant all the way to a reinterpretation of a Sting song in a Latin mode with all slack key and intense Arabic wailing; there's a lot of diversity we cover.

Rodriguez: Do you think there's anywhere outside of Hawaii that appreciates Hawaiian music more than the Northwest?

Makana: Interesting question. People outside of Hawaii, in general, tend to appreciate Hawaiian music more - I think because they long for that connection. I've had people up and down the West Coast drive four hours to come see me, and then drive four hours back. Some people are really hardcore up there; they get really excited. It really brings something to them that they're missing in their lives.

Rodriguez: When people come to Hawaii and they want an authentic experience, particularly good live music, where should they go?

Makana: It's really hard to say, what we do is so rare now. The Halekulani is one of the last places in Hawaii that has old Hawaiian music, it's from an era - the hapa haole era, we call it. It's really a throwback to the 1950s. The 'House Without a Key,' it's called - I recommend that, at the Halekulani. Other than that, there are very few places that really show the old style in a classy, quality presentation, and that's a tragedy. Occasionally, I have a show running in Waikiki. I've been focused on other things lately, but we were doing a show on the history of Hawaiian music and there's nothing like that now, it's just not the climate that it was in the '50s and '60s.

Rodriguez: Should people bring aloha shirts and leis to your show at The Triple Door? What kind of atmosphere should they expect?

Makana: Wherever we go, it becomes our home, and that's the energy that I carry. I don't reinforce the stereotypes, I don't expect people to dress a certain way - it's gonna be cold. The bottom line is you can't have any expectations because I'm going to change what is probably in your mind, as far as an assumption of what Hawaiian music is or what it can be.

Rodriguez: Could you see yourself living outside of Hawaii?

Makana: A lot of celebrities and famous people come to Hawaii when they retire, so I look at it like when you're born in heaven, why do you need to go on some great sojourn and leave when you know you've already arrived at your final destination? Knowing I can be here and return here gives me incredible inner strength, and it's something I want to share with the world, and in order to stay connected to that, I need to be here.

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