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February 21, 2013
By Forrest Hartman
According to Matthew Swalinkavich, known by fans as Makana, there are obvious reasons that few musicians master slack key guitar.
"It's a very challenging style technically, and it's hard to learn just watching someone on the Internet or listening to a record," he said during a recent phone interview. "There's a feel that comes with it. You can do all the notes, but you've got to have a feel, and that feel comes from growing up in Hawaii and being immersed in the lifestyle."
Makana, who is playing Nightingale Concert Hall on Feb. 28 as part of the School of the Arts' Performing Arts Series, know what he's talking about. He is recognized as one of only a handful of slack key masters working today, and that is a designation he doesn't take lightly.
"There are maybe five or six of the older generation masters left," he said. "In my generation, I'm the only one. Then, there's one kid who's younger than me - he's about 21, and in a position to carry on the art form. But, beyond us, there really isn't anyone."
Despite his status as an endangered musical species, Makana doesn't feel a pressure to develop disciples.
"Danny Cavallo, who's the younger kid, he's amazing," Makana said. "I know that if something happens to me and my elders that he will work to carry on the style. The biggest job is not for us to teach, but [rather] to build the audience. By building the audience of the art form, naturally there will be a percentage of people who want to learn it."
One way Makana attempts to build the audience is through concerts, like his upcoming University of Nevada, Reno performance.
"In my shows, I always do a little demonstration and break down what slack key is," he said. "The show is partially educational, but it's a really dynamic performance for one person. I'm really, really intense. I don't do looping, I don't use pre-recorded music or samples - it's all right there. It's just hard to believe that much sound is coming out [of one guitar]."
The reason Makana feels compelled to point this out is because audiences regularly express amazement that he's able to get such a big sound from his instrument. In truth, that's the backbone of the slack key style. In traditional guitar playing, Makana says, you will often find one musician playing a melody while a second guitarist plays accompanying chords - in slack key, one player handles both parts.
"It's a way of tuning the guitar, slacking the keys," Makana said. "We tune the guitar to a chord. We use alternating bass line techniques with our picking hand and weave melodies over that. By tuning the guitar to a chord, we're actually able to simulate the sound of two or three guitars coming out of the same instrument."
Makana gained mainstream exposure in 2011 when one of his original tunes, "Deep in an Ancient Hawaiian Forest," was featured on the soundtrack of "The Descendants," starring George Clooney. Although he is celebrated as one of the finest traditional slack key players in the world, it's not unusual for him to play original songs, or even covers of well-known pop music in concert.
"I always tell people it's best to expect nothing [going into a show]," he said. "Then, you'll absolutely have the time of your life. I'll do classics like James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Sting, Pink Floyd or Cat Stevens, but in my own style, using slack key. Those become highlights of the show. People always say, ‘What record is that on.' The way I approach music, I like to do songs that are popular and people know as part of the show because they get a reference point of like, ‘Oh, I see. I get what he's doing now.'"
For his upcoming concert at NCH, Makana said he might even set the guitar down for a song or two and play some of his new compositions on piano. He says he doesn't worry about trying to stick to a particular genre or tradition because it doesn't fit his musical philosophy.
"The [older] masters are the ones who support me most doing whatever I want," he said. "Those guys are the most open-minded because all of them have evolved the tradition. The word tradition is such a funny thing because it keeps changing its definition."
For tickets visit the Performing Arts Series website.