Slack-key guitar evokes sensual sounds of Hawaii 

click to enlarge String masters: From left, George Kahumoku Jr., Dennis Kamakahi, Uncle Richard Ho’opi’i appear in concert at Yoshi’s Monday. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • String masters: From left, George Kahumoku Jr., Dennis Kamakahi, Uncle Richard Ho’opi’i appear in concert at Yoshi’s Monday.

More than most any other music, Hawaiian slack-key guitar and the songs it accompanies are a celebration of the senses.

“When I’m singing a song, I’m there, at that spot,” says George Kahumoku Jr., whose lyrics often evoke the visual, tactile and olfactory pleasures of the islands: the Big Island of Hawaii, where he was born 61 years ago; Maui, where he has lived since returning from training at the California College of the Arts in Oakland; and other picturesque points on the Hawaiian archipelago.

“I’m visualizing those places, and the people I’m remembering singing about them with,” Kahumoku says.

“A lot of times I’m singing songs I learned from my kupuna, my great-grandparents, and I feel like they’re there with me, singing along. I remember one time I went to my aunt’s funeral, and my mom had her arm around me. When she was singing, I could feel the vibration of her voice going through her whole body and into my body. And it took me right back to the womb, when I was just a few cells, and she was singing those songs. And I just started to cry, it was so beautiful, it was like a DNA memory or something.”

As he has so often in performance and recording, Kahumoku will share his memories, and his sublime guitar and vocal stylings, on tour in Northern California.

He’ll play Monday at Yoshi’s with fellow Maui musician Richard Ho’opi’i, a virtuoso on the ukulele and in the falsetto vocal form known as leo ki’eki’e; and with Oahu-based Dennis Kamakahi and his student Stephen Inglis — like Kahumoku, masters of slack-key guitar (“ki’ho’alu” in Hawaiian).

Ho’opi’i and Kamakahi, who have appeared at Kahumoku’s workshops and Slack Key Masters Series at resorts in Maui, shared with Kahumoku three Grammys, before the best Hawaiian music album category was eliminated last year.

Despite the withdrawal of Grammy recognition (suffered also by purveyors of Cajun, Latin and other ethnic music), Kahumoku has received support for his new Institute of Hawaiian Music at the University of Hawaii in Maui from the U.S. Department of Labor, and a grant from the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, historically based in big money from pineapple and banana cultivation.

But to harvest a decent crop of well-attended, good-paying gigs, purveyors of ki’ho’alu still have to carry their guitars and ukes to the mainland.

Today’s show at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga is sold out; there likely will be expatriate islanders at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz on Tuesday.

But “San Francisco has always been my favorite city,” Kamakahi says. “There’s rhythm there, and when you go up to Twin Peaks at night, you can see the music.”

Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key

Where: Yoshi’s, 1330 Fillmore St., San Francisco

8 p.m. Monday

Tickets: $24

Contact: (415) 655-5600,

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Jeff Kaliss

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