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A haole picks up the slack

Guitarist 'in love' with Hawaiian style will perform Christmas tunes at the Coffee Gallery Backstage.

December 09, 2013|By Jonny Whiteside
  • Hawaiian 'slack key' guitar master Jim "Kimo" West is set to perform his acoustic guitar (and a bit of ukelele) at The Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena. Photographed on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.
Hawaiian 'slack key' guitar master Jim "Kimo"… (Roger Wilson / Staff…)

Guitarist Jim "Kimo" West divides his time between two dramatically different musical worlds. His mainstay job is as lead guitarist from the famed, freewheeling musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic, but West's heart and soul are completely invested in the lush exotic Hawaiian slack-key acoustic guitar style.

"I've been playing guitar since I was 12, started in with rock bands at 16, and I've been playing lead guitar for Weird Al Yankovic for a long time," West said. "But a while back, I was invited to go to Hawaii and ended up staying with a family who had a lot of slack-key records. I fell in love with the sound — it's like a perfect symbiotic relationship between the music, the landscape, the culture."

West, who appears at Altadena's Coffee Gallery Backstage on Saturday, described how the Island style steadily infiltrated his soul: "I just listened for a long time but by the late '80s I started fiddling around with it, playing and writing songs in the slack-key style. I'd record them so I wouldn't forget how they went, and one day a friend finally said, 'Why don't you put out a CD?' So I did, had an artist friend do some beautiful cover art and had it released and holding that in my hands was just a great feeling — and all the Hawaiians liked it."

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"That's how I got started and soon I was getting invited to play all the festivals, and for me, as a haole guy, to be accepted in the slack-key world was very heartwarming. They were all very sweet and thankful to me for helping keep the tradition alive. I never felt like an outsider, but that acceptance was very important, heartwarming. It's magical."

"Slack-key was originally called 'ki-ho'alu, which means to loosen the key, or put it in an open tuning, tuned to a single chord, which generally isn't done in western music. Hawaii was introduced to the guitar by Spanish vaqueros in the 19th century, but the Hawaiians changed the tuning and each family has their own and they keep them secret."

As with so much Pacific Island culture, there's an ever-present hint of near-mystic allure in this music. "Now, I play in 12 or 14 different tunings, each one is like a different language, they have a certain specific resonance and personality," West said. "And the guitar is in your arms, close up against your body and you feel it when you're playing and it's a very nice feeling, almost therapeutic."

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