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Slack key songs about the Hawaiian forest could win a Grammy

By Christie Wilson

LAST UPDATED: 12:04 p.m. HST, Dec 01, 2011

Slack-key master George Kahumoku Jr. said he found inspiration for his Grammy-nominated album, "Wao Akua: The Forest of the Gods," while teaching an ethnobotany class at the University of Hawaii-Maui College.

"The idea was to present music that if you went into the forest you would like to listen to," he said by phone Wednesday night from the Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui, where he was waiting to go on stage for his long-running "George Kahumoku Jr.'s Slack Key Show — Master of Hawaiian Music."

The musician had just learned he was the lone Hawaiian music entry in the new "regional roots" category for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, which will be announced in February. Kahumoku's all-instrumental album was one of 13 Hawaiian music albums submitted for consideration in the category that includes recordings by Native American, Zydeco, Cajun and polka artists.

"It's a complete surprise. I didn't think Hawaiian music or myself would have a chance. We're not even in the continental U.S.; we're a whole different country," he said. "I don't know how we ended up in the same category as Zydeco and those other guys, but who cares? It's remarkable that we got this far in the category."

Kahumoku already has won three Grammys as a producer of compilation albums in the Hawaiian music category, which was eliminated in April in a restructuring of the Grammy categories.

Daniel Ho, who produced Kahumoku's nominated album, received a Grammy nomination of his own, for best pop instrumental album for "E Kahe Mahie." Ho has four Hawaiian music Grammys as a producer and one as a performer.

In another nomination of note, former Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder's ukulele album, "Ukulele Songs," was nominated for best folk album.

Other nominees for best regional roots music album are "Can't Sit Down" by C.J. Chenier, "Rebirth Of New Orleans" by Rebirth Brass Band, "Grand Isle" by Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, and "Not Just Another Polka" by Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra.

Kahumoku said he is friends with many of his fellow nominees because they often voted for each other when they competed in their own music genres before the Grammy restructuring, which eliminated 29 categories. Consistently low numbers of submissions in the Hawaiian category was cited as the reason for consolidating it with the other smaller categories.

"It's great for Hawaiian music," he said of his nomination. "But it's bittersweet because of all the controversy among Hawaiians (about past winners). I feel like one of the reasons we got votes is that we were doing really good music. My whole focus was not the awards, just the music, and I still did it when I did this album," he said.

Kahumoku believes his regular performances and workshops on mainland have helped raise his profile and broaden his connections in the music industry, boosting his Grammy odds. He will be touring on the mainland early next week and has been booked for a month-long gig in Branson, Mo., in April and May.

"Wao Akua: The Forest of the Gods," was well on its way to success before Wednesday's Grammy nomination. Four songs from the album are featured in the George Clooney hit movie "The Descendants," and another was used in an episode of "Hawaii Five-0."

The album includes new songs and instrumental versions of original songs previously recorded by Kahumoku. 

The regional roots winner will be announced during the untelevised pre-show portion of the 54th Annual Grammy Awards Show at the Los Angeles Convention on Feb. 12.

The Hawaiian artists and their albums that were under consideration as finalists in the category, in addition to Kahumoku, are: Ahumanu, "No Ku'uipo"; Kawaki Alfiche, "Kale'a"; Robert Cazimero, "Hula"; Hi'ikua, "Aia i Hi'ialo"; Kuana Torres Kahele, "Kaunaloa"; John Keawe, "Play With Me Papa"; Mailani, "'Aina"; Kenneth Makuakane, "Kawaipono"; Doug & Sandy McMaster, "In My Heart"; various artists, "A Tribute to Na Lani 'Eha"; various artists, "Na Haku Mele o Hawai'i"; and various artists, "Wahine."

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