STEEL guitar may be the most endangered of the instruments associated with Hawaiian music.
The ukulele is certainly alive and well; you see it everywhere, and Roy Sakuma is presenting his 40th Annual Ukulele Festival at the Kapiolani Bandstand on July 18. Ki ho’alu (slack key) guitar is more visible than it’s ever been, thanks to the efforts of George Winston and the willingness of Hawaii’s slack-key masters to share their tunings and techniques with others. The acoustic stand-up bass isn’t quite as common as ukulele or slack key, but each decade brings that tradition forward as well.
The Hawaiian steel guitar doesn’t seem to have the same public presence. But veteran steel guitarist Alan Akaka says things are changing.
"My mission is to encourage steel playing," he says, calling on behalf of the First Annual Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival, which takes place this Sunday at Waikiki Beach Walk.
‘Hula Island Style Volume II’
"Hula Oni Oni E"
FIRST ANNUAL HAWAIIAN STEEL GUITAR FESTIVAL
Where: Plaza Stage, Waikiki Beach Walk
When: 1 p.m. Sunday; musical performances start at 2 p.m.
The program will include more than three hours of performances by musicians including Akaka, Greg Sardinha, Casey Olsen, Jeff Au Hoy and Ronald Kanahele, who will form Hawaiian musical trios — and then put on a final jam session with all five.
Harry B. Soria Jr., founder and host of the "Territorial Airwaves" radio show, will co-host the event with state Sen. Brickwood Galuteria.
Several steel guitar groups meet in Honolulu, but few have reached out beyond their immediate circle. Akaka and Galuteria began work a year ago on a festival that would reach a much larger audience. Galuteria talked to folks at the Outrigger Enterprises Group about using the group’s Waikiki Beach Walk development as the site; Akaka talked to his colleagues. And a festival was born.
Prospects for the Hawaiian steel guitar are getting brighter, Akaka says. To that end, he’s running a school of Hawaiian music, Ke Kula Mele.
"I believe there was interest before, but people didn’t know who to contact. The people I’m getting said they’ve wanted to learn — (and) when they heard of my school, they called," he says.
WHAT the steel guitar needs, Akaka says, is someone who kickstarts mass-market interest — the way that Troy Fernandez and Jake Shimabukuro redefined public perception of the ukulele.
"We don’t have anybody who’s done that for steel guitar," Akaka says. "When locals think of steel guitar, they might perceive of it as a Waikiki instrument for hapa-haole music, but the steel guitar is more than that. Just look at (the late David) ‘Feet’ Rogers and what he did. … the simplicity of his style fits slack key (and the) Sons of Hawaii sound so perfectly."
Were the steel guitar still the acoustic "Hawaiian guitar" Frank Ferera, Pale K. Lua, Sol Hoopii and "King" Benny Nawahi popularized nationwide and then internationally in the Teens and 1920s, it would still be as portable as the ukulele or the standard six-string guitar. The electrification of the steel guitar in the early ’30s was revolutionary — but tied it to a power source, and also made it less likely to show up in a backyard jam session.
On the other hand, Akaka points out, the portability issue only goes so far for explaining the relative popularity of the steel guitar to other instruments. You can’t take a piano to the beach, or pass the time practicing acoustic bass while waiting at the bus stop either. And steel guitar is still considered an essential Hawaiian sound — originated, legend has it, when a young Joseph Kekuku picked up a bolt while walking along the railroad tracks, and used it to press and slide along his guitar’s strings.
Significantly, the only instrument that can be amplified in the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame’s "Ka Himeni Ana" competition, recognizing the nahenahe style of acoustic song and instrumentalism, is the steel guitar.
Is the difficulty of learning to play steel guitar a factor? Well, maybe.
"Having a bar in your hand instead of just putting your fingers on the fret bar is quite unnatural," Akaka says. With slide guitar, the guitarist slides a bar along the strings to get the iconic keening, romantic sound that the instrument is known for.
"It has its challenges, but if someone has the desire — the desire for learning — they will do it no matter what. But then, how many venues are available (in Waikiki) for anybody — slack key, steel guitar or ukulele?" Akaka asks. "Not many."
AKAKA notes that steel guitar has been appearing more often on local recordings.
His solo album, "Simply Steel," came out in May. Sardinha co-produced "Hula Island Style, Volume II" by the Hiram Olsen Trio, featuring Casey Olsen on steel guitar. It was released last month. Steel guitarist Bobby Ingano has also released a new album, "Steel’n Love."
Other groups are including steel guitarists as guests on individual songs of their albums — Na Palapalai and ‘Ike Pono, to name two.
"It’s a sound that many people outside Hawaii identify (as Hawaiian)," Akaka says.
In fact, for the first half of the last century the steel guitar was so thoroughly identified with the Islands that it was known as the "Hawaiian guitar."
That changed as perceptions of Hawaiian music changed. Rock ‘n’ roll replaced big-band pop on radio station playlists and the Billboard charts, and the Hawaiian Renaissance of the ’70s saw the eclipse of hapa-haole and a resurgence of interest in folkloric "grass roots" styles. While steel guitar has become an honored sound in country music and in rock, it’s less often recognized as intrinsic to the Islands.
The Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts instituted a special Ki Ho’alu award honoring past and present slack key masters in 1991. HARA has no comparable award for steel guitar virtuosos, though the list of master guitarists worthy of the honor goes back a century.
That’s another reason there’s a steel guitar festival this weekend.
"The ukulele and the slack key have been promoted up the ying-yang, and they’re doing great," Akaka says. "The steel guitar hasn’t had that (promotion until now), but this time I can see the renaissance of the Hawaiian steel guitar."