If you think that Don Ho is the voice of Hawaii, Keola Beamer has something to say: "It's like me watching a Tarzan movie and thinking I'm hearing African music," Beamer says of the Hollywood stereotype applied to Hawaiian music. Beamer traces the roots of his musical family back to the 15th century, and his mastery of the traditional slack-key guitar, along with his ideas for mixing it with more contemporary sounds, has given his culture a new outlet that bridges generations. He and his wife, Moana, combine three aspects of Hawaiian performance--mele, the song; oli, the chant; and hula, the dance, all bridged through storytelling.
"People have sort of a horizontal view of the Hawaiian culture," Beamer says. "It's a whole world of beautiful depth and sensitivity and intoxicating rhythms."
Slack-key guitar has been around since the early 1800s, brought to Hawaii by Mexican cowboys. In the 1830s, a large herd of cattle given to King Kamehameha were out of control: "They were beginning to be a nuisance, running around trampling people and knocking over their grass houses," Beamer explains.
The King sent to California, importing vaqueros to teach the Hawaiians how to manage cattle. At night, around the campfires, guitars started getting passed around and Hawaiians started trying out the songs they were hearing. When the Spanish left, Hawaiians began tuning the guitar to match their voices.
"It changed the voicings of the guitar," Beamer says of the 40 tunings now in use. "That's the art of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar, playing with beautiful open tuning colorations."
Although the technique absorbed aspects of several cultures and included Hawaiian chants and Christian hymns, as well as Spanish, Samoan, Portugese and American influences, the Hawaiians kept it mostly to themselves until the 1970s. Beamer was one of the main artists responsible for breaking it out of its cultural and geographical boundaries. Because it was so secretive, there were no new players coming in, and the music wasn't played much in public. "We were afraid it was dying," Beamer says. "I didn't think it was going to be around for my kids."
Even after reviving it and modernizing it, Beamer still gets flak from purists who think it should have been preserved as it was and left on a shelf, even if that ultimately meant obscurity. "We have a thing in our family: We are not museum pieces. We live and breathe our culture, we incorporate it into our lives. Of course, it's gonna change. We need to have it work in our lives in the 21st century."
Respect--especially for one's ancestors and elders--is a big thing in Hawaiian culture. The Beamers are proof that the past can be venerated by involving the present. "We have a great deal of aloha for those who have gone before us in Hawaiian music, for those old guys who play that beautiful traditional music. I'm grateful from the bottom of my heart," Beamer says. "We look at it with reverence and respect, but we still are not afraid to try new things."
Keola & Moana Beamer play The ArtsCenter on Friday, Sept. 22 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $18. For more, see www.kbeamer.com.