The songs and strings of Hawaii | April 20, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 20, 2012

The songs and strings of Hawaii

Slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer headlines an islands-themed weekend at Stanford

by Rebecca Wallace

Keola Beamer doesn't seem to have needed a lot of urging to enter the family business. Representing the fifth generation of musicians, he's clearly a fervent — if laid-back — advocate for Hawaiian music.

"Once people find it, they really enjoy it. It has a beautiful inner peace or calmness to it. I think that kind of feeling is established by the rhythm and feel of the music," the slack-key guitarist and singer/songwriter said this week in a phone interview.

"We are a culture that grew from our environment. So when we look up at the waterfalls on the island of Kauai, we notice they sort of pulse," he said. "Or sitting at the ocean and feeling the tradewinds on your bare skin, you can feel the rhythms of Polynesia. That's a real element in our music."

Beamer has been releasing albums of Hawaiian music for 40 years, blending traditional folk and contemporary sounds. Recently, he's been collaborating with the next generation, releasing an album with 20-something Hawaiian singer Raiatea Helm. The pair is scheduled to perform together at Stanford University on May 6.

Beamer and Helm will most likely perform the 2010 album's first song, "Ina (Imagine)," which alternates the lyrics of the iconic John Lennon tune in English and Hawaiian. "It's still a powerful message in the world," Beamer said.

Fans of Hawaiian music may also know Beamer from his song "Honolulu City Lights," which he recorded with his younger brother Kapono in the '70s. The family tree reads like a Who's Who of Hawaiian music, including his mother, Winona Beamer, a dancer, composer and major proponent of Hawaiian culture; and great-grandmother Helen Desha Beamer, a hula dancer and songwriter.

Plenty of insights into the culture of the islands will be available at Stanford on the weekend of Beamer's concert. The performance is part of a campus Hawaiian celebration weekend that also concludes Stanford Lively Arts' season.

A luau with the Stanford Hawaii Club kicks off the events at noon on May 5 in White Plaza, with free admission and plate lunches for sale.

The next day, Beamer begins a series of Sunday activities in Dinkelspiel Auditorium with an 11 a.m. workshop on playing Hawaiian slack-key guitar. At 1:30 p.m. is a panel discussion on Hawaiian music and culture led by Stanford music professor Stephen Sano, himself an accomplished slack-key guitarist. The concert follows at 2:30.

For the show, Beamer and Helm will be joined on stage by hula dancer Moanalani Beamer (the guitarist's wife), bass player John Kolivas, keyboardist Dan DelNegro and percussionist Adriano Larioza. The program of songs will be announced from the stage.

After the concert, Moanalani Beamer concludes the day with a hula class at 4 p.m. in White Plaza.

All the events have one thing in common, Keola Beamer says: the aloha spirit.

"In Hawaiian culture, we believe that within each human is a bowl of light. We believe that the presence of light is aloha," he said. "What I've tried to do in my life and music is to sort of harness the power of music, the strength of music."

While Beamer also plays such traditional Hawaiian instruments as the nose flute, the slack-key guitar is an integral part of his sound. On his website, he describes slack key as both a sweet, rich musical style and the ways of tuning the guitar, a marriage of classical guitar and fingerpicking. His custom-made double-ported guitar has a "beautiful legato tone," he said.

Over the decades, Beamer has seen many changes in the music world. Most visible is the huge increase in recordings released because of the ease of new technology, he said. "When I recorded my first record in 1972, there were five records that came out in all of Hawaii. Maybe now there's several hundred."

Beamer also takes advantage of technology to make teaching slack-key guitar a big part of his active life, using Skype and iChat for faraway students.

He recalls the mid-1990s as a key time in Hawaiian music, because that was when the recordings really started being distributed nationally. The pianist George Winston, who is also a slack-key guitarist, helped drive the interest. "He's really a champion in the minds of all of us in Hawaii," Beamer said.

Around that time, Beamer was touring on the mainland with Dancing Cat Records, and remembers being backstage while the late slack-key guitarist Ray Kane was performing. Suddenly the concert hall went silent.

"His wife said: 'He's crying. For the first time in his life, people are really listening,'" Beamer recalled. He added affectionately: "In the old times in Hawaii, slack key was for back porch, parties, beer-drinking and laughter. It was kind of a folk music of the Hawaiian people. For the first time, it was elevated to a concert stage, and Uncle Ray was crying."

What: Musicians Keola Beamer and Raiatea Helm perform as part of a two-day celebration of Hawaiian music and culture at Stanford University.

Where: The concert and other events are in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, with outdoor activities in White Plaza.

When: Events run May 5-6, with the concert at 2:30 p.m. May 6.

Cost: Concert tickets are $26-$30 for adults and $10 for Stanford students. Other events are free, with reservations required to participate in the May 6 guitar workshop with Beamer. For details, go to . The box office can also be reached at 650-725-ARTS.