The public meeting room of the San Leandro Public Library doesn't immediately spring to mind when you think of Hawaiian music. Nor does the back of a Berkeley print shop -- not a swaying palm tree in sight. But Berkeley native Patrick Kahakauwila Kamaholelani Landeza is taking Hawaiian music, and slack-key guitar in particular, to places it's never been before. As the mainland's first apostle of what natives call ki ho'alu, he insists, "I was just in the right place at the right time."
First, a brief tutorial: Ki ho'alu literally means "slacking the keys," or loosening a guitar's tuning pegs until you get an open tuning and can play a full chord with no fingers on the fretboard. For instance, in open G, you play a G chord simply by hitting all six strings. Easy.
Slack-key tuning first developed in 19th-century Hawaii., where different families created specific tunings -- Keola Beamer favors F wahine (an F major 7 chord), while Cyril Pahinui plays in a C tuning just slightly different from his father Gabby's -- that persist to this day. The resulting music is often based on just a couple of chords, fingerpicked melodies, and alternating-string thumb bass notes. Lyrics are often in Hawaiian, with some other languages mixed in.
Like the blues, slack-key music can be sublime when performed by a master, but pedestrian when played by those less gifted. Landeza is quickly approaching the former category, though he has a few cultural barriers to vault first.
Landeza was born in Berkeley to a Hawaiian-Irish mother and Filipino father. His early life was filled with island tunes from groups such as Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawaii; he jokes that his mother -- the splendidly named Frances Kawaipulou Kuakini O'Sullivan -- would play the records "over and over ... and over again." But those tunes, and backyard barbecue slack sessions with uncles in Castro Valley, turned the preteen Patrick onto the music, and an inspiring 1986 Kaiser Auditorium show featuring Kamae and others ratcheted up that interest further.
It was hard to find teachers on "the big island of Berkeley," as Landeza calls his city of birth. But in 1990, his mom brought him a flier for a concert, just down Addison Street from the family home: Slack-key monster Raymond Kane was gigging at the Freight & Salvage the next night.
Landeza went to the show and, scared shitless, introduced himself to Kane (and then quickly introduced Kane to his mom). But his shy persistence paid off, and the guitarist showed him a tune backstage, soon followed by lessons back at the Kane home in Oahu. Landeza logged quite a few air miles while still a high school student, taking every break possible to study with Kane, Sonny Chillingworth, and George Kuo. He also found a local instructor in Bay Area band leader Saichi Kawahara.
As a reed in the slack-key forest, Patrick was walking among giants.
"To me as a Hawaiian, it's always pleased me to see Patrick approach the art in the traditional manner, by seeking out his kupuna [elders]," says Paul Kealoha Blake of the East Bay Media Center, who started filming Landeza's early performances at LaVal's Northside Pizzeria on Euclid Avenue, and has seen him mature into the artist he is today: a headliner at the Great American Music Hall.
Indeed, 32-year-old Landeza is kicking maximum musical ass. Having left behind a career as a vice principal in the public schools of West Oakland, he has played slack-key festivals and toured the United States with some of the living legends of the genre. He also is promoting tours featuring himself, David Kamakahi, Herb Ohta Jr., and Keoki Kahumoku as "Hawaiian Music's Next Generation."
It's all a bit much, and not quite a lucrative concern just yet. His wife Jennifer holds down a corporate job, the couple's second child is on the way, and Patrick's recent two-week Christmas tour barely broke even.
More alarmingly, Landeza says he gets the "stink eye" from jealous musicians of the older slack-key generation who don't quite accept the mainland boy's style or pedigree. Mele.com, a popular Web site listing worldwide Hawaiian musical events, refuses to even list his name when mentioning concerts he has promoted, using the words "local talent" instead, as Landeza has apparently committed the dire offense of being born in Kaliponi (California).
He bristles at the brush-off. "You don't have to carry my CDs, but if you don't list me on a bill because I'm not from Hawaii, then I consider that racism," Landeza says. "I'm a Hawaiian artist, and I consider that a slap in the face."
Mele.com Webmaster Aunty Maria simply points to the site's policy. "The concert calendar features 'Your favorite Hawaii-based musicians ... only tours and onetime performances by recording musicians who live in Hawaii,'" she explains. "He doesn't live in Hawaii ... does he?"
In any case, this "local talent" is not about to be held back. "As a promoter, he's a visionary," tourmate Ohta says. "He really understands the mainland market."
For starters, Landeza took his latest musical venture, the two-day intensive Hawaiian Music Institute, to Southern California and Seattle this month; by mid-year he hopes for similar weekends in the Midwest and on the East Coast, dosing the country with guitar and ukulele lessons, not to mention a taste of his mean cooking skills.
The ex-seminary-student-turned-slack-key-apostle ain't turnin' back, brah. And now he is amassing disciples, holding court at ColorTone, a Berkeley print shop. (His sometime bassist Bobby Santos runs the place, and gives the Hawaiian Music Institute a break.)
"Patrick told us it's all about playing from the heart and doing your best to learn the tradition," says Maureen Karpan of San Jose, who journeys to ColorTone each week with husband Lance Choy to study ki ho'alu. Karpan has experienced a similar insider/outsider conflict as a lover and player of Cajun music (in bands like Courtableu and Creole Belles) but living in California. "It's not true that you can't play [regional] music if you're not from there," she insists. In Cajun, as in slack-key, she agrees you have to do your homework to gain respect, but is confident Landeza has done that.
Andy Wang, a New Jersey-based guitarist who runs Taropatch.net, an online community for more eight hundred fans and players in more than a dozen countries, also gives Landeza his props. "Frankly, this question [of lineage] does not even apply to Patrick," he says. "While he was not born in Hawaii, he is part Hawaiian [blood line] and has studied with Hawaiian slack-key masters. Patrick has the earned the respect of musicians like Dennis Kamakahi, Cyril Pahinui, and Ledward Kaapana. I think that says it all."
"Because I'm from Berkeley never made me any less Hawaiian," Landeza insists. He notes that his lineage on his mom's side predates King Kamehameha I (the 18th- and 19th-century ruler who united the islands into a single kingdom) and is indeed a "chiefly line." Regarding any need to justify himself, he quotes his great-grandmother: "The names need not be explained. People who do not know the meaning of my name have no need to know, and those who do know will need no explanation."
Landeza's fans feel the same way, as evidenced by his "Hawaiian Christmas" concert at the San Leandro Public Library last month, which covered instrumental versions of "White Christmas," self-penned tunes like "Hula Girl Christmas," and a romp through the classic roadhouse-style country boogie "It's Crying Time Again." Landeza joked about putting up chicken wire for that song, and his ease and command of the stage -- not always apparent in his early career -- are obvious. As always, whenever she is in the audience, his mother Frances danced a hula, accompanied by Patrick on guitar.
It's not only his predecessors he honors -- one of Landeza's students, 58-year-old reformed rock 'n' roller Fran Guidry, opened recent shows in both San Leandro and Berkeley. Landeza says he eventually aims for his students to surpass even what he does.
For now, though, he is recording his third self-produced album, featuring local artists like dobro queen Sally Van Meter in addition to Hawaiian mentors like Dennis Kamakahi. Like his past efforts, 1998's Pu'unae and 2001's Christmas to Me, this new disc will nod to slack-key's past, present, and future. Pu'unae, in fact, is a Hawaiian word meaning "to share," and Landeza aims to spread this new music farther and wider.
As for certain naysayers, "I think after this next CD, they are gonna accept me or not," he concludes. Regardless, "the Hawaiian community is going to accept me."
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