Martin Pahinui, George Kuo, and Aaron Mahi sail into Freight &Salvage with their slack key traditional Hawaiian music.

When George Kuo, Martin Pahinui, and Aaron Mahi step onstage this Saturday night at the Freight & Salvage (8 p.m.) and launch into one of their patented mellow Hawaiian Island jams, don't be lulled into thinking their music is lightweight tourist fare for vacationers, surfers, and mai-tai heads who wander around stateside wearing leis and saying "Mahalo!" to everyone they meet. The music the trio plays runs as deep as the ocean channels. As Freight executive director Steve Baker explains it: "Behind the lilting melodies there's a lot of complexity. These musicians are very innovative. That's what happened when the Spanish cowboys left their guitars behind on the islands."

All three players have strong roots in the intensely family-oriented world of traditional Hawaiian music. Kuo embodies the old-style 1940s technique of slack-key guitar -- obtained by slackening the strings down to one of a variety of "secret" open tunings. Pahinui, son of slack-key master Gabby Pahinui, is famous for his vocal range as well as his playing. On bass is Mahi, a classically trained musician who is assistant conductor of the Honolulu Symphony when he isn't touring with Kuo and Pahinui. "I haven't seen them other than as a trio," says Baker, who enthuses: "I book Hawaiian music any time I can. We get a lot of Hawaiian people for the gigs. There are a lot of personal connections with the Bay Area's large Hawaiian community."

The Freight has also played host to the great Raymond Kane who, along with the group Hui Aloha, was among the first Hawaiian players to be introduced to mainland audiences. According to Baker, George (Windham Hill label boss) Winston was instrumental in breaking Hawaiian acts on his Dancing Cat record label. Want to go to school on slack-key? Baker recommends listening to Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana, Hui Aloha, George Kahumoku, and Berkeley product Patrick Landeza, one of the few mainlanders to become part of the elite circle of island performers. Landeza will play a special Hawaiian Christmas show at the Freight this December. Box office: 510-548-7603 or


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