Issue 14.2: April - May 2011

Smokin' Bluegrass

Story by Bree Kessler

Photo by Matt Mallams


Walking in the splendor of Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden on O‘ahu’s Windward side, you’d expect to hear a slack key guitarist on a picnic bench playing “Ku‘u Home o Kahalu‘u” to the emerald cliffs of an extinct volcano. But if you came across a hootenanny of musicians with banjos, mandolins, Dobros and fiddles ripping through “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” you might think: Well, that’s odd.


Appalachia’s a long way from Polynesia, but bluegrass music has found a home in Hawai‘i. The connection goes a fur piece back, to 1933, when Hawaiian music had a powerful (if random) influence on bluegrass. The story goes that “Bashful Brother” Oswald Kirby heard Hawaiian guitarist Rudy Waikiki playing lap steel guitar in Flint, Michigan. Kirby was mesmerized by the silky sound and went on to pioneer the use of the Dobro, similar to Hawaiian steel guitar, in bluegrass music.


It took decades, though, for bluegrass to reach back across the Pacific. Paul Santo, the banjo player for O‘ahu bluegrass act Saloon Pilots, first became aware of bluegrass in the 1970s, when a group of newly relocated musicians found each other and began to play. Still, American roots music was slow to grow in Hawaiian soil. Interest in bluegrass tapered in the 1990s, but now, with the help of Bluegrass Hawai‘i, it’s experiencing a renaissance.


Founded in 2003, Bluegrass Hawai‘i gives Island pickers and grinners the opportunity to jam and trade chops. It supports not only bluegrass, but also other traditional acoustic music, including Celtic, Americana, Western, newgrass and, yes, Hawaiian. Veterans and tyros alike are welcome at their weekend Pickin’ in the Park jams (see their web site for times and locations) and at their free annual three-day jamboree, Bluegrass in the Ko‘olau, on April 22-24. Caroline Wright, founder of Bluegrass Hawai‘i, encourages even nonmusicians to attend but warns, “You will find yourself the next week at the music store; that’s the way a bluegrass musician is born.”


For Wright a tropical garden is as good a spot for a rousing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as any Blue Ridge cabin. At last year’s Bluegrass in the Ko‘olau, she says, “We awoke one morning and looked at the mountains; overnight rains had created a half-dozen waterfalls in the looming ridges. And then we heard the lonesome drone of a fiddle in the distance. It was one of those perfect moments.”