Native Intelligence: Southern California

SoCal Slack

Story by Noel Nicholas. Photos by Sari Makki-Phillips.

Mānoa native Mitchell Chang spent his teen years glued to a guitar, eventually producing concerts on O‘ahu. “I played classical and flamenco,” he says. “But in the mid-’90s I played a gig where slack key legend John Keawe took the stage right after. Hearing him blew me away. I was so inspired to learn slack key, I went home that night, retuned my guitar and taught myself how to play.” Instantly recognizable, Hawaiian slack key guitar is distinguished by open (“slack”) tunings and melodic fingerpicking that sounds as if more than one guitar is playing. Chang has made a career out of bringing kī hō‘alu (slack key guitar) to Mainland audiences.

After moving to Southern California in 2000, Chang got into the mortgage business, and business was good … until it wasn’t. “When the recession hit I left the industry. I’d been thinking how awesome it would be to have a slack key festival here, but until then I hadn’t had the wherewithal to go for it. I basically cashed out my 401(k) to put the first festival together in January of 2008. When the curtain went up, everyone in the audience went nuts. I’ll never forget that—total chicken-skin moment.”

This January marks the twelfth annual Southern California Slack Key Festival. The event has the feel of a backyard party, even if it’s indoors; Chang works with Hollywood set designers to create an out-door kani ka pila (jam) in the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Award-winning musicians, singers and some of the Islands’ best hula dancers perform amid sprays of greenery, surfboards and beach chairs. Old-school guitarists like George Kuo and Sonny Lim share the stage with new-school artists like Makana and Jeff Peterson. “I also bring in singers, ‘ukulele players, and hula is integral,” Chang says. “The emphasis is slack key, but it’s an ensemble of Hawai‘i talent.”

This year the two-day festival opens with a public “Island Marketplace” on January 19, followed by the concert the next day. “It’s become a kind of reunion space for people,” Chang says. “Family members and old friends living in different places come together here every year and make a weekend out of it. It’s pretty neat to see.”