Ken Emerson & Friends,
Slack & Steel: Kaua'i Style
(Cord International/Hana Ola, 2007)

Singer and guitarist Ken Emerson comes from deep Hawaiian roots, with parents and relatives accomplished musicians who played the islands' traditional tunes as well as jazz, swing and pop from the mainland. In later years Emerson studied with just about all the Hawaiian masters, among them Gabby Pahinui, Andy Cummings, Aunty Genoa Keawe, Jerry Byrd and Atta Isaacs. He's also toured the world with rock, blues and other folk musicians, and he's recorded frequently.

Slack & Steel: Kaua'i Style is not his most recent album (he's released a new one, so far unheard by me, this year), but it's as good as any to start the Emerson experience with. To my hearing, Hawaii's native music is as abundantly melodic as any folk music in the world. My own hearing of it started 30 years ago when a casual acquaintance introduced me to the still-famous Gabby (originally released in 1972), which in turn introduced me to many of the enduring standards, including "Lei Nani" -- and no more beautiful song may exist anywhere. Emerson revisits it here in his own distinctive arrangement, minus the falsetto singing ordinarily associated with the Hawaiian vocal tradition.

Emerson brings together the islands' two guitar styles, steel and slack-key, and handles them with a high order of technical proficiency and soulful performance, joined here and there by such notables as bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, popster Todd Rundgren and others. The result is a splendidly traditional-sounding record that is enriched, not overwhelmed, by outside influences. It's 16 cuts and nearly an hour's worth of music, vocals and instrumentals, ranging from the old-time repertoire to such relatively recent pieces as "Small Axe" (associated with Bob Marley), "Sleepwalk" (the gorgeous Santo & Johnny lap-steel instrumental hit from 1959) and "Endless Summer" (the theme to the classic 1966 surfing film of the same name).

When the music is so consistently inspired, it's hard to pick out a particular favorite. You can drop in anywhere and count on full satisfaction. Still, "Nani Kaua'i" (written by Lizzie Alohikea nearly a century ago but new to me), like so much of the islands' music a celebration of place, keeps drawing me back, and it carries me away every time. For 3 minutes 6 seconds, I feel as if I've left this world for a much, much better one.

review by
Jerome Clark

14 June 2008

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