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Sounds of steel: First ever Hawaii Island Steel Guitar Festival coming this weekend

Updated: 
November 9, 2017 - 12:05am

“I’m talking to somebody from Hawaii Island. Let’s play the ‘Hilo March,’” said Alan Akaka when this writer called him for an interview.

Following his cue, young steel guitar students eagerly broke into a rousing version of the famous song by Joseph Kapaeau Aea.

Alan is the brother of Danny Kaniela Akaka, and founder of the inaugural Hawaii Island Steel Guitar Festival, a new event to take place this Friday through Sunday at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel &Bungalows.

“You will be surprised at the talents of these young ones who play steel guitar and sing too,” he said. “It gives me hope that the steel guitar will live on because the next generation is carrying it on.”

Some of Akaka’s students will attend the festival, along with notable steel guitar masters including Hawaii Island musicians Sonny Lim, Konabob Stoffer, Pomai Brown, Iaukea Bright and Dwight Tokumoto of Kahulanui.

“For every festival, I try to seek out island players,” Akaka said. “And, we’re bringing over some of the players from Oahu as well. On Friday and Saturday, we’ll have open stage performances, and an evening Hoolaulea, where we plan to feature two different concerts or sets of steel guitarists each night. Then the artists will play for Sunday Brunch at Mauna Lani.”

In addition to steel guitar performances and open stage sessions, HISGF will present workshops Saturday, kanikapila sessions — where guests can play along with the artists — and more.

The festival is presented free to the public by Hawaii Institute for Music Enrichment and Learning Experiences, of which Akaka is chairman of the board. A 501(c)3 nonprofit, the organization was established in 2015 to enrich the world through “the music, culture, and the spirit of Hawaii.”

A steel guitarist himself for many years, and an educator since 1979, Akaka makes it a point to reach out to upcoming musicians.

“When I go — especially to the neighbor islands — I like to go to the schools and show the students an instrument that was invented by a young boy in Laie in 1885. He was walking along the railroad track that ran through Kahana Valley transporting sugarcane. He saw this piece of metal, like a railroad bolt, picked it up and ran it across his guitar strings,” he said. “He developed a new sound, went to the mainland and played at the Paris World’s Fair. This was a brand new sounding instrument.”

Akaka continued, “As time went by, steel guitar started dying off because the young ones weren’t taking over. When I was a young kid, I played other instruments that enabled me to watch, learn and see what the steel guitar players were doing, how they played. I was there at the right time, the end of an era, but I was there.

“Bringing it to the present, ukulele, slack key and hula are all doing very, very well,” he said. “They’re not dying. In fact, they are evolving.”

He added that one of the most exciting aspects of Hawaiian-style steel guitar is its broad appeal.

“Bluegrass players, country players come to me to learn,” he said. “I have students in Switzerland, Japan, Brazil, Moscow and other places.”

Info: Visit www.hawaiisteelguitarfestival.com.

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