Keola Beamer comes home: Slack-key master opens Kahilu Theatre’s 42nd season
Raised at his grandfather’s ranch in Waimea, legendary Hawaiian musician Keola Beamer and his wife kuma hula Moanalani returned home to kick off the Kahilu’s 2022-23 season in grand style.
It’s been nearly four years since the award-winning guitarist performed at the venue, and the Kahilu rolled out the red carpet for the event, offering food from local restaurants and the opportunity to purchase freshly made leis in the lobby. The special concert was called “Coming Home to Waimea,” and the packed house gave the couple a warm welcome.
Throughout the evening, Keola reminisced about his youth and living on the family’s 450-acre ranch on the slopes of Mauna Kea, about six miles from the theatre. His grandfather ran 400 head of cattle, and that’s how the family made their living.
“I look at my life and wonder, you know, ‘How did I manage to get so blessed?’” said Keola in our pre-show interview. “My great-grandmother Helen Desha Beamer was one of Hawai’i’s finest composers, and my work doesn’t even touch the hem of her skirt.”
Beamer’s significant accomplishments overshadow his modesty. During his 5o-year career, he authored the first written instruction book for the Hawai’ian slack key guitar in 1972. “Before that, people couldn’t figure out how to notate it. Then, while studying at UH, I played the lute in a Renaissance music quartet, and that’s when the lightbulb in my head went off.”
At first, he was criticized for sharing the well-guarded secrets of the kupuna. “When my book first came out, some people were very uncomfortable with it. But the first time some little young person played slack key for their tutu or grandmother, she just melted. Then, seeing their little boys playing slack key on dad’s guitar by reading this piece of paper, that criticism evaporated completely.”
In his two-hour concert, Beamer demonstrated several astonishing techniques he’s honed over the decades. For example, in his opening number, “Makee ‘Ailana,” the guitarist used his plucking hand to tap the bridge in a percussive manner to create beautiful harmonics.
For the intro to “Po mahina,” Beamer talked about Waimea as the birthplace of the slack key guitar and the time when the vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) introduced the guitar to the paniolo. “Unfortunately, they didn’t stick around long enough to teach us how to tune the damn things,” joked Beamer. The clever composition marries both the Spanish style of strumming and early Hawaiian slack key tunings and Beamer’s take on what that music might have sounded like when the paniolo sat around the campfire after a hard day’s work.
Moanalani’s charm, grace, and humor perfectly complemented Keola’s intense guitar work. At times, when he thought he nailed down the details of a story, she gently nudged him with the correct version.
Moanalani’s hula was exquisite. She opened the show with a Hawai’ian chant, and in addition to dancing, she used several ancient Hawaiian percussive instruments, including ʻiliʻili (stones), kaʻekeʻeke (stamping tube drums), and ipu (gourds).
The Beamers’ show ended with a hana hou featuring “Honolulu City Lights,” and the traditional “Hawaii Aloha” with the crowd standing and singing along.
Keola Beamer will offer his Aloha Music camp next year at the Outrigger Kona Resort on Hawaii Island. The week-long retreat allows students to immerse themselves in the music, dance, language, and culture of Hawaii.
In addition to his music camp, Keola Beamer has brought music and dance education to disadvantaged children in Cambodia, and in October, he will be leaving for Sikkim, India, on a similar project called ukuleles for India. There he’ll donate ukuleles and teach Indian children the basics of the instrument.