First Things First

Slack key master Makana talks about a few firsts in his career, starting with a weekend performance and a daring new album

If his guitar shredding isn’t quite up to par or if his voice falters just a little Saturday evening, please forgive Makana. He’s been a wee bit nervous heading into this weekend’s spring concert with the Hawaii Pacific University Orchestra at Hawaii Theatre.


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Makana takes a leap of faith with the HPU Orchestra this Saturday. Akin Girav photo

Surprised? I am, given his stature as one of the most experienced and finest slack key guitarists here, there and everywhere. I mean seriously – Makana worried? The prodigy who’s been turning heads and capturing hearts since his early teens?

Then again, maiden voyages do tend to make the mouth go dry and the hands go clammy, even for virtuoso types.

“This will actually be the first time that I’m working with a symphony,” Makana confesses, adding he’s unsure about being able to effectively operate in “negative space,” the area where he does his best work, while playing along with a 60-member orchestra. So while this one-night partnership of ki ho’alu meets classical is interesting, it’s also one fraught with note-trampling peril.

“I’m used to working alone,” he continues. “This concert will really force me to trust others.”

A lone ranger for much of his career, the once-dubbed Ki Ho’alu Kid has been charting a new course in recent months, one that reflects a willingness to let go of the reins and allow others to share in the journey. Muse over, for example, his decision to hire famed vocal instructor Gary Catona. Catona is known for work with luminaries such as the late Whitney Houston, Steven Tyler, Usher, Annie Lennox and Lenny Kravitz, to name a few. “I’ve never had voice lessons until Gary,” Makana tells me. “He’s been able to help me with my vocal musculature.”

Or consider Makana’s upcoming album Manic, previously scheduled for release this spring but moved back to a summer unveiling. The CD is rife with firsts for the artist, including his decision to record with a piano (more on this later) or have someone else produce his album. In this instance, he invited aboard Multi-Platinum producer and engineer Ron Nevison (The Who, Led Zeppelin, Heart, Chicago, Survivor), Grammy-nominated producer and musician Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega), as well as Grammy-award winning composer and arranger Jeff Bova (Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Blondie, Cyndi Lauper). That’s pretty heady company.

Makana gave Musical Notes a preview of his as-yet unfinished 11-track album, and the early verdict of the CD is diverse, daring and refreshing. It showcases Makana at the peak of his powers and offers listeners a rather broad spectrum of his immense abilities beyond ki ho’alu. Highlights include the lyrically funny title track Manic, a cross between The Beatles, Elton John and Queen; the Train-influenced Nectarine, sure to get lots of radio play; and the Dylan-sounding protest anthem We Are Many, a YouTube sensation initially unveiled at APEC 2011.

“The best way to describe this album is it has a little bit of everything,” Makana says. “I’m really excited about it because it’s nothing like I’ve ever done before.”

Here’s what else the artist, born Matthew Swalinkavich and tutored in slack key stylings by noted masters Bobby Moderow Jr., Raymond Kane and Sonny Chillingworth, told Musical Notes:

MN: So when did Makana, slack key guitar master, turn into Makana, budding pianist?

MAKANA: A couple of years ago. I was doing a show in Waikiki honoring the Victorian era and I decided I was going to have to teach myself to play the piano for the show. I’m a pretty fast learner, and if I know the basics of an instrument, I can figure things out. Honestly, it’s much easier to pick up the piano than the guitar.

MN: Despite the direction of the upcoming album, with its share of piano-oriented tracks, you haven’t abandoned your ki ho’alu ways. The music of your fathers, so to speak, is still a big part of your live performances and who you are. Why is that important?

MAKANA: When I was 18, I turned down deal after deal from corporations offering their support. They all wanted me to abandon Hawaiian music – told me there was no future there. But I wasn’t about to turn my back on who I was and all that uncles Bobby, Raymond and Sonny taught me. I wanted to honor them, and my feeling was that if a music career was meant to be for me, it would just happen – despite the threats from these corporations that I wouldn’t be able to make it without them.

MN: And what a career it’s been, eh? You’re doing what you love, are quite successful at it and have become an idol to many, including some of your very own idols.

MAKANA:Yup. For example, Elton John once called me up – twice, in fact, which is pretty cool when you think about it – and did so just to put me in touch with some producers who he felt could help me. And then there was Jamie Lee Curtis. She stopped in at Hungry Ear Records in Kailua and picked up two of my CDs – Ki Ho’alu: Journey of Hawaiian Slack Key and Koi Au. I’m a big fan of hers, you know.

Small-kine Notes:

Makana’s Saturday performance with the HPU Orchestra starts after intermission of the 7:30 p.m. concert. For tickets, call 528-0506 … Former SOS/The Krush entertainer turned music mentor William Daquioag hosts a workshop for all vocalists Wednesday, April 17, from 7 to 9 p.m., at The Oahu Veterans Center. Cost is $35. Call 255-9081.