Keola Beamer - Biography

The Hawaiian style of slack-key guitar has a rich and fascinating history that manages to transcend genres and international borders, while emphasizing an intrinsic pride in the unique cultural history of Hawai’i. We have Hawai’I native Keola Beamer to thank for much of slack key’s popularity, starting with the string of hits he scored in the islands with his brother Kapono during the 1970s, and continuing with his efforts to expand the technique in the 1980s and beyond. Keola Beamer is also responsible for breaking with conservative cultural doctrine, by becoming the first to publish instructional manuals and songbooks for methods that were traditionally held as family secrets and passed down from father to son over generations (Beamer is a fifth-generation slack-key guitarist). Yet Beamer also allows contemporary influences to tint his work, guaranteeing that instead of ossifying into decrepitude, the slack-key style will live on in the facile hands of new generations of guitarists and students, evolving in ways as improbably lush, florid, and spectacular as the land of its origin: Mexico. That’s right, according to Hawaiian folklore, the vaquero, the Mexican cowboy, came to the islands in the early 19th century, hired to capture escaped steers; he left behind his guitar and the paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboy, took it from there.

Keola Beamer was born Keolamaikalani Breckenridge Beamer in 1951; his impressive lineage traces to the House of King Kamehameha and Queen Ahiakumai, 15th century rulers of Hawaii. He also comes from a long line of musicians, and many of the songs in his repertoire were written by his ancestors. In the 1960s, he wrote the first song book for slack guitar, based on 16th century tablature. Beamer released his first album, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in the Real Old Style (1972 Mountain Island), at the age of 21, and while it wasn’t distributed outside the islands, in Hawai’I, it garnered considerable attention and critical acclaim. Keola then teamed with brother Kapono for a dozen albums; again, none made it to the mainland, but in Hawai’I they were very well received. Much of the best material is available on The Best of Keola & Kapono Beamer (1995 Music of Polynesia).

However, the highlight of the Beamer Brothers’ time together is the song “Honolulu City Lights,” from Honolulu City Lights (1978 Paradise Productions). The song and album were huge hits, and the biggest records ever produced in the islands; the definitive version is available as Honolulu City Lights: 20th Anniversary (2003 Paradise Records). The key to the albums’ success was Keola’s broad, inclusive aesthetic; as Honolulu City Lights glides effortlessly through its various tracks, it combines traditional melodies and performances with a laid-back, Southern California vibe. Honolulu City Lights is languid to the nth degree, and might be the most mellow album of the 1970s.

Not long after “Honolulu City Lights,” Kapnono and Keola parted ways as a musical act, and Keola charted a new course towards success outside of Hawai’i. In the early 1990s he began a working relationship with the new-age pianist George Winston, who has become one of the foremost champions of slack-key guitar, facilitating numerous releases via imprints on the long-standing Windham Hill label. Winston produced several high-profile domestic (mainland) US releases for Beamer. These include Moe'uhane Kika: Tales From the Dream Guitar (1995 Dancing Cat), which is a lovely example of solo slack-guitar playing, with none of the additional ornament found on some of the Beamer Brothers’ albums. That was followed with Mauna Kea: White Mountain Journal (1997 Dancing Cat); it’s a lovely affair, as Keola wordlessly tells his life story through his intuitive, expressive guitar playing. Kolonahe: From the Gentle Wind (1999 Dancing Cat/Windham Hill), is especially significant, as Winston contributes piano and guitar on several tracks, including “Shaka Slack Key,” “Beauty of Mauna Kea,” “Kauhale O Kamapua'a,” and “Ka Makani Ka'ili Aloha.”

Since 2001, Beamer has expanded his efforts at outreach, holding cultural immersion seminars, introducing outsiders to the secret pleasures and joys of life in the Hawai’i Islands. Thanks to Keola Beamer, slack-guitar has reached a worldwide audience, and if there’s no better proof of its popularity than this: In 2005, the Grammy Awards added a new category for “Best Hawaiian Music Album,” proving the genre’s growing popularity. In the first four years, every award went to recordings of the slack-key guitar.

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