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The Slack-Key Guitarist Makana, One Mans New Take On an Old Tradition

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Half a dozen songs into his show at the Sage Theater in Times Square on Thursday night, Makana paused for reflection. Somehow, he said, not being of Hawaiian ancestry allowed me to really embrace the artistic side of the culture.

The line felt sincere but well worn; its air of self-reassurance suggested a talisman on a key chain. It also raised the meaningful prospect that Makana, whose birth name is Matt Swalinkavich, came to his music as an outsider.

The tradition he practices is ki hoalu, more widely known as slack-key guitar. Its a style of casual invention, the result of native Hawaiians adapting a Spanish instrument to their uses in the 19th century. Increasingly its also Hawaiis most popular musical export. Makana has been a dynamic force within the style since the early 1990s, when he was a teenage prodigy known locally as the Ki Hoalu Kid.

His comment about ancestry preceded a tribute to two of his early mentors, Raymond Kane and Sonny Chillingworth. Playing songs in their memory especially Moana Chimes, which he said he learned from Mr. Chillingworth at 13 Makana provided a textbook illustration of slack-key style. Using a nonstandard tuning, he created a latticework of notes, intricate and easeful. With his thumb he played an alternating bass pattern, in stridelike rhythm. His fingers picked out triplet arpeggios, with airy aplomb.

But elsewhere Makana asserted his own take on the tradition, adopting a sharper angle of attack (and more reverb, perhaps too much). His specialty is the more kinetic side of ki hoalu, with flourishes borrowed from flamenco, the classical repertory and the blues.

On Napoo Ka La, one of his more dazzling originals, he mixed banjolike fingerpicking with the ping of artificial harmonics. On Koi he interspersed cascading arpeggios with bursts of forceful strumming.

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