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preview photo Dennis Kamakahi


THERE ARE A FEW REASONS WHY WE get to hear some of the best Hawaiian slack key guitar players perform on the stage of the Van Duzer with great regularity. One is that people seem to love the lilting relaxed sound of the music with its hints of tropical breezes. Among those who love the sound: pianist George Winston, one of the godfathers of New Age, who helped put Windham Hill Records on the map. George loves slack key so much that he started a record label, Dancing Cat, just so he could record his heroes, and he has been hard at it, laying down dozens of albums full of fine guitar work from the masters of the form. And just about every year the label assembles a few of their guitar players for a tour. This year the mini-festival hits Arcata Friday, Jan. 30, with Dennis Kamakahi [pictured above], Cyril Pahinui (son of slack key legend Gabby) and Cindy Combs, one of the few women playing the ancient style.

How ancient is it? "Slack Key originated in Hawaii and infused itself to become part of the Hawaiian music heritage. When I play slack key guitar, I actually play the same techniques that have remained unchanged for the last 160 years," said Kamakahi in an e-mail from Hawaii. "I pass down the skills taught to me by those masters who have shared their skills with me. Although in times past, slack key tunings were passed down only within one's own family -- it was never taught outside the family circle. This was to ensure that the guitar tunings unique to a certain Hawaiian family were not copied and played by strangers."

Incidentally, there's one more reason why we get to hear so much slack key. Roy Furshpan, the top man at CenterArts, the guy who puts together the schedule every year, loves Hawaiian music. In fact, a few years back when I asked people from the local music world to list their favorite records, all of his choices were slack key.

At the Van Duzer the following night, Saturday, Jan. 31, the Grammy-winning African-American female a cappella quintet Sweet Honey in the Rock presents a program drawing on the Black musical tradition. The group was founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon in the fall of 1973, and 30 years later she's still at it. The daughter of a Georgia Baptist minister, Reagon came from the Freedom Singers, part of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who fought for civil rights in the '60s. She took the Sweet Honey name from a parable she had learned from her father. It told of a land so rich that when rocks were cracked open, honey flowed from them. She saw it as symbolic of African American women: strong as a rock, sweet as honey.

Elsewhere that night on the HSU campus, at Fulkerson Hall, Prof. Gil Cline leads the Midnight Jazz-tet, a combo with five horns, piano, bass and drums. The music is jazz, but don't expect the standards. Cline focuses on new original material; in fact, he writes much of it himself. I saw the group play at the Morris Graves last year and they were exceptional. Among the horn players: Susie Larraine, Julie Froblom, Diane Zuleger, Doug Henricks and Cline; the rhythm section consists of pianist Darius Brotman, drummer Mike LaBolle and on bass, Shao Way Wu.

Looking for something different? Two sisters, Liz and Linda Fuentes-Rosner perform a concert of romantic Ladino/Latino "songs of passion" at Ballet Arcata (in the Old Creamery) Friday and Saturday nights, a benefit for the local temple Havurah Shir Hadash.

Ladino might seem like a spelling mistake but it's not. "Ladino is to Spanish what Yiddish is to German," explained Liz. "It's a dialect of old Spanish, spoken by the Jews in southern Spain before they were kicked out in 1492 and spread all over. There were Jews and Arabs together in a fabulous interaction of cultures for over a thousand years until Queen Isabella booted them out. The music is kind of cool, it has all these incredible rhythms and Eastern sounds; you can hear flamenco in it. I love it."

Liz and Linda are not exactly Ladino; Liz says they're "Juban" since their mom is Cuban and their dad is Jewish. "When we moved to Spain as teenagers we got these influences, the Ladino culture was not there, but later after we came back to the States we started learning these old Ladino songs that combined the multiculturalism of the Spanish and the Jewish into something we could really sink our teeth into."

Also different, but in a different way, Thursday, Jan. 29, at the Alibi, it's cross-dressing punk rock with the Cover Girls, featuring members of the Buffy Swayze and Hideous Girls, plus the Jake Brakes with JPG backed by a rockin' combo that includes at least one member of the Cutters.

That same Thursday night at Saffire Rose, Ben from Relapse returns from Alaska with his latest band, Olga Narrows. Also on the bill, the Rubberneckers, plus hip hop from DJ Thanksgiving Brown and MC Vs. Stiles.

Rock and hip hop mingle again Friday at the Placebo with Olga Narrows joined by DJ Brooklyn Science, local lo-fi indie band Shaking Hands, S.F. shoegazers Astral and the "triumphant reunion" of the infamous noise band, High School.

Meanwhile in Trinidad at the Ocean Grove, JPG, Thanksgiving Brown and DC Adam perform in a benefit, but I can't remember what for. (Sorry, I misplaced the press release.)

Friday night at Saffire Rose it's guitarist/vocalist Mike Craghead and vocalist Sari Baker singing their tunes, backed by Eldin Green on bass and Bob Martinez on drums. Green and Martinez are also members of Dr. Squid, playing classic rock Saturday night at B.C.'s in Eureka, although in Squid, Green plays guitar, sax and keys; Jerry Thompson is the main keys player; Rich Bittaker handles bass.

Other choices for Saturday night: shapeshifting Celtic rock at the Red Radish with Norwegian mandolinist Lief Sorbye and his band, Tempest. Psychedelic rock at Rumours with Cosmic Wobble. And at Mazzotti's, one drop reggae with Massagana and One Wise Sound DJs.

And while we on the subject of reggae, People Productions presents their annual Bob Marley Birthday Celebration at the Mateel on Feb. 20. Bob's son, Julian Marley, headlines a show that also features Elephant Man, one of Kingston, Jamaica's hottest dancehall stars. Get you tickets now.

Sunday, Feb. 1, at Saffire Rose, the Jake Brakes are back at it, along with local surf/spaghetti-western rockers Los Banditos Muertos and Numbers, a catchy blip pop trio from San Francisco with a new album on Tigerbeat6: In My Mind All The Time. The roster: Indra Dunis lead vocals/drummer, Dave Broekema on guitar (a Gibson) and Eric Landmark playing the Moog and his homemade "Buzzerk" synth.

Coming up on Monday, Feb. 2, another free show at the Blue Lake Casino (with the "magic bus" providing free rides to and fro), this time featuring guitarist Will Bernard, fresh from his reunion with TJ Kirk, and his band, Motherbug. Will weaves fiery fusion-tinged guitar lines around thick chords from Will Blades on the Hammond B3. Added bonus: special guest Dave Ellis from the Charlie Hunter Trio blowing his tenor sax. And don't forget to bring some quarters.

Bob Doran



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