Fresh-grown sound of the islands

Slack-key guitarist is well known for his playing, farm prowess
2013-02-14T00:00:00Z Fresh-grown sound of the islandsGerald M. Gay Ggay@azstarnet.com Arizona Daily Star
February 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Slack-key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr. was already up for three hours by the time he answered the phone for his interview with Caliente at 6 a.m. last week.

"I'm a farmer," he explained. "We get up early."

Known globally for his slack-key prowess, Kahumoku - who performs next Thursday at the Fox - is just as famous in Hawaii for his green thumb.

The 62-year-old performer owns, leases and helps others farm their own parcels on more than 1,000 acres on the island of Maui, where he grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, and raises livestock.

He has 20 kinds of bananas in stock and 35 varieties of sweet potatoes, in addition to taro, celery, lettuce and cabbage.

Then there are the cattle, goats, horses, sheep, ducks and chickens.

Some of the food is shared with friends and family members who help with the chores.

The rest is sold at market.

Kahumoku estimates that 95 percent of his time goes toward traditional land practices, something that his family has done for generations, while 5 percent goes toward his music.

The music is far more profitable, but both are satisfying.

"Most guys are trying to figure out how to make a living," he said. "I am lucky."

Both careers are a way for the performer to keep traditions alive.

Kahumoku was born and raised in a large family on the Big Island. His ancestors made their way as cowboys, fishermen and hunters.

With 26 cousins, and even more aunties and uncles living with Kahumoku when he was young, farming was essential.

"When we stepped up to eat, there was no less than 50 people every time," he said. "We had our own little village. Our great grandparents were the patriarchs."

Learning music also was important in his family.

"We didn't have television or radio growing up," he said. "That is how and why we learned how to play."

Kahumoku has managed to turn his musical upbringing into a successful career.

When he isn't feeding goats or picking celery stalks, Kahumoku is winning Grammy Awards for his slack-key material and touring the world.

He holds weekly performances with guest artists at the Napili Kai Beach Resort in Maui and serves as the director of the University of Hawaii Maui College - Institute of Hawaiian Music.

The institute, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, helps students interested in Hawaii's musical traditions get proper training.

Kahumoku said the students who come through often put their own spin on things.

"There are students who rap in Hawaiian," Kahumoku said. "They are taking it to the next level. I think it is good. The music needs to move and change."

At the same time, the university is not necessarily the only place where kids can learn.

Kahumoku said there are thousands of Hawaiian families who are teaching their children the same traditions in their own backyards.

"The future will always stay with the families," he said.

If You go

• What: George Kahumoku in concert.

• When: 7:30 p.m. next Thursday.

• When: Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St.

• Cost: $20-$42 through the Fox box office, 547-3040.

• Details: foxtucsontheatre.org online.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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