Leonard Keala Kwan has been playing ki ho'alu, Hawaiian slack key guitar, for over fifty years. He has proven to be a creative artist as well as a trailblazer. Along with late slack key greats Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth, he is one of the three most influential slack key players in history. A quiet man with great depth of feeling, his personal philosophy of respect for others embodies the spirit of nahenahe (gentleness).
In the late 1940s Leonard was one of the first to take slack key outside of Hawaii, and in the 1950s he released some of the first ki ho'alu singles. In 1960 he recorded his classic first album, SLACK KEY (Tradewinds 103, known as "the red album"). This was the first Hawaiian album to feature all instrumental slack key tracks. In 1974 he released his second full album, THE OLD WAY (Tradewinds 1128), and during the 1970s he compiled one of the first slack key instruction books.
Leonard was born in Honolulu in 1931. His mother, Rose Hauoli, sang traditional Hawaiian music. His grandfather, Reverend Ambrose Hauoli Kaua, directed the choir at Glad Tidings Church. "When I was about six," Leonard says, "I'd listen to him sing the scale and go around singing it too." He also started picking out tunes by ear on the piano at his aunt's house. At around the age of ten, Leonard began to learn ukulele and guitar from his grandfather and his uncle, Joseph "Pete" Hauoli. "The first slack key tuning they showed me was Taro Patch (Open G Major, D-G-D-G-B-D, from lowest-pitched string to highest)," he says. "All together, I learned at least ten tunings." Leonard's favorite tuning is the C Wahine (C-G-D-G-B-D), known among slack key players as "Leonard's C."
Uncle Pete played ki ho'alu in downtown Honolulu. During World War II, when business was booming, he started taking Leonard with him. "I got the chance to play with Genoa Keawe, Benny Rogers, Andy Cummings, all the union guys," says Leonard, "so many I forgot. From then on I was hooked."
Leonard calls this experience one of the most important contributions to his development as a musician. But he also received a solid musical training in the public school system. "At Kalakaua Intermediate I joined the band and orchestra," Leonard recalls. "I played bass and alto sax. We learned to read music and all the basics. At Farrington High School, Moses Sato, our music teacher, used to let us come in after school for extra instruction in music theory. There were three of us who used to stay all the time. The other two eventually joined the Royal Hawaiian Band."
At age sixteen, Leonard joined Charlie Kaniyama & His Merry Melodeers, a fifteen-piece dance band, as stand-up bass player. "I was still underage but my mother signed for me," he says. "We played dance music, the popular hits of the day, both Hawaiian and pop." Leonard also often filled in with other groups when a bass player was needed. "I played with big bands like The Torches, lots of smaller combos, and Hawaiian players like Sonny Chillingworth and others."
Around 1957 Leonard recorded his first 45 rpm single, Hawaiian Chimes (Island Recording Sound 314). About a year later, Margaret Williams asked Uncle Pete to record slack key for her new Tradewinds label. Instead he recommended Leonard. "I respected my uncle," Leonard says, "so when he told me to do it, I did it. Gabby had already done his version of Hiilawe where he sang and played slack key, so I did instrumentals." Leonard's first single on Tradewinds, Opihi Moemoe, became a local hit in the late 1950s, and he became a frequent visitor to the studios. "All together I recorded about sixty songs with Tradewinds," he says. "Either instrumentals or backing up Linda Dela Cruz, Noelani Kanaoho, and others. The way I see it, you might as well make use of what you can while you're living. You can't take it with you. Even if you don't sell, I figure, as time goes by, your children will be proud to hear you on record."
In the 1970s, Leonard left the public limelight. Except for an occasional benefit performance on Oahu or on his mother's home island of Maui, he stayed home, teaching his sons and his grandson how to play slack key. In the 1990s he returned to the studio for the first time since 1974 to make a series of solo recordings for Dancing Cat Records, aimed at documenting his entire repertoire.
His first release in Dancing Cat Records' Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters series, entitled KE'ALA'S MELE, contains a harmonious mix of traditional slack key pieces and originals, including the title song in its recording debut. Although Leonard is best known for playing and recording on his uncle's old Gibson F hole electric guitar, for his first Dancing Cat release he plays solo on a Martin acoustic. Except for the track Akaka Falls, played on the electric guitar on his album THE OLD WAY, these are his first solo recordings. The intimate format allows us to enjoy Leonard's distinctive style to its fullest. It represents a very special event in the career of one of slack key's most influential and beloved figures.
Slack key guitarists Led Kaapana, Peter Moon, George Kuo and many others cite Leonard's recordings, especially "the red album," as an influence. Despite this, Leonard says he plays primarily for enjoyment, and the ups and downs of the music business never worry him. "The music business is like a clock," he says, "the hands might be up at the top awhile, but they'll slide back down again. The main thing is to just keep spinning." He is still actively enjoying Hawaiian music and writing new songs and arrangements for slack key.
In 1993, in recognition of his many contributions, Leonard received the Bank of Hawai'i Ki Ho'alu Award from the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts. In 1994 he was officially named a Living Treasure by the City and County of Honolulu.
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