Ray Kane (1925-2008)
"This is the music I love. It's the music I've been playing for over sixty years. That's a long time, but I want it to live forever. You know, the music I play is not really my music. It was given to me. All I've done is take care of it while it was my turn and try to make sure the next generation gets the same opportunities I've had. That's all I've done. And I've loved every minute of it. You better believe it!"
Affectionately known as the slack key ambassador, Ray Kane (pronounced Kah-neh) has helped open many doors for this beautiful and unique guitar style. Uncle Ray was one of the first slack key masters to play public concerts, tour widely, perform in documentary films and teach on a regular basis. Like most traditional artists, he takes his role as a cultural resource very seriously. "If we don't share slack key, we'll lose it," he says. "That almost happened once, so we have to watch out."
Raymond Kaleoalohapoina'oleohelemanu Kane was born in 1925 in Koloa on the island of Kaua'i. His middle name can be translated into English as "the voice of love that comes and goes like a bird and will never be forgotten." It describes his outgoing personality, which has earned him status as one of slack key's most beloved and colorful characters. Ray grew up in Nanakuli on O'ahu's rugged Wai'anae coast where his stepfather worked as a fisherman. On his mother's side, Ray is related to many famous Hawaiian musicians, including Andy Cummings, Genoa Keawe, Marlene Sai, Mekia Kealakai and others. From an early age he immersed himself in their traditions. His natural father, Herman "Manu" Kane, was by all reports an extraordinary slack key player, but left home when Ray was only two. At age nine, when Ray felt a call to play slack key, he had to turn outside of his family for lessons. This was very difficult at the time.
"Back then people wouldn't teach you unless you were family," Ray says. "But I was a good diver, so I made a deal with Albert Kawelo. I gave him fish and he gave me lessons." Ray also credits Henry Kapuana and the radio with teaching him songs in the early days. "Back then I used to take my guitar everywhere," Ray says. "My favorite spot was Zablan's beach. It was so quiet at night. There was nobody around. I'd sit and play and watch the moon shine down on the waves."
In the 1940s, Ray joined the military and traveled to Europe and the Mainland. "I didn't have a guitar," he says, "so I didn't play much, but I thought about it a lot and even dreamed about it." When he got back home, he heard the first records by the legendary slack key guitarist Pops Gabby Pahinui. "That inspired me to start playing again," he says. "After Albert, for me, it's Gabby. He had the true Hawaiian style; his voice, his timing, his touch: you can really feel it in the heart. I play a lot of his songs. I owe him a lot."
In 1961, the Tradewinds label invited Ray to make his first recordings. "It was a great experience, but there was no money in it," he says. "I had a family, you understand, so I just played out a little on the weekends. "The 1970s brought new attention to traditional artists in Hawai'i, often elevating them to the position of media celebrities and role models for the young. It all began for Ray in 1973 when the newly created Hawaiian MusicFoundation asked him to give formal concerts. This was something new for slack key. It brought the music and musicians to an entirely different audience. "I don't know why they picked me," Ray says. "I wasn't famous. I wasn't playing steady anywhere. I was just trying to stick to the style I learned back in the 1930s. Maybe that's why, but the next thing I knew people were asking me to play all over the place. All kinds of people came to those concerts. They'd just sit there and listen, then applaud after each song. I was in a state of shock."
Ray's humor delighted concert audiences. His soft, romantic music made them relax and even cry. "Hey, sometimes it makes me cry too," Ray says. Unfortunately, at the height of his new-found fame, he had to quit playing due to serious medical problems. In the 1980s he resumed playing and teaching. "I like to teach one-on-one," he says. "I tell all my students to do it your own way, from the heart. And don't talk stink about the other guy. Humble yourself. Play the best you can and share what you know."
In 1987, in recognition of his performing and teaching, Ray received a National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest honor for a traditional artist. He was also recognized by theHawai'i state government and the city & county of Honolulu. That same year, Ray appeared in Robert Mugge's Hawaiian Rainbow documentary and made triumphant appearances across the Islands. Around this same time he began recording for Dancing Cat Productions. "Meeting the folks at Dancing Cat was a dream come true," Ray says. "They've helped me, my family and all the slack key guitarists in so many ways. They really love the music and it shows. They're taking real good care recording us and taking our music all over the world."
PUNAHELE, Ray's first album for Dancing Cat, came out in 1994. Mixing familiar standards with songs Ray had never previously recorded, it quickly became a local favorite. His second release on Dancing Cat is entitled WA'AHILA. It also blends songs that Ray's many fans know and love with exciting new additions to the repertoire. The fourteen originals and standards include such classics as Wai O Ke Aniani, Hi'ilawe and I Ka Po Me Ke Au along with rarities like Keiki Slack Key, Kila Kila O Haleakala and a brand new original, Popoki Slack Key, composed in honor of Dancing Cat. "Popoki is the Hawaiian word for cat," Ray explains. In addition to the well known taro patch and wahine tunings, Ray also performs in the very rare A Maunaloa Tuning.
As a special bonus, WA'AHILA features several vocals by Ray's lovely and talented wife, Elodia Kane. Anyone who has seen her in concert knows that Elodia is a powerful singer whose natural voice and charm make magic. KeKali Nei Au (The Hawaiian Wedding Song), the heartfelt duet she and Ray sing, has a special meaning for them. As the album notes explain, they actually met through singing the song. "And it's kept us together eversince," Ray says. "I'm glad we finally got to record it. It's dedicated to our kids and grandkids and anybody that's in love like we are."
Like all of Ray's music, WA'AHILA is suffused with his uniquely nahenahe(relaxing) style. It radiates both a deep respect for tradition and an infectious love of life. As health problems have again limited Ray's mobility, the album serves as his ambassador reaching out to touch the hearts of slack key fans everywhere. "People call from all over theworld," Ray says. "Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, even places I've never heard of. They say 'Is this Ray Kane the guitar player?' I say 'yes, it is' and they go into shock. They get so excited they start shaking like a leaf. But seriously, they call because they love the music. And I just thank the Good Lord for giving me the talent and this many years to share it."
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