Ki ho’alu, or Hawaiian slack key guitar, is rarely heard on the mainland. Unrelated to the more familiar Hawaiian (or steel) guitar, slack key has been traced back to the Spanish and Mexican cowboys brought to the islands in the 1830s to control the growing cattle population. At first you might think you’re listening to a folk virtuoso like John Fahey or Leo Kottke; but using an elaborate and deceptively serene finger-picking style, slack key players perform in a wide variety of unusual tunings. With several of the strings loosened from the standard setup, the thumb plays the bass part while the other fingers improvise complex melodic lines. Dancing Cat Records, the label run by new-age music guru and pianist George Winston, has issued half a dozen recordings by slack key guitarists in the last year, including releases by each of the three performers participating in this show. Cyril Pahinui is the son of the late master Gabby Pahinui, who cut some ground-breaking crossover records in the 70s with Ry Cooder. Judging from his Led Live–Solo, Ledward Kaapana is a showman with prodigious guitar skills. Both offer crystal-clear interpretations of the slack key tradition, as well as original compositions. On Wooden Boat, his second album on Dancing Cat, Keola Beamer has a thoroughly contemporary sound that incorporates Caribbean influences such as calypso, but on this occasion he’ll probably stick to traditional fare. All three guitarists occasionally adorn their tunes with their clear, mellifluous voices. Anyone remotely interested in folk guitar shouldn’t miss this opportunity to hear some of slack key’s genuine practitioners. The three will also give a brief free performance at Tower Records, 2301 N. Clark, at 3 PM on Saturday. Saturday, 7 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 909 W. Armitage; 525-7793.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/David Cornwell, Paul Schraub.