After the tense grind of a month of escalating series; after the blowouts and buzzer beaters, the overtimes, the post-game predictions and the endless analysis; after stomach-churning missed free-throws and ecstatic game winning three-pointers; after triumph, confetti showers, and the trophy presentations; “We Are the Champions” blaring in the bars; “California Love” blaring at home; after police chase away the raucous revelers rocking squad cars on a downtown street; after the bliss, the satisfaction, the pride and the parade, there comes repose.
I have lived in Los Angeles now for over ten years, long enough to witness the last four Lakers championship runs. And I can tell you firsthand, as can anyone who watched the splendid gathering of 100,000 delirious citizens in this erratic, offbeat city, this one was the sweetest by a mile. Why, exactly? Because the victory seemed earned? Because the team and the town were so embarrassed and humbled last year by their green-clad Eastern nemesis? Because the Lakers struggled in tight contests every step of the way? Because the hero, Kobe, grew up into a leader and a legend before our very eyes? For all of these reasons, but mainly because of this: Last time (the three-peats of 2000-2002), they thought it was easy; this time, they knew it was hard. What was won cannot be defined merely as a basketball championship, but rather, an elation borne of the sense of trials faced and met, of demons vanquished, of difficult work rewarded.
I have only the merest sense of what the Lakers players are feeling right now, only because I watched them celebrate with the city this afternoon. But I know music, and I know that there is a sound of victory, a sound of triumph, a sound of elation and of bliss. But there is also a sound of joy. Deep joy. What the mystics call shanti—the peace that passes understanding. When I think of the music that is playing in the hearts of Kobe and Pau and D-Fish, Lamar Odom and Phil Jackson right now, and will continue playing like a distant drumbeat through the long, languid summer, I’d bet you ten-to-one it’s something like the slack-key guitar strains of Leonard Kwan and Raymond Kane.
Slack-Key is a fingerpicking style of guitar playing from the islands of Hawaii. It’s name comes from the practice of detuning, or “slacking,” the strings to one chord, usually G-major. The style originated with the Spanish cowboys, paniolos, who came to the islands in the late 19th century, and it evolved over time, incorporating traditional and various other cultural styles. This is not the Hawaiian music of tiki-era luaus—falsetto voices over washes of strings and birdcalls and vibes. To my ear, it has more in common with bluegrass banjo and metallic, resonant steel guitar riffs of mid-century country music than anything remniscent of the “islands.” But it is quintessentially, proudly Hawaiian. Dreamy, jangly, uplifting, relaxing (Raymond Kane’s style was called nahenahe, Hawaiian for “relaxing.”).
This is the music you hear looking out the window in the morning, dreaming where the free day will take you; or lounging in a hammock in your backyard, watching the lazy sun sink with a drink in your hand. It is that happy place that no one can touch in the midst of troubles, that anchors you and takes you away. It is the look on the faces of your children, the sight of your lover working a crossword puzzle; a ride into the country or along the seashore with the canvas top down. It is the sound of joy.
I value Slack-Key Guitar in Stereo amongst my absolute most cherished records. It is an honor to possess it, to listen to it, to keep it safe for another generation of vinyl lovers. Particularly since it came to me from the collection of Dr. Albert Ley, formerly of Kauai and Honolulu, who passed away in March.
Albert Ley arrived at the Garden Isle with his wife Florence in the Sixties, not too long after Slack-Key Guitar in Stereo was recorded in Tradewinds Records’ founder Margaret Williams’ living room. He was the first eye doctor the island had known, and soon became a fixture in the local community. Back then, Hawaiians still gathered on the beach for Friday hukelaus where the men “threw net” from the shore, bringing in a fresh harvest for the communal dinner. Honolulu had no skyscrapers. Puff the Magic Dragon hadn’t yet descended bleary-eyed on the shores of Hanelei. Albert and Florence truly embodied the spirit of “aloha,” and he was a true prince of the islands. This was the music they carried in their hearts.
I dedicate this review to them and to their family.
LEONARD KWAN & RAYMOND KANE SLACK-KEY GUITAR IN STEREO, 1961, Tradewinds