Makana

Makana performs at Blue Note Napa on Oct. 12.

Jeff Mallin photo

Napa has been regularly blessed with appearances by the best Hawaiian musicians performing today. Makana, a No Hoku (Hawaiian Grammy) winner and widely considered a slack key guitar master, returns to Napa for two performances at Blue Note on Thursday, October 12.

On the phone from Kauai last week, Makana talked about his early musical education. “I was introduced to slack key guitar when I was 10 years old,” he said. “I started learning from incredible teachers, including some of the passed-on legends of the art form.

“I had no idea about any other kind of music because my parents were very strict and only allowed religious and Hawaiian music in the house. I didn’t even know the radio existed. But I had a unique opportunity to become immersed in this art form, exposed to it by the greatest practitioners alive for at least four years.”

Things changed abruptly when the sheltered young man entered high school. “I was blown away by the discovery of other kinds of music,” Makana said. “At first, I felt kind of angry at my parents. I was like, ‘Hey, how could you guys hide this from me?’ But then I was too excited to be angry, and immediately began learning everything under the sun, from classic rock and folk from the 60’s, to Celtic music and Afrikaans, and I got into Latin and Arabic influences.

“I had a band in high school where we did Radiohead and Chili Peppers and Lenny Kravitz and that kind of stuff, but it was pretty short-lived because I had this singular mission and passion about extracting as much sound as I could from a single guitar without using any technology.”

Over the past two decades, Makana has released eight albums. His most recent is “Music You Heard Tonight” in 2016. He has opened for Sting, Carlos Santana and Elvis Costello, performed with Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson, and in 2016 joined the national arena tour with Bad Company and Joe Walsh.

Makana is known for both his technical proficiency and his adventurous genre excursions while maintaining a connection to tradition. “For those who are familiar with Hawaiian music, I may seem like a radical because I pioneer new styles,” he said. “I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Hawaiian music, of all the different styles, but I love innovating and I love creating. I think of it as marriages of different styles.”

He has coined a name for his non-traditional music. “’Slack Rock’ is taking the fundamental technical approach of slack-key guitar,” he said, “and infusing it with bluegrass and blues and rock, and even Indian music, mixing it up with those styles. I don’t like the word ‘aggressive,’ but a more intense approach to the guitar. It was highly influenced by guitarists like Leo Kottke and Jimmy Page. But no matter where I go, slack-key guitar is in it.”

Makana presents a diverse menu of slack-key music in his shows. “I generally do three things, and not in this particular order,” he said. “Every show is spontaneous, but I’ll take people through the various styles of slack-key guitar, a folk art that evolved through various family lines in Hawaii over the past 150 plus years. I’ll share some of that classic stuff, and then I’ll share my own, and then I’ll do some select covers of songs not in the Hawaiian genre, but through the lens of slack key. And I pride myself in being an ambassador of Hawaii, not just playing songs but explaining them. So education is part of the show.”

For this musician, live performance is an elevated experience. “The stage is a powerful place,” he said, “because there’s an agreement with a group of people that are giving you their attention, which is energy, and are all hoping and wanting you to do extremely well. So, they’re not just giving you attention, they’re giving you love.

“I’ve lived on stage for 32 years. I’m 39 now, and it’s such a comfortable place for me. I love it. I’m more comfortable onstage than off. I’m so fully engaged that there’s a kind of a nirvana, a bliss that happens while I’m making that music.”

Thursday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m (doors open 5:30 p.m.) and 9:30 p.m. (doors open 9 p.m.). $15-$35. Blue Note Napa. 1030 Main St., Napa. 707-880-2300. BlueNoteNapa.com.

David Kerns is a Napa-based freelance journalist. You can view more of his work at DavidKerns.com.

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