Hawaiian slack key guitarist Makana set to visit San Diego


Courtesy of Lydia Sherwood

Slack key guitarist Makana is set to bring his unique style to San Diego’s Belly Up on Oct. 9.

by Danny Dyer, Staff Writer

From traditional to modern, one of Hawaii’s most talented guitarists innovates a sound that has been at the heart of a culture for more than a century.

After finishing the East Coast and Midwest legs of his tour, slack key guitarist Makana will head to the Belly Up in San Diego on Oct. 9 to showcase the burning power of the slack key style.

Makana, born Matthew Swalinkavich, hails from the island of Oahu, where he learned the intricate slack key style of guitar.

Most guitar players follow a standard technique for tuning their strings, but slack key allows musicians to customize what note each string will play, making it difficult for other artists to duplicate the songs they create.

“There’s six strings on the guitar,” Makana said. “Ninety percent of the time most of my picking is happening on the high two strings and then I’m doing rhythm and bass on the low strings, so those are just droning, and it creates a whole different vibe than any other guitar style.”

Makana, who learned this traditional Hawaiian technique from slack key legend Sonny Chillingworth, has now created his own sub-genre of slack key. Dubbed as slack rock, he mixes traditional slack key with other genres like bluegrass, blues, rock and raga, creating a fresh new sound that stays true to its roots.

“I think it’s awesome that Makana tries to stay true to his roots,” Kim Kalanduyan, linguistics senior and board member of San Diego State’s Pacific Islander Student Association, said. “Slack key style actually originated from Hawaii and since the traditional Hawaiian culture is going through a period of resurgence, I think his style is a good way to balance between contemporary and traditional.”

While Makana does stay loyal to his traditions, experimenting with genres and sounds has paid off. He’s been a contributor on Grammy-nominated albums, “Hawaiian Slack Key Kings, I & II” and soundtracks such as “The Descendants.”

Most recently he composed senator and 2016 presidential nominee Bernie Sander’s campaign anthem, “Fire is Ours.”

Despite his success, Makana has chosen to stay out of the mainstream music scene, focusing instead on the traditional genre of his culture.

“When I was 18, I was flown into Los Angeles by one of the biggest pop management companies in the US, and they wanted to sign me and make me into a pop star and I turned them down because I wanted to do slack-key,” he said.

Makana doesn’t aim to break away from this bond, but rather, expand its reach.

He uses the Hawaiian word “kuleana” to describe his relationship with the traditional art form.

“It’s like a two-sided coin, it means rights and responsibilities,” Makana said. “It’s an honor, but it’s a huge responsibility and it’s been a challenge.”

Despite the recognition and achievements he has received, Makana stays true to the message his music has.

“A lot of music today reinforces the listeners existing mythologies about themselves, meaning it becomes a yes man soundtrack for people, just validating what they already believe about themselves,” Makana said. “What I want my music to do is the opposite. I want my music to inspire transcendence through curiosity. I want music to help people see beyond the view of themselves. I want music to open doorways to perceiving and feeling that people may have not considered before.”

Makana’s Oct. 8 show at the Belly Up starts at 8 p.m. The concert is 21 and up and tickets are priced from $26 to $28.