When Hal Kinnaman first heard slack-key guitar music being played on a California beach 50 years ago, he fell in love with it, and learned to play it so well that he became a slack-key master, and also became one of Hawai‘i’s premier slack-key instructors, helping keep this intrinsically Hawaiian musical art alive.
Hal passed away last week on Kaua‘i, at the age of 79, with music and love filling his heart.
“Hal had the kindest heart ever, and was ridiculously talented,” said his girlfriend, Mary Moss, who was with Hal as he passed peacefully in his home.
“His music will live on through his students.”
Kaua‘i’s own Paul Togioka, a slack-key master in his own right, was one of Hal’s students.
“I told Hal his music will continue to be heard,” Togioka said. “I said, ‘Every time I play, it’s like you’re playing, because you taught me.’”
During Hal’s last days, Togioka played guitar in an adjacent room so Hal could hear it, Moss said.
Other former students flew immediately from the East Coast to Kaua‘i to spend time with their beloved teacher and play music for him before he passed.
“Hal’s end days were listening to the music he taught,” Moss said.
Hal was a classically trained guitarist and instructor who studied in Spain and excelled in flamenco and bossa nova.
But it was slack key, or “ki hoalu” in Hawaiian, that changed the trajectory of his life.
After Hal met guitarist Ray Patterson on a beach in California, Ray began teaching him the foundation of ki hoalu: playing the bass line of a song with one’s thumb, while playing the melody with the rest of one’s fingers, making one guitar sound like two or three. Hal was so grateful, he dedicated his 2000 CD “Revery” to Ray.
Hal and Patterson became affiliated with a hula halau (hula school) and performed throughout California.
Eventually, Hal began coming to Hawai‘i to learn more slack key and to surf. Hal had several teachers, one of whom was Kaua‘i’s own Raymond Kane, of whom he spoke often and with deep gratitude.
After becoming a slack-key master, Hal realized he had the skills to help others learn the art. He shared his knowledge at colleges on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, and created multiple instructional books, cassettes and CDs, teaching slack key in simple steps.
“Slack key doesn’t have to be intricate when you first start,” Hal said in an interview in 2010. “It has to be nahenahe: sweet, gentle, flowing. It has to be pu‘uwai, from your heart.
“To students, all these things seem ridiculously hard at first. Then, all of a sudden, they’re inherently in their system,” he said.
“Pretty soon they’re not thinking about them at all.”
Hal believed with every fiber of his being that music should be shared.
He was one of the early performers who shared the art of slack key beyond Hawai‘i, including in Fiji. A photo in his home showed him surrounded by Fijian children, their eyes looking at him and his guitar, entranced by the music.
In 1994, Hal received the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Award from the State Foundation on the Culture and the Arts.
“It felt so good to get that recognition even though I wasn’t Hawaiian,” he said. “It was one of the highlights of my life.”
Over the years, Hal transitioned from guitar to ukulele, learning to retune the small instrument to play Bach, Spanish classical music and even flamenco.
But it was teaching slack key that made his heart sing.
“I love teaching for the joy of sharing,” Hal said. “I love seeing people who thought they couldn’t play realize they can do it.”
Pamela Varma is a writer who lives on Kaua‘i. See Hal Kinnaman playing flamenco on ukulele at youtu.be/SVEQsfvs-VM .