Stephen Inglis

Press from Washington Slack Key Festival tour


Slack-key Guitar Festival blows in from the islands

By MOLLY GILMORE | Contributing writer • Published March 07, 2013

Has Hawaii become the new Ireland?


What: A diverse group of slack-key guitarists bring this distinctively Hawaiian style of music to Olympia.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $27 general admission, $20 for seniors, $10 for youths

More information: 360-753-8586 or



For years, it seemed that traveling artists bringing cross-cultural music to South Sound were more often than not of the Celtic persuasion. But lately, we’ve seen a warming trend (not unwelcome this time of year), with visits from ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro and slack-key guitar wiz Makana.

This weekend’s offering is the Slack-Key Guitar Festival, with five guitarists who play in various genres and styles but all have that island sound.

Slack key is a distinctively Hawaiian style. The name refers to the way the guitar is tuned, by loosening the strings from the standard tuning to create a different sound.

“There’s a lot of sliding and slurring of strings,” said Stephen Inglis, one of the guitarists. “It’s a real language.”

The style began with the Mexican cowboys who brought guitars to the islands in the 19th century. “You hear the hints of Spanish guitar,” Inglis said, but slack key developed to fit the rhythms and structures of Hawaiian music.

“It sounds very Hawaiian,” Inglis said. “It’s a style of playing that’s hard to describe, but it does evoke the physical beauty of our landscape. A lot of people liken it to the humming of the surf.”

Sharing the bill with Inglis are Walter Keale, Bobby Moderow, LT Smooth and Paul Togioka.

The festival has been a fixture in the Hawaiian Islands for 30 years, but it’s been years since its last visit to the mainland. This year, the group is branching out, bringing a little musical sunshine to the Northwest and beyond.

This show is the first of the festival’s 2013 tour, and there’s a lot of excitement building for it, said organizer Milton Lau.

“We didn’t know what the response would be,” he said, “but then we got a call from the music department at Capital High School and they asked us if we would do a special thing for the students to educate them about this genre of music.”

The musicians will visit the school this morning. On Thursday, they attended a party. “Some people contacted us and said they wanted to host a barbecue for us to thank us for coming to Olympia,” Lau said.

The concert will feature a wide array of styles and includes both vocal and instrumental tunes. “I play electric guitar as well,” Inglis said. “I compose songs in the Hawaiian language. I play ‘rootsy’ American folk as well as in the Hawaiian tradition.”

Although he grew up in Hawaii, Inglis became interested in slack-key guitar after he moved to California.

“It wasn’t till I moved away 10 years ago that I got homesick and began really diving into the Hawaiian music,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed to study and perform with these living masters.

“There aren’t too many musical traditions these days where you can do that.”


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