By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
What do you get when you cross Hawaiian music with bluegrass?
The toe-tapping answer is piligrass, which will sprout onstage Saturday night at 8 p.m. at the Palace Theater in downtown Hilo.
Fifth-generation slack-key master Keoki Kahumoku and 24-year-old ukulele alchemist Brittni Paiva will join forces with the Aloha Bluegrass Band, a five-piece outfit from the mainland and Alaska.
“What really hit home for us is the live music and being able to play everything unplugged. It’s an acoustic setting,” said Kahumoku, adding that a connection between bluegrass and Hawaiian music is “old-time music and the instruments of Hawaiian music.”
“For example, the fiddle goes back to Irish music, but a lot of Hawaiian songs … were written on the fiddle,” he said. “You know ‘Hi‘ilawe’ was not written on the guitar or ukulele, it was written on the violin. Uncle Eddie (Kamae) sought out (songwriter) Sam Li‘a (for a documentary film), and you’ll notice the instrument he played it on is the fiddle.”
The fiddle, which was imported by the paniolos who also brought guitars to Hawaii, all but disappeared from Hawaiian music around the turn of the 20th century, but Hawaiian music had a profound effect on mainland music in the 1920s when Hawaiian steel guitarists such as Sol Ho‘opi‘i toured the continent. Around the same time, bluesmen started playing slide guitar and resonator guitars, which brought the acoustic steel guitar sound to bluegrass, folk and country.
“What prevails in bluegrass music is that steady rhythm of the guitar and the sound of the upright bass, which we basically adapted,” Kahumoku said. “You look at all the hula halaus and guys like Na Palapalai, they’re using the upright bass. And in the 1920s through all the Tin Pan Alley stuff, it was all upright bass until the invention of the electric bass, which has basically been used as a matter of convenience. But you don’t get the same sound as you do with the upright bass.”
Fiddler and vocalist Katy Rexford, a North Carolina native who now lives in San Francisco, said that Hawaiian music and bluegrass also share a lot of the same themes.
“It’s all very much about family, love of place and love of people,” she said. “Every time we play with each other, we find more similarities. … A lot of the music we play together has a swing feeling and bit of a bluesy touch.”
Rexford said there has “definitely been a revival in old-time fiddle music, bluegrass and all the branches of Americana music.”
“It’s sprung up, really, in the past 10 years on the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States,” she said. “There’s also been a big resurgence in Alaska and now, Hawaii. Young people are finding some of these old songs and hearing them for the first time. We don’t really have the benefit of passing down music from generation to generation, as we did in the past, that much. … There’s a whole music camp phenomenon that’s relatively new and taking off, introducing younger people to this old traditional music that may very well have been lost, since we don’t have the same kind of porch jams that we used to.”
The musicians have also been holding classes and workshops for youths around the islands. It’s something Kahumoku and the others have been doing yearly for the past eight years.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity for the kids here to learn about these traditions in the island,” Rexford said. “In fact, there are very few kids we’ve encountered who’d ever seen a banjo before, never mind even being able to play one. So I think we’ve found a pretty unique niche here to provide instruction on traditional American music from different parts of the country. We provide all the instruments.
“We just love being able to create a new generation of musicians.”
Tickets for the concert are $20 advance, $25 door, available at the Palace. There’s also an instrumental workshop with the performers on Saturday from 2-4 p.m. in the Palace lobby. Tickets are $35 advance, $40 door. A ticket for both the workshop and concert is $45. For advance orders by credit card, call the Palace at 934-7010.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.