‘We Won It For Gabby!’

Hawaii’s first Grammy winners honor those who paved the way, and share with MidWeek readers the elation of winning the long road that led to glory.

Bill Mossman
Friday - March 04, 2005
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WAIMEA — One by one, they saunter into a recording studio nestled in the lush green hills of Waimea, brought together for the first time to talk about that historic evening last month when they took home the Grammy’s Best Hawaiian Album of the Year award. Six of the 10 recording artists for the instrumental compilation album, Slack Key Guitar Volume 2, have shown up for an interview with MidWeek. One of them, Charles Michael Brotman, is the studio owner and album producer. All are longtime friends and Big Island residents.

After embracing and exchanging pleasantries, they begin to recount where they were when word came down Feb. 13 of their Grammy victory.

“I was working on one pig trap when I turned on my cell phone and saw all these messages,” deadpans Keoki Kahumoku.

Charles Brotman, with guitar, is surrounded by (from left)
fellow Grammy winners John Keawe, Randy Lorenzo,
Charlie Recaido, Sonny Recaido and Keoki Kahumoku

The other musicians start laughing. “I was at home resting when Charles called,” says Charlie Recaido. “After he said we won, it was bedlam. I —.” “The conversation was quite funny,” interrupts Brotman, who was actually in Los Angeles to accept the award along with fellow Slack Key artists Sonny Lim, Ken Emerson and Jeff Peterson. “When I called, I said, ‘Charlie. We won!’And he said, ‘No!’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And we kept going back and forth — No! Yeah! NO! YEAH!”

More laughter.

“I got a call from a friend from Waimanalo,” offers Randy Lorenzo. “She was like, ‘Congratulations.’ And I was like, ‘For what?’ And she says, ‘What? You haven’t been paying attention? You guys won.’ And then I went nuts! The people I was with were going, ‘What’s wrong with Randy?’ I …” Lorenzo pauses. “Did you guys let him listen to the tape?” he asks, jerking his head in the interviewer’s direction.

“No,” Brotman answers, “but I still got your message on my phone machine … If there’s anything that encapsulates the whole experience of winning a Grammy, it’s Randy’s reaction. He was so excited when he called me. He said, ‘Charles. I heard we won. Is it true? Is it, huh?!’ And he kept going on and on and his voice kept getting higher and higher!”

“Yeah,” Kahumoku injects. “Randy was hitting all the notes on the scale.”

With their laughter now reaching a fever pitch in the studio, the musicians receive a bit more good news: The album is not only in heavy radio rotation in such faraway places as Hampden, Maine; Morehead, Ky.; and Little Rock,Ark. — but it has also shot up to No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music Chart and No. 5 on its New Age Music Chart.

“I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be this big,” admits John Keawe.

Certainly not in Hawaii, where the prevailing notion prior to the 47th annual Grammy Awards show was that Keali‘i Reichel and the Brothers Cazimero — two of the five nominees for the inaugural award — were the clear-cut favorites.

But it’s a belief that’s not in the least degree offensive to the “underdog” slack key musicians.

“It does make sense that most people in Hawaii would think that Keali‘i and the Cazimeros were going to win,” Brotman opines.

“And if they had won, we all would have been very happy because of what all those guys have done for contemporary Hawaiian music.

“But if you poll the voting membership on the Mainland and compare it to the voting membership in Hawaii, you’d obviously get different results. All of us here are aware of how huge slack key guitar is on the Mainland.

“We certainly weren’t the big superstars (among local Grammy nominees) and we didn’t know what was going to happen. But we knew we were going to be in the running.”

And the feeling is they’ll be doing a whole lot of running in the coming months because of their Grammy win. Already there are plans to take the musicians out on tour — tentatively billed as “Palm Records Acoustic Showcase” — and to finish up tracks for a third compilation album.

“Gotta ride the wave,” says Recaido. For Brotman, the success of Slack Key has been nothing short of phenomenal.

“I wasn’t trying to make anything that was real historical or educational,” claims Brotman, whose first attempt at a slack key compilation album occurred seven years ago with the release of Volume 1. “I just wanted to make something that was really nice to listen to.”

Akama‘aina since 1976, Brotman graduated with a music degree from the University of Hawaii, where he later taught classical guitar — and was eventually succeeded by Peterson — up until the mid-80s. His introduction to ki ho‘alu (see accompanying story) came while living in his native Seattle in the early ’70s, and led to him immediately seeking out albums by Keola and Kapono Beamer, Sunday Manoa and Gabby Pahinui.

“I think that when a guitarist hears slack key for the first time, he’s intrigued by the beauty of it,” Brotman says. “That’s what happened to me.”

A couple of contemporary jazz recordings led to moderate success as a solo artist on the Mainland, but Brotman felt he needed more control of the final product. After recruiting sister Jody to handle sales and marketing, Brotman opened Palm Records and built a state-of-the-art recording studio, named Lava Tracks, at his home in Waimea.

Part of the appeal of Slack Key is its warm, clean sound, which Brotman says is because of how the CD was recorded. To capture that sound, Brotman chose external mikes over built-in electronic amplification in the guitars (pickups).

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