Straight from Kalapana
The Multi-talented Ledward Kaapana

January 5, 2002
By Russ Ringsak
He grew up in a big family in a small village on the Big Island; one of those people whose born circumstance was exactly right for his natural talent. There was no electricity in the village of Kalapana and the only outside music came in by way of battery radio; the entire family played music, often through the night. He said that when people would leave to get some sleep others would join in and carry on. "You'd fall asleep to the music, wake up and the music was still playing. The best alarm clock I ever had. Even today when I play, I still picture all the family getting together and sharing their songs..."

He learned to play by watching, listening and imitating, and he practiced hard. He says that, from the beginning, improvisation came natural to him. "I was doing it before I knew what it was," he says. "Everything you play, every time you play, there's a mood, an energy. If you plug into it, the music just flows. Even in a simple song, there are so many different ways to play the melody, the rhythm, the harmony. It never stops if you stay open to it."

The Hawai'ian slack key guitar style is a direct descendent of a herd of 10 cows and 2 bulls given to King Kamehameha in 1792 by George Vancouver. Nobody here had seen a cow before and didn't quite know what to make of the things, except that they belonged to the King and it was understood you didn't fool around with anything of the King's, especially nothing that big. They strolled around loose and ate grass, including the grass in folks' houses, for which they didn't even have to bend down.

Over time the herd grew large enough to become an authentic public nuisance and King Kamehameha III got in touch with someone in Mexico who could furnish some vaqueros to sail out and teach Hawai'ins something about roping and riding and associated cattleman's skills, except there was nothing in the deal about using the guitar or even how to tune it. They were called Paniolos, and they left behind a few instruments when they returned to Mexico.

The local paniolos found that by slackening the tuning pegs they could make musical chords without shaping them on the fretboard; make an open chord, put a bar across the fingerboard farther up and you've got the fourth to it. A little farther, bingo, a fifth. Over a hundred different tunings have evolved over the last couple centuries, and the rich and fabulous musical style they developed from this doesn't sound at all cowie when you hear it; but it nevertheless contains the DNA of those 12 bovines of the King.

Led plays the slack key guitar in at least eight tunings, as well as ukulele, bass, and steel guitar, and sings baritone and falsetto. He's has recorded over 50 albums in his 37 years as a musician; 14 of these were with his twin brother Ned on bass and his cousin Dennis Pavao singing falsetto and playing rhythm guitar. He's toured the contiguous states three times.

In 1998 he went to Nashville and recorded Waltz of the Wind on the Dancing Cat label; an all-star session with Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and her brother, bassist Viktor Krauss and her husband, guitarist Pat Bergeson, along with Sonny Landreth and others. Led said, "That was a real dream come true. It was a real honor to meet them all and to share the music. That's something I'll never forget. I just want to say mahalo (thanks) to all of them."

He got back together with pedal steel guitar player Bob Brozman for their second all-acoustic album of duets, In The Saddle, also on Dancing Cat and released last January. It's been called "a treat for all guitar fans."

Led says, "Since the first album, we've done about fifty concerts as a duo. All that time together comes across on the new record. We sound very comfortable with each other." Bob says: "When we made the first CD, I knew only 1900 to 1935 steel playing. Since then, Led and I have developed a nearly telepathic musical rapport. And I've developed a whole new language for accompanying slack key. But mainly, I've learned a lot about the act of playing music from this amazing guy I consider to be a genius."

Led's latest solo release is titled Black Sand and brings Led back to Hawaiian classics, originals and old family favorites. "It all goes back to the 'ohana," he says. "My mom and dad, Uncle Fred, all the musicians back home in Kalapana. They shared the music with me and I've been lucky enough to share it with others all around the world.... I got more good memories than the Big Island has black sand."

His trio, I Kona, is currently playing regularly at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki in Honolulu.

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974.

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Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

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