Through his students, he keeps the uniquely Hawaiian sound of the steel guitar alive

Published: May. 10, 2021 at 5:00 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Alan Akaka is a master at producing haunting melodies and harmonies on the Hawaiian Steel Guitar.

As the eight-stringed instrument rests on his lap, he glides a slide across its frets and skillfully plucks the strings with his free hand.

It artistry in motion.

“It’s like learning the hula. It’s like learning the language. It’s part of the culture, the musical culture of Hawaii,” he said.

Through his music school, Ke Kula Mele, Akaka has taught hundreds of students to play the instrument. Now he’s writing a steel guitar course for the University of Hawaii at Manoa, drawing from his decades of playing and the lessons from his teachers.

“I’m taking what they gave me, and I’m passing on this legacy to others,” he said

Akaka’s father, the late Sen. Daniel Akaka, introduced him to music when he was a young boy.

“My dad was the choir director at Kawaiahao Church before he became a U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senator,” he said.

Listening to his parent’s records and the radio tuned his ear to the instrument, and his fascination with it grew.

“It’s the sliding sound, the glissandos, the vibrato you can get out of it, the tone colors,” he said.

Akaka studied under Jerry Byrd and other great steel guitar players. He has devoted 50 years to perfecting his craft He’s traveled the world with his steel guitar and performed with Hawaiian music legends.

“One of the greatest names would be Aunty Genoa Keawe,” he said.

Joseph Kekuku is known as the father of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. He’s said to have invented the instrument in the late 1800s, creating the only modern-day stringed instrument that originated in Hawaii.

“He inspired many from Hawaii, the mainland and Europe to play this instrument,” Akaka said.

He’s trying to do the same.

“It was through the Hawaiian steel guitar that Hawaiian music became really popular,” he said.

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