Tunings


We all need to tune ourselves and our musical instruments, to the key that best expresses our deepest emotions.

In the 1830s, cattle were brought to Hawaii, and turned loose. Soon, cowboys were needed to keep them out of the taro and sugar cane fields.

Mexican cowboys, (vaqueros, or in Hawaiian, paniolo), introduced the guitar to Hawaiians. They tuned their guitars in the Spanish style, which is still our standard guitar tuning. Hawaiians called the cowboys paniolo, Hawaiians loved the guitars, a new experience for a culture which had never seen stringed instruments.

When the paniolo left, they gave their guitars to their new Hawaiian friends.

However, they didn’t have instructions to tune them as the vaqueros did. New tunings, called “slack key”, pleasant to Hawaiian ears, came about along with new chord fingerings. New melodies and rhythms, expressive of the beauty and culture of Hawaii, emerged.

Their guitars became a part of their lives, the harmonies of the strings in harmony with their music and their community.

The young men I mentor are looking for their own harmonies, their own expressions. How do they tune their own lives, so that they can play their own melodies? They strive to find the chords to their own life songs.

They have plenty to sing about, giving voice to their emotions and experiences on their journeys.

Like the Hawaiians, each of them is finding their own tunings, looking for the right tension on the string to reflect their souls, striving for their own harmony.

Without tension, there would be no music played on a guitar, and without each string having its own unique sound, the songs would not find their own voice.

And, without their own challenges and questions about their lives, these young men would not be giving voice to their own songs, finding the chords and rhythms that are leading them into brighter days and a renewed appreciation of their own souls and dreams.

These young men, these modern day paniolo, are bringing order to their own cattle, and their own guitars, each with their own special slack key tunings, and melodies and rhythms unique to their own, newly focused and directed lives.

–Neal Lemery 2/7/16

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