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Hawaiian Cowboy

Slack Key 'Ohana

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The thought of mixing Hawaiian and Americana music may seem like a culture clash yet paniolos – cowboys in Hawaiian - are part of the rich cultural tradition of Hawaiian ranching. On their second album, “Hawaiian Cowboy,” award-winning band Slack Key ‘Ohana has lovingly crafted a unique blend of traditional Hawaiian sounds melded with country and

The thought of mixing Hawaiian and Americana music may seem like a culture clash yet paniolos – cowboys in Hawaiian - are part of the rich cultural tradition of Hawaiian ranching. On their second album, “Hawaiian Cowboy,” award-winning band Slack Key ‘Ohana has lovingly crafted a unique blend of traditional Hawaiian sounds melded with country and Americana music, illumined by the group’s four-part pop vocal harmonies. The musicians young and old feature prominent guest stars on the album, including cowboy legends from both genres: ZZ Top’s guitarist Billy Gibbons and four-time Grammy-winning slack key guitar master George Kahumoku Jr. Produced by Slack Key ‘Ohana leaders Brian Witkin and Kamaka Mullen with Chris Hobson, the thirteen-song set of originals penned by Witkin and Mullen along with several reimagined Hawaiian classics arrives on April 5 via Pacific Records.

Adding to the unlikely multicultural experience is that the San Diego-based Slack Key ‘Ohana recorded “Hawaiian Cowboy” at the invite-only recording studio owned and operated by Foo Fighters and Dave Grohol, Studio 606, where they tracked the record live utilizing the same sound and mixing board used by Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Paul McCartney among others.

“We recorded all five instruments together in order to capture the organic, cohesive sound of a live concert. Vocals were approached the same way, with all four singers recording at the same time, as if on stage. The Neve recording console is special. It has a sought-after warmth that we are trying to showcase on this record by keeping the mixes raw and organic, using little trickery or effects,” said Witkin, who played guitar and lap steel and sang on the album.

Witkin and Mullen (guitar and vocals) founded three-year-old Slack Key ‘Ohana. ‘Ohana means family and this group is genuinely a family band. Witkin’s father, Joe Witkin (bass, piano and vocals), mother, Carol Witkin (ukulele and vocals), and brother, Sean Witkin (drums and percussion), are in the band along with pedal steel player Rand Anderson. Joe Witkin performed at the original Woodstock as a member of Sha Na Na.

The “Hawaiian Cowboy” album opens with the first single, “One More Day” featuring three-time Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award-winning ukulele player Brittni Paiva. Available as an instant gratification track exclusively via Apple Music/iTunes on February 17, the single is a brisk guitar and ukulele strum fest embellished by pedal steel accents and rich vocal harmonies.

“The first time I went to Hawaiʻi was when I was seven-years old. When I left, I cried. I cry every single time I leave Hawaiʻi. Usually I listen to ‘Honolulu City Lights’ by Keola Beamer while watching the city lights disappear as the plane takes off. I wanted to write my own song about leaving Hawaiʻi,” said Mullen who was born and lives in Southern California, but whose family is of Hawaiian descent.

“Kuʻu Lei Nani Mai ‘Oe” is one of the first songs Witkin and Mullen wrote together with the former writing the instrumental part and Mullen, who is fluent in Hawaiian, penning the teasingly suggestive lyrics that include kaheas (chants) sung by The Godoy Sisters, a dancing duo who performs hula during Slack Key ‘Ohana concerts.

“The song title is a play on words meaning ‘my beautiful lei from you.’ The lyrics have sexual innuendo. Hawaiian sexuality is something that has been a part of our culture before annexation. This song falls into the naughty category, and it is absolutely fun for people who speak both Hawaiian and English,” said Mullen with a devilish laugh.

Pondering “What would Johnny Cash sound like if he was Hawaiian?” inspired the album’s title track, “Hawaiian Cowboy.” The song features one cowboy from Texas (Gibbons) and one from Hawaiʻi (Kahumoku Jr.).

“Hawaiian cowboys invented slack key guitar. The song is about what Hawaiian cowboys feel like and what they go through. Take the verse ‘People look at him like he is strange.’ I’ve had actual Hawaiian cowboys say they can relate to everything in this song, which is our hat tilt to the origins of slack key, but we modernized it and made it hella country,” said Mullen.

The tempo slows to romantic allure on “Nahenahe Ka Leo o Ka Wahine Uʻi,” which translates to “the young and beautiful woman whose voice is soft, gentle and sweet and relaxes the mind and soothes the soul.” Mullen said, “This song is about the dream of falling in love with a Hawaiian singer. I always told myself all you need in life is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice.”

Lively bluegrass elements combine seamlessly with luminous vocal harmonies on “Heading for the Country,” a song about life on the road as traveling musicians.

A tune about the black sandy beaches of Kona where sea turtles bask in the sunlight, “I Kona” is sung with a uniquely Hawaiian falsetto voice, as distinctive as yodeling is to Swiss culture.

“For many decades, the Hawaiian king made it illegal for women to sing, dance hula or practice in cultural arts. So, men were the original practitioners of song and dance, mele (Hawaiian chants, songs or poems) and hula, usually taking on both gender roles. Falsetto symbolizes the female voice by a man, and it is culturally acceptable and prized by the Hawaiian community. There is something known as haʻi where the voice naturally breaks and Hawaiians exploit this break in the form of falsetto. You push the songs from your normal voice and push it through the break into falsetto,” explained Mullen.

Slack Key ‘Ohana’s four-part harmonies shine brightly on “Everything Is Alright,” a reassuring song about falling in love and the feelings of vulnerability and insecurity that often accompany the experience.

The roots of Slack Key ‘Ohana come to the fore on “Coming Home.” Witkin was learning how to play slack key guitar from Mullen and his final exam assignment was to write a song for slack key guitar. Mullen was so impressed with the song, “Coming Home,” that he invited Witkin to perform with him on stage.

“It is literally the first song I ever wrote in the slack key tuning, which is a duet with a young up and coming Hawaiian vocalist named Kela Sako, who is our Pacific Records labelmate. The song itself is about how you’re connected to family no matter where you are physically and that no matter how far away you are from each other, if you have family, you are never alone,” said Brian Witkin, who is the CEO/founder of Pacific Records.

A traditional Hawaiian protest song about the commercialization created by the Hawaiian tourist industry, “Waimānalo Blues” hits close to home for Mullen as some of his family resides in Waimānalo.

“It’s the last piece of untouched land in the concrete jungle of Oʻahu. The beaches are being sold for hotels. People come to Hawaiʻi to witness the beauty of the land yet ironically, tourism is destroying the beauty of the land,” Mullen lamented.

Shimmering Beach Boys-style vocals make the band’s self-titled song, “Slack Key ‘Ohana,” an infectious slice of pop music and Hawaiian beach culture.

Another traditional Hawaiian song, “Aloha ʻOe” was written by Hawaii’s last queen, Queen Liliʻuokalani, who was a well-know songwriter whose songs continue to be popular today. According to Mullen, “One of her best-known songs is ‘Aloha ʻOe.’ Everyone knows the melody even if they don’t know the song, which is about her witnessing a young woman fall in love with a Scottish noble. She witnessed them kissing and saying goodbye before he boarded the ship home. Queen Liliʻuokalani captured this beautiful moment in time in the form of song. It would be a shame if we didn’t record our version of this timeless song.”

“Hawaii Aloha” is another enduring Hawaiian classic.

“Every Hawaiian knows it and every party, hui and get together ends with this song. It’s a call to the Hawaiian people to unite and rejoice in our love for Hawaiʻi and our people. I’m usually moved to tears when all the kanaka (Hawaiians) stand up, hold hands and sing with us when we perform it live. This song is so powerful, so resonant, and it reminds me that our people are strong and proud,” said Mullen emotionally.

The album ends with a reprise of “Nahenahe Ka Leo o Ka Wahine Uʻi” called a haʻina hou, which is the final telling of a story. This version is piano-led featuring Joe Witkin playing a Steinway grand piano.

One of the finishing touches was having Tom “THOR” Thordarson illustrate the “Hawaiian Cowboy” album cover. The former Disney Imagineer is revered for his tiki and fantasy artwork. The image he produced features Brian Witkin and Mullen riding horseback while playing guitars in full gallop atop crashing ocean waves and leaping dolphins, setting the stage for the whimsical musical experience contained within the recording.

Slack Key ‘Ohana’s self-titled debut album won Best World Music Album honors at the 2022 San Diego Music Awards. Their second outing, “Live at Tiki Oasis,” debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes world music albums chart. “Hawaiian Cowboy” is Slack Key ‘Ohana’s offering to pay homage to the origins of Hawaiian slack key guitar and its original practitioners, the paniolo.

“I really hope our audience loves this album as much as we do. We poured our hearts and souls into this baby we made, and it is years in the making,” said Mullen.

Expected Delivery April 5th, 2024.

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We hope you can make it to one of the Slack Key 'Ohana shows in the near future. Check out our list of upcoming events below.

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