"He gave it all up because he wanted to play Hawaiian music."
Owana Salazar is talking about Jerry Byrd, one of the masters of the Hawaiian steel guitar. Byrd quit a career as an A&R man in Nashville -- "He worked with Dolly Parton," Salazar points out -- and she talks about him with pride. Herself a Hawaiian steel and slack key guitar player as well as a student of Byrd's, Salazar celebrates Hawaiian culture in her music -- and what could be greater validation than someone in the music industry leaving the mainland to embrace Hawaii so completely?
Salazar's Wahine Slack and Steel, recorded in 2002, features a number of traditional performances, but "Hi 'ilawe/Waterfall" blends the Hawaiian with a Jimi Hendrix song. She brings that same genre-crossing spirit to her new album, Hula Jazz. "What I've done is taken Hawaiian classics that were contemporary in the '30s in the Hawaiian jazz days and updated everything," Salazar explains. For the album, Salazar chose songs that were written by Hawaiians with the exception of Cole Porter's "Night and Day."
"There's a blue book and a green book of the Charles E. King Hawaiian melodies," she explains. King, a member of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, was a prodigious composer who wrote much of King's Book of Hawaiian Melodies and King's Songs of Hawai'i, and many of these songs are among Hawaii's most treasured. "These songs are performed and sung in a classic genre, but I made them into jazz genre and it works," Salazar says. "There's a certain treatment you have to give these songs so you don't lose the Hawaiian, but you can gain what else there is to offer when you color it differently."
Besides playing Hawaiian steel guitar, which is featured prominently on Hula Jazz, she is also a master of the slack key guitar, the instrument's name being a bit of a misnomer because the guitar itself is a traditional guitar; only the tuning and method of playing is different. "It's an open tuning," she says, noting that many Hawaiian families developed their own tunings -- and there's always a risk of tunings dying out with older family members. "You knew what family it was by the sound of the tuning," Salazar instructs. "People said, 'We can't let this die.' Now it's more open and tunings are being shared, but we remember where they came from. You can put five slack key players in a room from different parts of the island and you will have five different styles of slack key, but it'll be slack key."