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Ariel Publicity New York

Play With Me Papa
Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS

The slack key guitar is a staple of the Hawaiian music culture and scene, but it does not always receive the same attention and exposure in mainland States as it does in the Aloha State.  Slack key guitar performer and songwriter John Keawe is a true master of the instrument, and he is doing his best to shed more light on this engaging instrument through his compositions and performances.  His latest recording, Play With Me Papa, showcases the dual nature of Keawe’s musicality, his instrumental side and his vocal side.  This collection of 12 songs is well written, musically interesting, and the perfect introduction to the slack-key guitar for listeners who have yet to discover this unique string instrument.

On the instrumental side, Keawe proves himself to be a composer and performer with an ear for melody.  These songs, such as the calming “Kaua’I Summer Day” or the haunting “Kauholo,” are all based around strong melodic content and built up from there.  In the solo acoustic-guitar world, many times we find artists relying on their technical facility or extended techniques to engage their audience, but Keawe uses these aspects of his playing as an after effect, the icing on his musical cake.  First and foremost is the melodic hook, followed by a harmonic progression that frames the melody, bringing it to the forefront of the song.  “Pu’uwai Ho’ano” is a great example of how Keawe uses harmony in this fashion.  The melody is fairly straight forward, but it is brought to life with some interesting chords and harmonic movement that raise the level of musical interest in just the right moments during the song.  Perhaps the most effective moment is the climbing diminished chords that create a sense of dissonance and impending tension before they are resolved back to the main harmonic structure of the song.  It is moments like this that bring Keawe’s high level of musicianship to light.

The other side of Keawe’s composition is his vocal pieces, which make up around half of the record.  Perhaps the most poignant of these is the title track, “Play With Me Papa,” featuring both of Keawe’s granddaughters on backing vocals.  The song is fairly straight ahead musically, but the lyrics succinctly and effectively tell the story of Keawe’s life with his granddaughters.  By keeping the music simple, yet still entertaining, Keawe frames the lyrics in a manner that brings them closer to the listener, without having the music become too monotonous or boring.  As he did with the harmony and melody lines in his solo pieces, the guitarist uses the music to frame the lyrics in a way that enhances the music and words at the same time.  Also, the out of tune singing by his granddaughters, which would normally not be desired in any song, comes across as highly personal and personable.  It actually brings a sense of human nature to the song that might not have come across had they sang perfectly in tune, a nice touch to a well-written song.

Play With Me Papa is a strong album that not only showcases the musical possibilities of the slack-key guitar, but it brings to light a talented and experienced songwriter and performer at his best.  Keawe’s playing and writing is strong throughout this record, and where others would have gone to flash, he relies on melody and subtle harmonic twists to engage his audience, something that many other guitarists could learn from and bring to their own music.

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