Guitarist Jim "Kimo" West divides his time between two dramatically different musical worlds. His mainstay job is as lead guitarist from the famed, freewheeling musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic, but West's heart and soul are completely invested in the lush exotic Hawaiian slack-key acoustic guitar style.
"I've been playing guitar since I was 12, started in with rock bands at 16, and I've been playing lead guitar for Weird Al Yankovic for a long time," West said. "But a while back, I was invited to go to Hawaii and ended up staying with a family who had a lot of slack-key records. I fell in love with the sound — it's like a perfect symbiotic relationship between the music, the landscape, the culture."
West, who appears at Altadena's Coffee Gallery Backstage on Saturday, described how the Island style steadily infiltrated his soul: "I just listened for a long time but by the late '80s I started fiddling around with it, playing and writing songs in the slack-key style. I'd record them so I wouldn't forget how they went, and one day a friend finally said, 'Why don't you put out a CD?' So I did, had an artist friend do some beautiful cover art and had it released and holding that in my hands was just a great feeling — and all the Hawaiians liked it."
"That's how I got started and soon I was getting invited to play all the festivals, and for me, as a haole guy, to be accepted in the slack-key world was very heartwarming. They were all very sweet and thankful to me for helping keep the tradition alive. I never felt like an outsider, but that acceptance was very important, heartwarming. It's magical."
"Slack-key was originally called 'ki-ho'alu, which means to loosen the key, or put it in an open tuning, tuned to a single chord, which generally isn't done in western music. Hawaii was introduced to the guitar by Spanish vaqueros in the 19th century, but the Hawaiians changed the tuning and each family has their own and they keep them secret."
As with so much Pacific Island culture, there's an ever-present hint of near-mystic allure in this music. "Now, I play in 12 or 14 different tunings, each one is like a different language, they have a certain specific resonance and personality," West said. "And the guitar is in your arms, close up against your body and you feel it when you're playing and it's a very nice feeling, almost therapeutic."
At the Coffee Gallery, West will perform a special Yule-themed program, featuring numbers from his just-released "Ki Hoa'lu Christmastime" CD, the third in a series of similar discs. Musically, West has struck the perfect balance of Hawaiian melodics and jolly Santa Claus celebration, and the show will be further enhanced by contributions from a talented handful of Christmas co-conspirators.
"It's always a lot of fun; I think this is the third one we've done," West said. "I have Tom Atwater on violin, the violins were brought over by the missionaries and it's an instrument which played a big part in all the early Hawaiian music combos. My friend Kapo Ku, a Hawaiian musician I've worked with for years, is on ukulele, and my wife Diana Tanaka is going to sing a few tunes."
"I'll be playing songs from my slack-key Christmas CDs, some traditional songs and a bit of Kanikatila, which means 'sound together,' basically jamming, off the cuff improvising, with a little bit of the unexpected. I like to have a hula dancer to interpret the songs. It's such a great visual, so I have a really wonderful dancer, Maritza Canto, who is also one of the very few female Samoan Fire Knife dancers, which I wish we could do but they won't let us — no pyrotechnics at the Coffee Gallery."
"Being in Hawaii for Christmas is hard to beat, but if you can't be there, this is a good alternative. And you don't have to pay the price of airfare and a hotel!"
Where: Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake, Altadena
When: Friday, Dec. 13, 8 p.m.
More info: (626) 798-6236, coffeegallery.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."