Hawaii has always symbolized romantic love for me – walking hand in hand on sunset-lit beaches, gentle waves lapping at our feet. Last fall my husband Hank and I had big plans to go!! As the day came closer for our departure for Kauai, I found myself playing Hawaiian music, slowing my morning walk to a dreamy saunter, and practicing serene, yet alluring smiles. We were to spend two weeks on Kauai, both the North and South shores. Yes, we were going with our neighbor, a seasoned Hawaii traveler, but had all agreed we didn’t have to be together 24-7. This would surely leave time for – Romance.
Days on the South shore went by quickly – hikes, archeology and garden tours, dinners out with the three Musketeers – as I called us. Nary a glimpse on the horizon of my romantic fantasy with Hank. The North shore and town of Hanalei surely would offer fulfillment. Looking at the weekly bulletin board in a café, my romance radar zoomed in on Slack Key Guitar Concert with Sandy and Doug. Sandy and Doug – yes, my sister had told me about them, how lovely their music was. Relaxed and romantic.
The concert was held in the hamlet of Hanalei on the North shore of Kauai “nestled against the emerald green mountains, rich taro fields, incredible rainbows, with soft trade winds carrying the sounds of surf and Hawaii’s birds through the building.” Nice, eh? (Ok… I admit, that was taken from Sandy and Doug’s website).
Our travel companion had “been there, done that” with slack key. Ha, this could be the prelude to our romantic liaison. My sweetheart agreed to go to the concert because he is usually agreeable to all my ideas, earning himself the title National Treasure. That and the caveat of “Hey, if it’s not good, we can leave.”
Hawaiian slack key guitar is a finger style guitar art form, created by Hawaiian paniolo (cowboys) in the late 1700’s when guitars were first introduced to Hawaii. The traditional form combines altered tunings to make music that is described as “soft, sweet, and very soothing.”
The popular story is that Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) were hired to teach the Hawaiians how to manage cattle. Mexican longhorn cattle had been introduced as a gift to Kamehameha I in the 1700’s. The cowboys taught the Hawaiians and when they returned to their families on the mainland, some gave their guitars to the Hawaiians.
The Hawaiians didn’t know the chord fretting positions on the guitar neck. Their instruments until then had been percussion. They also didn’t know how to tune the strings… so they loosened the tuners until the strings were slack, sounded nice… and strummed.
Our romance providers are tuning up – Doug and Sandy – two renowned slack key guitarists who’ve been together probably since their twenties. They are of the Age of Aquarius, having been together a long time. They remind me of laidback hippies. She in Hawaiian print dress, long braids, flip-flops; he in a more subdued but Hawaiian shirt, long pants and sandals. They moved, talked, and mesmerized me in a mix of hippie/Hawaiian time and motion.
Two folding chairs are up front, in the open air – although humid and rainy – open air building, two floor mics, a very, very small floor fan to cool the musicians, and a little table between them with extra picks, CDs, and water bottles.
Sandy both collects the money and performs. Concert pricing- if you are between 20-50 years old, you pay full price; if you’re a student – you get a discount price; over 50– you get an even bigger discount.
If someone came in during a song, Sandy would give a nod, keep playing, and go collect the money at song’s end. The room gradually fills up with tourists, local fans, and folks getting out of the rain. Of the forty people making up the audience, there is one couple, that we can see, who are under forty, or perhaps even under thirty.
We ask the youngsters if they had to pay full price since they are the only younger couple in the entire room. “No, in fact we got the student discount… And..we’re on our honeymoon.” Romance…
“You comin’ there, Sand?” Doug asks over his shoulder.
“Yep.” She sways to her chair. Ah, ok, here we go… Just as she is about to sit down, up she rises, and goes over to the fan.
“I did just fix that,” Doug says in a neutral voice.
“But it’s not perfect,” she replies with purpose. She moves it about one inch. “There.”
Doug gives us that look that many couples are familiar with. It’s the look of someone who knows their partner well, knows there is a certain attention to detail that the other partner does not hold to be vital, and an acceptance that this is how their loved one is comfortable. Back to her chair.
My sweetheart looks at me and is shaking with silent laughter. “Wha’?” I ask. “Nothing,” he says and puts his arm around me.
Sandy has an easy listening voice. I have heard a supposed story of how they met. Doug came to a party, picked up a guitar and started playing. She was smitten. They’ve been together ever since. I’m reminded how I first fell in love with Hank’s voice – deep, measured, kind. I squeeze Hank’s hand. He gives the familiar pat, pat, pat back. Sandy shares about Doug’s talent in learning, exploring, and sharing the tradition of slack key. She looks at him. He nods and begins to play.
And I’m off on a quiet trip of musical notes that kind of hang and shimmer before finding their way to the next note.
Then it’s Doug’s turn to talk. He looks at Sandy and takes an egg timer out of his pocket, and sets it. “She only gives me two minutes to talk.” She gives a Mona Lisa smile. But he talks about her, how she has created a slack key composition that will make us think of birds chirping. When she plays, he accompanies her and occasionally looks at her, and his face is undeniably peaceful and happy. When she finishes, he plucks one string on his guitar – the note of the bird. He looks at us like Didn’t I tell you?
They are a couple. They are individual musicians, and they are each other’s champions.
What is love? It’s more than passion, kisses, and dreamy-eyed sighs. It’s going because ‘she wants to.’ It’s appreciating my National Treasure driving through the afternoon rain, dashing along muddy paths, settling in a one-fan room on a humid day to be treated to 1½ hours of restful music.
Romance is not always as I picture it, but it is always, if I allow it to be, “nahenahe.” Sweet and gentle.
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.