The day Joseph Kekuku was inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame was a proud moment for those of us who knew and admired him. Joe, or Butterfinger as he was known to his musician friends, was being recognized as the originator of the Hawaiian-style guitar playing that he had popularized with his band in 1930. Their music spoke with the voice of the islands, and the sound of his steel guitar playing was said to be as smooth as butter.
There was another side to the story. Wherever we performed Joe would turn to the band between songs to make sure we were listening, and then address the audience with details of how “The unopened pocket knife fell from my hand and across the strings of the guitar." Here he would feign a look of surprise, there would be an extended pause for effect, and then he would slide the bar along the strings from the low notes to the high notes and back down to demonstrate what he had discovered.
"It was the glissando tone I had so admired when my brother played violin. Glissando. I love the sound of the word. It is like the voice of a songbird, the sound of the wind, the waves against the sand, the trees, the sun, thesmell of orchids after a shower.” He would talk to the audience in a trance-like delivery that articulated his bliss, and then Mari would sing one of the songs they had written together:
Joseph would play a verse or two on steel guitar with the audience in the palm of his hand before she sang the final verse.
Joe was the kind of musician you love to be around, someone who showed in his face the joy he felt whenever and wherever he happened to be playing his steel guitar. He was an artist who was able to hear every component in an ensemble, and respond to what he heard with his own music in a way that brought things together as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Joe played as if he was dreaming, and the rest of us were included in the dream.
Harpeth Rivers is a New Mexico transplant from all over who has in the last year written songs about isosceles triangles, played bass guitar in a band, and declared himself "Retro-eclectic." His novel-in-progress is entitled Last Year.
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