Born Keolamaikalani Breckenridge Desha Beamer on February 18, 1951, in Honolulu, HI; son of Winona Kapuailohia Beamer (a chanter, composer, and author) and great-grandson of Helen Desha Beamer (an influential singer, composer, and hula exponent); married Moanalani Beamer (a hula teacher and performer). Addresses: Record company--Dancing Cat Productions, P.O. Box 639, Santa Cruz, CA 95061. Website--Keola Beamer Official Website:

A descendant of Hawaiian royalty, Keola Beamer is an influential musician and teacher who has helped revitalize traditional Hawaiian music. He is widely recognized as both a master of slack key guitar and a significant contributor to this Hawaiian form of music. Beamer rose to prominence in the 1970s with his popular and critically acclaimed album Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in the Real Old Style, released in 1972 on the Music of Polynesia label. He is considered a leader in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance begun in the 1970s. His continued efforts to blend traditional Hawaiian sounds with contemporary music forms have helped solidify his reputation as both a popular and influential artist in the twenty-first century.

Keolamaikalani Breckenridge Desha Beamer was born on February 18, 1951, in Honolulu. He grew up in Kamuela on the Big Island of Hawaii surrounded by members of his renowned musical family. Beamer noted in his website biography that, "In my family, music was taken seriously. It was an integral part of our lives, almost like a religion." His illustrious family history can be traced back to the fifteenth century to Queen Ahiakumai Ki'eki'e and Ho'olulu, a child of Kame'eiamoku, the favored wife of Kamehameha I. Within his more immediate family, Beamer counts many important members of Hawaiian culture, including his legendary great-grandmother Helen Desha Beamer, composer, singer and hula exponent; grandfather Pono Beamer, composer; grandmother Louise Leiom Alam Beamer, master teacher; cousin Mahi Beamer, falsetto singer and pianist; mother Winona Beamer, chanter and teacher who coined the term "Hawaiiana"; and brother Kapono Beamer, guitarist and composer.

Beamer was first inspired to study guitar by his grandfather, a paniolo, or cowboy, who would come home from a long day of work to pick up the guitar and strum delicate songs. Guitars had been brought to Hawaii in the late 1830s by Spanish and Mexican cowboys, who taught horsemanship and cattle ranching to the panilos. After the Mexicans and Spaniards left, the guitar remained, but the Hawaiians soon devised their own methods of tuning and playing the instruments. Perhaps because guitar strings were scarce and difficult to replace, the panilos tuned the strings slack, or loosely, thus beginning slack key guitar, or ki ho'alu, which translates as "loosen the key." Beamer was impressed by the contrast between the rough work of the cowboy and the intricate fingering required for the guitar.

Carried on the Family Legacy

In Honolulu, Beamer attended Kamehameha Schools for children of Hawaiian ancestry, and studied classical guitar in high school and college. He also studied piano and 'ohe hano ihu, a bamboo nose flute. He began his musical career as a guitar accompanist in his mother's hula studio in Honolulu. Beamer remarked about his early experiences in his website biography, saying, "That's part of being in the Beamer family--your job is as a musician." He also joked, "And my mom is the only person who ever fired me." All kidding aside, Beamer has always taken his music quite seriously and has become the standard-bearer of his family's musical legacy.

By the mid-twentieth century, slack-key tunings, once closely held family secrets, had put the art of slack key playing in danger of dying out. Beamer became a proponent of sharing the knowledge of ki ho' alu to preserve this unique Hawaiian art form. He recalled in Dirty Linen magazine in 1998 that as a boy he had once chanced upon an old Hawaiian man "playing the most beautiful, soulful music with his eyes tightly shut in concentration." When the old man finally noticed the young boy watching him, he quickly stopped playing because Beamer was not a member of the old man's family. Beamer remarked, "It seems to me that I have been chasing that same sweet sound for my entire life." Not only has he been chasing that sound, but he has made it his mission to make that sound in its authentic form more available to his own people as well as to the world.

Blends Traditional and Contemporary Sounds

In 1972, when Beamer was 21, he released his first solo album, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in the Real Old Style, on which he composed, arranged, sang, and played guitar. This influential work not only launched his solo recording career, but it sparked a statewide interest in reviving ki ho' alu. This revival, begun in the 1970s, was a catalyst for what eventually became known as the Hawaiian cultural renaissance. Further cementing his imprint on the movement, Beamer published Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in 1977, an instruction manual based on a tablature system for sixteenth-century lutes; it was the first book on slack key guitar.

As a young musician, Beamer was influenced not only by traditional Hawaiian music and chants, but by rock 'n' roll as well. Indeed, this blending of old and new styles is a trademark of his music. Jack DeMello, producer of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in the Real Old Style, wrote in the album's liner notes, "Beamer's unique approach of fusing his traditional slack key performances with splashes of inventive contemporary musical images brought a new musical awareness to the people of Hawai'i."

One of Beamer's collaborations with his brother Kapono was their hugely successful 1978 release Honolulu City Lights. One of the biggest-selling records in the history of Hawaiian music, Honolulu City Lights garnered a slew of Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, the Hawaiian equivalent of a Grammy, including Best Song and Best Composer for "Honolulu City Lights" and Best Contemporary Hawaiian Album. Reissued in 1987, Honolulu City Lights continues to reach a wide audience.

During the 1970s Beamer, along with George Gilmore and Donald Marienthal, began to make guitars from koa and mango wood and established the Guitar and Lute Workshop in Honolulu. Teaching, a responsibility he took very seriously, became his focus for several years. His 1977 book Hawaiian Slack Key, an instruction manual, further broadened interest and knowledge in slack key guitar. Although Beamer has since refocused on performance and composition, he remains dedicated to teaching his art, offering information and online lessons, workshop camps, and instructional books, CDs, and videos. Beamer even ventured into film with the award-winning documentary Keola Beamer: Ki ho 'alu, first released in Maui in 2001 and later screened at major U.S. film festivals in 2002.

Broad Appeal into the New Millennium

In 1994 Beamer released Wooden Boat, his first album with George Winston's Dancing Cat label, one that has helped broaden the appeal of Hawaiian music. Wooden Boat debuted at number 15 on Billboard's World Music chart and was critically acclaimed for its varied artistry in a wide range of styles, including calypso, Hawaiian flute, and slack key.

While still working with George Winston and Dancing Cat, Beamer launched his own label, 'Ohe Records, releasing Island Born in 2001. The album, which celebrates the beauty of Hawaii, includes collaborations with fellow slack key master George Kahumoku, Jr., longtime friend and composer Jerry Santos, bassist John Kolivas, singer Princess Keli'iho'omalu, and Moanalani Beamer. Expressing his heartfelt connection to his home, Beamer explained, "There's a radiant feeling at least once a day when the curtain of every day activity lifts, when you stop whatever you're doing, and see this place for its amazing beauty.... It really can't be expressed in words, but in one's heart there's a feeling of thankfulness and pride. There's a haunting sense of gratitude that you feel to be a part of this. It seems to me that this is what Hawaiian music is all about." Writing in the Maui News Jon Woodhouse acknowledged the ethereal quality of Beamer's work, stating "Whether performing original compositions or presenting new interpretations of traditional material, a timeless quality pervades every track on this recording. Celebrating the essence of the islands, a reverential connection to the past whispers through these songs."

Beamer released his seventh solo album in 2002 with Ka Leo O Loko: Soliloquy on the Dancing Cat label. Comprised of guitar solos, the album includes a mix of slack key classics and original compositions. Roundly praising the work, Chris Nickson commented in All Music Guide, "[Beamer's] so well-versed in the [slack key] tradition that he can make 'Pauahi 'O Kalani,' composed in 1868, and his own 'The Myna Bird's Dobro' seem completely natural next to each other." From the start of his career, Beamer has masterfully mixed old and new through innovative approaches that have invigorated the genre and distinguished his reputation, noted in the New York Times as "the quintessential master of the slack key guitar style."

by Elizabeth Henry

Keola Beamer's Career

Began career as guitar accompanist in his mother's Honolulu hula studio; released solo album Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar in the Real Old Style, 1972; partnered with brother Kapono Beamer to release award-winning and best-selling album Honolulu City Lights, the first of many recording collaborations; continued solo and teaching career throughout 1980s; released first album on Dancing Cat label, Wooden Boat (first Hawaiian music LP to reach top 15 on the Billboard World Music chart); performed Internet "cyber-lu'au," the first Hawaiian live music concert performed online, 1995; released storytelling and musical CD Golden Lehua Tree: Stories and Music from the Heart of Hawaii's Beamer Family with his mother Nona Beamer, 1996; released fifth Dancing Cat CD, Ka Leo O Loko: Soliloquy, 2002.

Keola Beamer's Awards

Na Hoku Hanohano Awards (with Kapono Beamer), Best Engineered Album, Best Produced Album, Best Song for "Honolulu City Lights," Best Composer, Best Single for "Honolulu City Lights/Please Let Me Know" Best Contemporary Hawaiian Album for Honolulu City Lights, 1979, Instrumental Album of the Year for Mauna Kea: White Mountain Journal, 1998; Hawaii Music Award, Slack Key, for Island Born, 2001; New York International Independent Film & Video Festival, Music Documentary for Keola Beamer: Ki ho 'alu (Loosen the Key), 2002.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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