Led Kaapana’s mastery of stringed instruments, particularly slack key guitar, and his extraordinary baritone and leo ki`eki`e (falsetto) voices, have made him a musical legend. He has been thrilling audiences for more than 40 years. With easy-going style and kolohe (rascal) charm, he has built a loyal corps of Led Heads from Brussels to his birthplace on the Big Island of Hawaii. Recognition by his peers earned Led 4 Grammy nominations in his own right and 2 wins on slack key compilations.
Like so many Hawaiians, Led grew up in a musical family. In the tiny black sand bay village of Kalapana, there were few distractions. “We didn’t have electricity, no television, not even much radio,” says Led. “So we entertained ourselves. You could go to any house and everybody was playing music.”
Often everybody was playing music at a backyard party, many of which lasted for days. “People played in shifts, taking over when somebody went to sleep,” Led recalls. “You’d fall asleep to the music, wake up….and the music was still playing. That was the best alarm clock I ever had!”
It was at these family gatherings that Led learned to play in the old style, watching, listening, then imitating. Chief among his teachers were his mother, Mama Tina Kaapana, and his uncle Fred Punahoa. “Even today when I play, I still picture all the `ohana (family) getting together and sharing their songs and their aloha.”
Although isolated, outside influences did creep into Kalapana. Like most kids his age, Led loved to rock and roll and also listened to country, jazz, and Latin music. When he’d sneak a riff from a guitar hit of the day, like Pipeline or Walk Don’t Run, into his music his dad would tease, “Hey, that’s not slack key!” But nobody ever stopped him, they just encouraged him to “play what you feel and play with aloha.”