As we wandered back to Lyon Botanical Garden’s visitor center one afternoon, I was walking with my new prima (cousin) Napua. We were separated from the rest of our group. It was a humid afternoon. Napua looked at her phone and said casually, “Paul says Jeff Peterson’s here.” I smirked a little. “He’s lying”, I said.
It was a great practical joke. We had been listening to his recordings the past few days. I could scarcely believe Peterson’s slack key skill. He was faithful to the slack key masters, but he also had brilliant classical technique. He had recorded jazz standards and written original music in slack key. He was developing a unique style no one else was doing. I had seen him twice in Seattle, but with big ensembles. I dreamed of seeing him play solo, up close.
A minute passed. I idly gazed around the gift shop. Napua said, “Lorna says we should go outside.” We left the shop. And suddenly, in front of us, there was the rest of our group, standing with Jeff Peterson.
Finally, I told him I had seen him twice in Seattle. He said he had really enjoyed the tour he had done with Led’ Kapa’ana and George Kahumoku. They played in Seattle last winter. Then, suddenly he was inviting us to see him the following night at the Kailua Public Library. “It’s going to be about slack key music. I’m going to play some songs and we’ll talk story.” I looked at Paul and Lorna, and realized my dream would come true.
Below, Jeff talks story about his family’s Chinese ancestors, including his grandmother, who painted with watercolors. He describes composing his (stunning) composition “Tantalus” as a musical sketch with the abstract sensibility of a watercolor painting. Then he plays it.
Jeff talked story about discovering, through his grandfather, Leonard Kwan’s “Slack Key Instruction Book”, one of the very first books to teach the slack key style. It was out of print, and only Hawaii’s public libraries still had copies. “It is a treasure of a resource” he said, “and it should always be published, because this tradition needs to be preserved. We need more players”. Now, thanks to Lorna, I have a bound copy on the music stand in my small basement music studio.
Jeff talked more story about how he has traveled to different places to perform, met local musicians, and learned new music styles. He had been to Columbia and Venezuela, learning llanero music and other South American guitar styles. Two Venezuelans, Urania and Rosa, were with me. I asked if he could play some South American music for us. He obliged us with a short piece, “Misioneras”, written by Argentine composer Fernando Bustamante.