Jim “Kimo” West is an award-winning Hawaiian Slack Key guitar master. While many recognize him as the longtime guitarist for satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kimo is highly regarded for his warm and richly melodic style of music. We recently spoke about his love for ki ho’alu (slack key guitar), his connection to Hawai’i, and his newest album.
Your website shares about your visit to Hana, Maui in 1985 and how you were immediately “drawn to the rhythms of slack key guitar” – it seems that trip has had a deep and long-lasting impression. What about ki ho ‘alu has been most impactful on your life and musical career?
When I first came to Hana, Maui in 1985, I had never been to Hawai’i. By a twist of fate, I managed to find my way to one of the most Hawaiian places anywhere in the islands, even before I ever saw Waikiki or Lahaina. The family I stayed with had many Hawaiian music records but the ones that really caught my ear were the ones by slack key artists, Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane, Atta Isaacs and Sonny Chillingworth. It was a sound that resonated with my soul and also seemed to fit perfectly with this new-found paradise I was discovering. To this day, listening to these records transports me right back to my early days in Hana, Maui. Playing ki ho’alu is a kind of meditation for me and I feel so much gratitude for this wonderful gift.
Which, if any, slack key masters have had an influence on you? What have they taught you?
I never really got to study personally with any slack key masters but Gabby was the first and foremost influence on my slack key playing. For a number of years, I just listened to his CD’s and absorbed that mana, before I ever started trying to learn slack key. Once I got into playing slack key, I really got to appreciate Gabby’s use of his C tuning and I worked on being fluent in the tuning’s different variations. From Sonny I learned to focus on the importance of that steady, lilting pace and to play very cleanly, keeping the bass very distinct.
What does it mean to you to be recognized as a slack key master?
Well, I don’t know what the qualifications really are for being a “master” but I am honored nonetheless to represent this beautiful guitar tradition in whatever way I can. It is simply something I really enjoy doing and, even if I wasn’t making records and performing, I would still be here on my couch playing!
How has Hawaiian/slack key music changed your life?
I have made music my life since I was sixteen – playing Hawaiian music reminds me everyday why I got into music in the first place. And that is simply for the enjoyment it gives oneself and others, playing with your friends and ‘ohana whether it be on a stage or in a carport or living room somewhere.
Your bio mentions other “professional hats” such as a writer and producer of music for film and tv. Anything that we might recognize?
I have always enjoyed composing music and in the early eighties I decided to pursue a possible career in film and TV music. My first real job was re-creating scores to classic 20th Century Fox films. Fox was releasing twelve films in China and needed to dub them into Chinese language but they were missing a lot of the original music masters. I was hired to re-create the original music whenever there was dialog. This was my “education” in orchestration and I went on to score a few features as well as a lot of music for animation shows like “Iron Man” and many others. I also composed for the Disney Channel, Kid’s Choice Awards, many others and commercials for clients like Honda, ESPN, Nestle’s.
Having recorded numerous slack key albums from 1999 to 2012, how has your music and style evolved?
We heard you have a new album coming out in November 2013 – what can expect to hear from you on this album?
I guess I’d say my style now embraces more different influences from jazz and blues to African music but I still reach back to connect with tradition and am always learning from the original masters of slack key. And hopefully my technique has gotten better!
My new CD is actually another holiday slack key disc. My previous holiday CD has been well received and I figured, since there are a lot of Christmas songs, why not record another? I had some free time in early January and the holiday spirit was still intact so it was a natural! It’s called “Ki Ho’alu Christmastime” and features another gorgeous block-print cover by the amazing Caren Loebel-Fried.