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LT's Children Create Lap Steel Guitars With Timbers from a Loʻi

LT's Children Create Lap Steel Guitars With Timbers from a Loʻi


Kuʻulei B., a kamaliʻi (child of the heavens) who participates in Liliʻuokalani Trust youth programs, recently spent eight weeks crafting her own lap steel guitar sourced from invasive timbers. The wood — which otherwise would have been discarded, mulched or burned — came from the restoration of historic loʻi kalo terraces in Maunawili and Puʻuhonua o Waimānalo. The land is being restored to promote food security and perpetuate cultural practices rooted in the traditions of ʻaloha ʻāina.    

“Forest to Frets” is the name of the guitar-making program, a partnership between the Trust and The Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings. The weekly sessions were part of the “Tūtū’s Hale” after-school series hosted by the Trust on Oʻahu’s Windward side for children ages 6-16.

It was an insightful way to end their school year at Tūtū’s Hale, because the materials used to make guitars came from their backyard, Waimānalo. Previously, the youth learned about the ahupua'a system and the 'āina, understanding that stewarding the land will, in turn, ensure provisions for them.

The youth also were introduced to the lap steel guitar’s creator, Joseph Kekuku. As a teen, Kekuku revolutionized guitar playing in the 1880s by moving a metal bar across the strings to change the pitch, with the guitar laying across his lap. This innovative playing method led to a musical revival in the 19th century Hawaiian Kingdom and inspired diverse genres like jazz, Gospel, rock ʻn’ roll, country and blues.

“Now, I know a lot about my Hawaiian history,” said Kuʻulei, who, along with her friends, expressed enthusiasm and pride in learning about their kūpuna (elders).

Teaching the kamaliʻi about their heritage is an honor, says Kilin Reece, who led the instrument-making sessions. “No matter what style of music you listen to now, there's a Hawaiian origin story that's part of the puzzle,” he says. Reece is a luthier and the Executive Director of The Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings (a luthier builds and repairs stringed instruments with necks, such as violins and guitars).  

To impart his knowledge on the children, Reece divided the lessons into smaller steps. First, they pencil-sketched designs onto fingerboards, using symbols and phrases that told their moʻolelo (personal stories). Then, they selected their own guitar bodies. After sanding and varnishing the wood, they laser-cut designs on the fingerboards, and glued and clamped them onto guitar bodies. As a final step, they installed the tuners, pickups, and other small components, and strung steel strings onto the instruments. 

Additionally, the children were led by two Teammates from LT’s Kīpuka Waimānalo location: Direct Services Specialist Alexxus “Hiʻipoi” Ho, and Youth Development Specialist LeShay Keliʻiholokai.

The sessions concluded with a hoʻīke (performance), where the children played their instruments for friends and family. They were taught by Raiatea Helm, a Hawaiian music artist specializing in leo kiʻekiʻe (female falsetto). Helm is a Program Coordinator for the Trust’s ‘Ōlino Pathways program.

Helm says she is grateful to be in a position where she can share her music knowledge with the next generation of Hawaiians, and Reece can teach them vocational skills. “We are planting seeds to get the kids working with their hands again because we have definitely lost that touch,” she says. “As a program coordinator for the Trust, I really want to see our kamaliʻi thrive,” she says.