It’s a testament to the diversity of San Diego’s music community that one of the hottest local combos in recent memory is Hawaiian-themed group, Slack Key ‘Ohana. Winners of the 2022 San Diego Music Award for Best World Music Album for their self-titled debut release, Slack Key ‘Ohana is based around the duo of Kamaka Mullen and Brian Witkin and specializes in traditional Hawaiian music, mixing vintage tunes with like-minded original songs. Though ostensibly a duo, the group expands, depending on the gig, often including Joe and Carol Witkin on keyboards and ukulele respectively, as well as Rand Anderson on pedal steel. Such was the case with their performance at Tiki Oasis, held at San Diego’s Town and Country Resort on August 3, 2022, and now released in full on the aptly titled album, Live at Tiki Oasis.
Slack Key ‘Ohana’s island sounds proved to be the perfect soundtrack for an afternoon under the sun and palm trees at the world’s largest Tiki-themed event. Though a relatively new group, the combo has quickly become festival favorites around Southern California, noted for their production values. For the band’s bigger events, their shows not only feature the larger lineup, they also include hula dancers and storytelling elements that add to the fun. For the Live at Tiki Oasis release—minus the dancers—you truly get the whole concert. There are a total of 33 tracks on the album, with half of those being brief intros and song stories. Close your eyes, sip a pineapple drink, and you are there. When listening to the album, it’s important to note that no audio sweetening was used. The whole thing is so well recorded and the band so tight, particularly on the harmonies, that Live at Tiki Oasis sounds like a studio recording, those aforementioned spoken passages and bits of audience applause between songs being the only real indicators that this is a concert album. The vocal arrangements are particularly impressive.
While Slack Key ‘Ohana’s sound is essentially acoustic folk music, there is a pop element to the proceedings. Indeed, fans of Blue Hawaii-era Elvis or early Beach Boys vocals will find much to admire here. Highlights include a cover of Country Comfort’s 1975 song “Waimanolo Blues” and Bob Nelson’s “Hanalei Moon” from 1974, but the clear single on this album is the band’s namesake tune, “Slack Key ‘Ohana,” penned by Witkin and Mullen. It’s the perfect signature song for the group, combining their strengths with an earworm melody. Ultimately, it’s the duo’s songwriting prowess that makes their albums special. Singing and writing in both English and Hawaiian, not only are they helping to preserve a musical genre and folk traditions—indeed educating listeners through their song cover choices—but also the songs they are writing, including the five originals here, are truly cut from the same cloth.
Anyone who is a fan of Hawaiian sounds—or close harmony singing—will enjoy this album. Slack Key ‘Ohana’s debut studio effort takes the edge when it comes to their releases to date, but Live at Tiki Oasis is a worthy follow up and an excellent introduction to the band, as well as modern Hawaiian music in general.