By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Born on the Island of Maui, two-time Grammy Award nominee and eight-time Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award winner Jeff Peterson (Native Hawaiian) grew up on the slopes of Haleakala. Jeff has worked with a wide range of artists and groups in the fields of Hawaiian, classical, and jazz music. He has traveled to Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, Africa, India, and across the United States to perform.
Jeff taught the guitar at the University of Hawai’i for several years, and currently resides in Kailua, Hawai’i.
As the day ended and the sun set over the island of Maui — touching the ocean waves with brilliant splashes of crimson, fiery golds, and deepening the blues — Jeff’s father came in from work at Haleakala Ranch and picked up his guitar. A paniolo, a Hawaiian cowboy, he played and sang, introducing the rich heritage of Hawaiian music to his son.
“He loved singing traditional songs and played a very simple style of kī hō`alu or Hawaiian slack key guitar,” Jeff says. “I wouldn’t be playing music if not for him.”
Bringing this history together with masters in slack key guitar, Jeff expanded his style of traditional Hawaiian music to include jazz, classical, and contemporary music while preserving the pure, resonating sounds.
Jeff is continuing to preserve this technique by turning his attention to online teaching by building a subscription-based educational website focused on Hawaiian slack key guitar.
“The audience I intend to reach is global, but the most important is the keiki or youth of Hawai’i,” Jeff explains.
Jeff’s First Peoples Fund (FPF) Artist in Business Leadership fellowship is not only helping him launch the educational website, it has brought him into a unique circle of artists and musicians. At the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Jeff joined other FPF fellows for the 2018 Fellowship Convening last month. He had just finished a tour with performing solo concerts that ended in Santa Fe.
“I enjoyed getting to know the other fellows,” Jeff says. He met performing artist and singer/songwriter Raye Zaragoza (Pima/O'otham Descent), and they worked together on a song the first day that expressed the emotions the group felt. Jeff and Raye wrote, performed, and filmed the song at the convening.
Whether among fellow musicians or with a global audience, Jeff continues to share the rich heritage gifted to him through his ancestors.
“My family heritage on O’ahu goes back many generations,” he says. “My father taught me about our culture, music, and ways to both appreciate and make efforts to preserve the ways of our ancestors or kupuna. I want to educate aspiring musicians to study kī hō`alu so that the tradition can continue and evolve in ways that honor the kupuna.”