The late Leonard Keala Kwan played ki ho`alu -- Hawaiian slack key guitar -- for over fifty years. Along with slack key greats Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth, he was one of the three most influential slack key players in history. A quiet man with great depth of feeling, his personal philosophy of respect for others embodied the spirit of nahenahe (gentleness).
In the late 1940s Leonard was one of the first to take slack key outside of Hawai`i, and in the 1950s he released some of the first ki ho`alu singles. In 1960 he recorded his classic first album, SLACK KEY (Tradewinds 103, known as "the red album"). This was the first Hawaiian album to feature all instrumental slack key tracks. In 1974 he released his second full album, THE OLD WAY (Tradewinds 1128), and during the 1970s he compiled one of the first slack key instruction books.
Leonard Kwan was born in Honolulu in 1931. His mother, Rose Hauoli, sang traditional Hawaiian music. Leonard began to learn ukulele and guitar from his grandfather (Reverend Ambrose Hauoli Kaua) and his uncle, Joseph "Pete" Hauoli. "The first slack key tuning they showed me was Taro Patch (Open G Major, D-G-D-G-B-D, from lowest-pitched string to highest)," he says. "All together, I learned at least ten tunings." Leonard's favorite tuning was the C Wahine (C-G-D-G-B-D), known among slack key players as "Leonard's C."
Leonard's Uncle Pete played ki ho`alu in downtown Honolulu. During World War II, when business was booming, he started taking Leonard with him. "I got the chance to play with Genoa Keawe, Benny Rogers, Andy Cummings, all the union guys," says Leonard, "so many I forgot. From then on I was hooked."
In the 1970s, Leonard left the public limelight. Except for an occasional benefit performance on O`ahu or on his mother's home island of Maui, he stayed home, teaching his sons and his grandson how to play slack key. In the 1990s he returned to the studio for the first time since 1974 to make a series of solo recordings for Dancing Cat Records, aimed at documenting his entire repertoire.
In 1993, in recognition of his many contributions, Leonard received the Ki Ho`alu Award from the Hawai`i Academy of Recording Arts. In 1994 he was officially named a "Living Treasure" by the City and County of Honolulu.