Children from LT Create Music from Upcycled Timber

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Photo: Cathy Cruz-George

By Cathy Cruz-George

Kamaliʻi of Liliʻuokalani Trust (LT) recently embarked on a musical journey, creating lap steel guitars from timber sourced from invasive trees cleared during the restoration of historic loʻi kalo terraces in Maunawili and Puʻuhonua o Waimānalo.

The guitar-making program, “Forest to Frets,” is a partnership between the Trust and The Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings.

For eight weeks in April and May, the kamaliʻi participated in the program as part of the LT’s “Tūtū’s Hale” series in Waimānalo. The youth, ages 6-15, sketched designs onto fingerboards, selected roughed-out bodies of guitars, then sanded and varnished raw wood with hand-applied shellac. They laser-cut and attached the fingerboards onto guitar bodies, strung them with steel strings, and learned to convert electromagnetic energy into musical notes by disassembling magnetic pickups. The program concluded with a hoʻīke for their families.

Photo: Kamaliʻi with Guitars
Kamaliʻi from Waimānalo proudly hold the guitars they made as part of LT’s “Forest to Frets” 8-week guitar-making program in partnership with The Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings. On the far right is luthier Kilin Reece, who led the program. – Photo: Liliʻuokalani Trust

In the process, the kamaliʻi learned about the lap steel guitar’s creator, Joseph Kekuku, a teen in the late 1880s who revolutionized guitar playing by laying the instrument across his lap and sliding metal against the strings to change the pitch. The technique sparked a musical revival in the 19th century Hawaiian Kingdom and later influenced genres like rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and country.

The kamaliʻi not only crafted their own lap steel guitars but also took great pride in Hawaiian music’s global influence. One participant, Sofie R., says she gained an appreciation for her ancestors in their efforts to share the instrument with the world.

The program was led by Kilin Reece, a luthier and the executive director for The Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings. (A luthier is a person who crafts and repairs stringed instruments like violins and guitars). Reece has conducted extensive research on the history of Hawaiian music and is enthusiastic to share his manaʻo with LT’s youth.

“After a lifetime doing lutherie, I get to step back and just be the student and be in awe of these children,” Reece says. “They are so brilliant. The world’s greatest Hawaiian steel guitarists are waiting in the wings to share their mastery and their musicality with these young people.”

There is symbolism in transforming invasive wood into beautiful music — akin to the Trust’s mission of teaching children resilience amid adversity.

“In the process of restoring instruments, we are restoring Hawaiian culture, the moʻolelo, and the families that may have experienced trauma,” said Raiatea Helm, program coordinator for LT’s ʻŌlino Pathways. “We have an opportunity to bring back this history that has so much value to our wellbeing.

“There is a significance in working with children, and seeing the work done for the children,” she added. “I am very, very grateful for the opportunity, for the people, and the partners we work with. We work for our Queen and our aliʻi.”


Cathy Cruz-George is on the Communications Team of Liliʻuokalani Trust.