Full of life – Meet alum Sean Olanui Robbins

If there is such a thing as a typical From the Top alum, Sean Olanui Robbins of Puna, Hawaii is not one of them. When Sean performed on NPR’s From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley (Show 210 in Kea’au, Hawaii) his instrument was, and happily still is, the guitar. But more specifically, Sean plays the slack key guitar. He also writes his own Hawaiian songs, or Mele – an all inclusive term referring to Hawaiian chants, songs or poems.

Sean Robbins with guitar in hawaii

The term “slack key” is a translation of the Hawaiian term kī hōʻalu, which means “loosen the [tuning] key”. Slack-key guitarists loosen the tuning key, or slack the strings, so that the guitar is tuned openly and lower, rather than in the standard format of EADGBE.

Slack key originated in Hawaii and is still played there predominantly, but thanks to musicians like Sean, who just released his first CD, it is now becoming more widely known and generally falls into the genre of world music.

Since his 2010 appearance on From the Top, Sean has continuously honed his performance and song writing skills. Around that same time, Sean began working very closely with Hawaiian slack key guitar master and mentor Cyril Pahinui, whom he respectfully calls Uncle Cyril. Pahinui eventually urged Sean to begin the process of producing his first CD which they did at a small local studio. Later, they traveled to Honolulu to a higher quality recording studio to bring the process farther along. Sean had not often been to Honolulu and for him that was a great privilege.

When Sean appeared on From the Top he was proud to receive our Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, and those funds provided the seed money for the making of that CD. Titled  “Olanui,” it was recently released and Sean has been very busy promoting it.  “Olanui,” which translates to “full of life,” has been a long time in coming and a true labor of love. The CD features 11 original songs played in Sean’s unique progressive style.

The album is Sean’s personal best and an intimate look at his life experiences thus far, expressed through his love for the Hawaiian traditional art of slack-key. For example, the haunting mele “Kaimū I Ka ʻOlu” is a tribute to a beloved place in Hawaii called Kaimu (a small town in the Puma district).

“It all began here in this special place. I did not realize that spending time in Kaimū and learning from the people there would have such a huge impact on me and the person I was growing into.”

Now that he’s busy with his recording career, we were curious how being on From the Top has influenced that career.

Slack key guitarist Sean Robbins

Being part of the group of performers “was really cool,” he said. “Looking back I didn’t realize how great it would be. I was not very familiar with classical music and it was my first experience seeing it performed live. I noticed that everyone (on the show) was very polished.” Some of them practiced many hours a day. At the time he felt they were in a different world. “And yet, now that’s where I am,” Sean explained. For Sean, being on the show was pure enjoyment. “I was pretty mellow compared to the others.” But he came away with something very new and important. For the first time, Sean was with kids who really loved their music. “What I learned from being on the show was their sense of seriousness, the caliber and technicality of their playing, and the many hours they practiced,” Sean remembered. Observing them inspired him to make music his career. He wanted to emulate that devotion. Sean then used a portion of his scholarship funds to purchase a higher quality guitar.

Currently Sean is having a great time promoting the CD. Each Hawaiian island has its own major commercial radio station, so he has appeared on morning news shows and radio spots throughout Hawaii and has worked with Hawaiian Public Radio (HPR). He has traveled often to Honolulu for performances and media appointments. In November he flew to Seattle with “Uncle Cyril” for the 2014 Seattle Slack-Key Guitar Festival, which Cyril founded. “That was my first experience going outside of Hawaii playing music,” said Sean. “It was a super cool experience seeing the wider audience for Hawaiian music outside of Hawaii. Performing there was a huge personal achievement for me.” Besides the fact that it’s so far for Sean to travel, the other performers on the bill are so well-respected that being with them was an honor.

From the Top wishes Sean lots of luck with his new CD. You can learn about Sean, order his CD, and get a fleeting chance to experience Hawaii by going to www.seanrobbinsmusic.com.