The lineup for the 16th annual Southern California Slack Key Festival, which celebrates Hawaiian culture through the musical tradition known as ki ho’alu (or slack key), is stacked with some of the island’s top players.
However, one of the most accomplished artists on the bill isn’t a Hawaiian native, but a current Van Nuys resident whose talent has earned him a Grammy award and led to him being recognized as one of the top names in the genre.
And Jim “Kimo” West didn’t even start out playing this traditional style of music.
Early on, he was in a few rock bands before landing a gig playing guitar, banjo, mandolin and keys with singer-songwriter, accordion player and parody artist “Weird Al” Yankovic.
“With ‘Weird Al’ I get to play in front of thousands of people every night and in slack key, we do get to perform at festivals, but it’s very different and I love both. It’s just so much fun for me,” said West, who will be joined by dozens of other artists at the annual Slack Key Festival, which returns to the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center on Jan. 15.
The daylong event will include hula dancers, a Hawaiian marketplace and performances by artists including George Kuo, Makaha Sons, Sonny Lim and more.
“The set is always incredible. It’s just beautiful music, a beautiful stage. I think it’s the best Hawaiian show on the mainland,” said West, who has performed at the festival just about every year since its inception in 2008.
West, who was born in Toronto, Canada and also lived in the South Bay before more recently moving to the San Fernando Valley, is a self taught guitarist who first met Yankovic just as the Southern California native became a music video and radio sensation in the early ’80s.
“Al was putting a band together and needed a guitar player,” West recalled. “I didn’t really know much about who he was. It was just a guy with an accordion and I auditioned and got the gig and the rest is history. I’ve been playing with him ever since.”
West joined Yankovic’s band in 1983, just before he released the album “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D,” which contained the massive hit “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
“That’s when things really blew up with music videos and of course we got a lot of airplay on MTV,” he said. “It’s been a real honor to play with him.”
It was while on a break from a summer tour with Yankovic back in 1985 that West made his first trip to Maui and discovered slack key music.
“We went to a little town in Maui called Hana and they had a lot of Hawaiian music records there by these famous slack key artists and when I heard the music I just fell in love with it. To me the music sounded very much the way the place looked,” he said.
Since that trip, while in between breaks from his full-time gig, West began playing ki ho ‘alu music. He released his first album, “Coconut Hat,” in 1999 and has now recorded more than a dozen albums, performed at Hawaiian festivals and picked up a few awards along the way.
Once of his biggest accolades came in 2021, when he won the Grammy for best new age album for “More Guitar Stories.” His “Moku Maluhia-Peaceful Island” album was also nominated for a Grammy award in 2019.
West said he still enjoys being able to pull double duty and keeping up with Yankovic’s touring schedule, while also being able to create his own music that he’s passionate about.
“Obviously I haven’t sold as many records as ‘Weird Al,’ but both careers have been very fulfilling,” he said.
Southern California Slack Key Festival
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 15 (music starts at 2 p.m.)
Where: The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach
Tickets: $20-$65 at slackkeyfest.com.
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