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Darin Leong '99 Builds His Slack-Key Musical Reputation in Hawaii

A Hawaii native raised on the slack-key strumming and falsetto hum of Hawaii’s music icons, Leong was nominated last month for two Na Hoku Hanohano Awards—Hawaii’s answer to the Grammy’s—placing him alongside some of that genre’s biggest names. “It’s really come full circle,” he says. “Just being in that company was incredible.”

Leong grabbed nominations for Best Instrumental Album and Most Promising Artist for his second studio album, Five Years and Many Miles, which was released last September. The disc recounts Leong’s experiences in New York City where he relocated just one week before the September 11 attacks to pursue a law degree at New York University. The title cut, “Five Years,” looks back at the city’s recovery and his personal growth during his time there.

While on the East Coast, Leong joined a tight-knit musical community of Hawaii expatriates, even getting the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall and Staten Island Stadium. “New York is a totally different place,” he says. “It really helped shape my perception of the world, my perception of music.”

Last year, Leong moved back home to the islands, his album serving as a “calling card and introduction for the people of Hawaii.” And although he did not take home any trophies this year, he has garnered the attention of the local media and the support of key local musicians like singer Robert Cazimero, guitarist Barry Flanagan and ukulele icon Jake Shimabukuro.

Leong specializes in slack-key, a 200-year-old technique invented by Hawaiian musicians “slacking” the strings of their guitars. Leong’s signature sound mixes traditional Hawaiian methods with New York panache and an extensive knowledge of the classical technique picked up while studying music at Pomona College. According to Leong, his time in Claremont was pivotal in shaping his sound and, of course, preparing him for law school. “The exposure was really useful,” he says. “It shaped me as a person and it shaped me musically.”

While at Pomona, Leong studied under Professor of Music and professional guitarist Jack Sanders. Leong quickly made his mark at that time with his willingness to mix slack key style with more classical musical training. “He had an excellent technique and beautiful musicianship,” Sanders says. “I was thrilled to see that he was nominated for the Na Hoku awards.”

As if managing his blossoming music career weren’t enough, Leong also works as an attorney in Honolulu, specializing in employment and labor law. It’s a bit different from the high-powered law firm he became accustomed to in New York, he says, but it’s an adjustment he’s happy to make. br>
“I always wanted to move home,” he says, watching the surf from his office window. “It’s the community that I grew up in and it’s the musical community that I wanted to be a part of.”

For more information on Darin Leong's music, visit his Web site at Hawaiiguitar.com.--Travis Kaya '10