Talking Story With Jesse Kalima’s Nephew

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When you grow up in the Big Island the big city is in Hilo.  And having spent my whole life on the west side, I still get lost over there and I still find places in parts of town I never knew existed.  During the time I spent playing music with Braddah Smitty I had the wonderful opportunity to play in some of these little hole in the wall joints, that I otherwise would have never known existed or would have never dared walk into for that matter.

One of the most interesting things about paying music with Smitty is you never knew when or where a music throw down was about to happen.  Once after playing a baby luau in Hilo we decided to stop into a bar for some drink and pupu.  We found some little hole in the wall in the industrial part of town.  Upon entering it was like the whole entire staff rearranged things to accommodate Smitty. Tables would be moved, chairs changed around, pupu magically arriving out of the kitchen and of course cold beers quickly arriving in front of us.  I wasn’t of interest to anybody, it was all for Smitty.  Soon an entire table would amass with people coming to sit down, talk story and say their hellos.

After some food and drinks would come the gracious request if he would so kindly be interested in plugging in and doing some entertaining.  Smitty would always generously oblige and we would play a short set for whoever happened to be there.  It was one of my most favorite moments to be apart of.  I felt like I was experiencing something magical, spontaneous and above all real.  These people longed to hear Smitty sing.  They needed it.  People would dance the hula, people would cry, hoot, holler, whatever the music did to move them.  I was just lucky to be along for the ride.

On this particular night after we had finished sharing some music I was seated next to a kind elderly gentleman who was very interested in where I was from and how I learned to play `ukulele.  I told him my story and he was very complimentary of my playing. He told me his uncle was the great Jesse Kalima.  I was shocked.  Jesse Kalima is one of the first true virtuosi of the `ukulele.  His album Jess’ Uke was revolutionary in its use of chord voicing, intricate picking lines and tremolo rhythmic strumming.  Coming out in 1962 it, along with Eddie Kamae’s “Heart of the `Ukulele” set the gold standard from what is possible on this little four stringed wonder.

It was so great to sit and talk story with this man.  He was so forthcoming in his compliments of me and his advice to keep doing what I do, that the art of true `ukulele playing is being lost to all the newer emphasis on flashy showmanship and single note rapid picking.  I felt so humbled to hear this from a man who I know had heard and seen the real deal.  But he also told me an important thing.  Have your own style.  He said that’s what truly set his Uncle Jesse apart.  He always strived to have his own style.  And if you listen to his recordings, especially the Jesse Kalima and Sons & Sam Wai`au album you will know what I mean.  Unfortunately this album is out of print, but if you ever get your hands on it you will be amazed.  The song “Kila Kila O Moanalua” still blows me away with its use of syncopated rhythmic drumming and subtle ukulele counterpoint.  It sounds like if Hawaiians brought their music to Mexico, taught them how to play and left, not the other way around.  Truly innovative and unique.

HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.  When I think back to this moment in time and I listen to Jesse Kalima’s music I think about how much he went beyond the known boundaries.  He put his own stamp on Hawaiian music.  He never played a song how others were playing it.  His tempo, instrumentation and arrangements were always his, but always Hawaiian at the same time.  I love when I hear an arrangement of a song that is new and fresh and unlike anything I have before.  It is getting rarer and rarer these days.  More people continue to churn out the same arrangements of the classics done so many times before.  that is OK, that is what they know.  But for me, I look to HO`ANALU….to go beyond the known boundaries.  I like to play Hawaiian music with my own little flourish.  I learned this from people like the great Braddah Smitty who always did things his way.  He played Hawaiian music the right way, with the right heart, the right feeling, but it was always a little different.  It had that little touch of something that was unique to him.  He along with so many others embody that spirit of HO`ANALU….to beyond known boundaries.

 

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