I Ulu No Ka Lālā I Ke Kumu

sons in studio

As the tourist economy continued to grow and the realities of statehood began to take hold with the people of Hawaii, a realization unfolded that the musical culture of Hawaii had moved significantly far away from its roots. While the Hawaiian language remained relatively strong in comparison with other colonized nations, musically, profound changes had occurred from the humble chant based beginnings of the pre-contact Hawaiian. As covered in detail in my previous post “The World Cup That Is Hawaiian Music Part 7: This Is Getting Big” by the 1960s Hawaiian music had been deeply mixed and intertwined with the developments in American popular music and along with the concurrent commodification of the Hawaiian culture resulted in a watered down musical identity. So here I will be discontinuing my “World Cup” series of blog posts on outside cultural influences on modern Hawaiian music. By the 1960s the music of Hawaii had become some inundated with outside changes that it no longer contained its own unique musical identity. It was time to go back to the source of where Hawaiian music grew from.

And thus I chose the proverb “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu” for the title of this post. Translated as “the branches grow because of the trunk” this proverb refers to the branches that continued to grow during the commodification of Hawaiian music. While the music found in the lounges of Waikiki, the Hollywood movies of Elvis and the barrooms of the cruise ships may have been the systemized pop music of the Don Ho stage show, many Hawaiians were still playing a style of music that was a continuation of the music that was created from the influences of Mexican ranchera ballads, Madeiran folk songs and the jazzy steel guitar that laid the foundation of the modern Hawaiian sound. The difference being, these musicians were playing this music in their backyards and beach parties, rather than in the bars along Kalakaua Boulevard or lounges of the Moana Hotel.

There were two individuals that were very conscientious of this reality and dedicated themselves to changing what type of music was being played at the popular bars and restaurants of Honolulu; Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui. If you haven’t done so, I would recommend that you read Eddie Kamae’s account of this shift of consciousness in his biography Hawaiian Son.” In this stirring recollection about his meetings with Gabby during a weeklong recovery from near fatal sickness, Eddie recounts his discussions with Gabby about their frustrations with the type of musical demands put on them by the restaurant and showroom owners in Waikiki. At this point Gabby was in high demand as a steel guitar player in the resort music scene and Eddie had been recognized as the number one ukulele performer in all of Hawaii, even having toured the mainland. But they had become restless performing a style of music that had drifted too far from their idea of a true Hawaiian sound. Performing steel guitar in Andy Cummings backup band, Gabby was now playing the jazz and pop styles favored by the Hawaii Calls radio program. Eddie had become well known for his ukulele arrangements of Latin numbers and American standards he performed during Ray Kinney’s luau shows. Something had to give.

As Eddie tells it, it was through these discussions that Gabby began to feel alive. He got so excited that he began to eat and was finally able to regain enough strength to pick up his guitar again. Armed with his ukulele, Eddie began to play the music with Gabby that they remembered from their childhood. The rapid strumming of the ukulele and the finger picking of the slack key guitar along with the traditional ballads and place songs of the early 1900s reaffirmed the original joy that they got from playing music. Calling upon close friend Joe Marshall to bring his stand up bass, they knew they had tapped into something new that was based on the sound they had been missing. The final piece was the steel guitar of the elusive David “Feet” Rodgers who had maintained the traditional steel guitar style of his father, rather than the new pedal steel style that had emerged as the dominant sound.

For the next four months they met regularly honing this new sound. Rather than trying to replicate the sound of the past, they were looking to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. They took the songs of previous generations, but by applying a fresh new musicality to it, developed over their years and years of performing, created something that had never been heard of before. Eddie began to research the archives of the Bishop Museum incessantly, looking for the original vocal and musical arrangements and the original unadulterated verses of long lost Hawaiian compositions.

After these months of long jam sessions, this group, now dubbed the “Sons of Hawaii” debuted their new music at the Sandbox in Honolulu to raucous crowds. People would travel from all over Oahu island to see this new group who had a sound that was distinctly different from what was being played on the “Hawaii Calls” radio show. Gone were the jazzed up chord vamping of the electric guitar, the repetitive downbeat root notes of the bass, the chang-a-langy open chord rhythms of the ukulele and the long drawn out reverb laden notes of the steel guitar. These were replaced by the rapid melodic fingerpicking of the open tuned steel string acoustic guitar, the complex closed chordal voicing and intricate lead lines of the ukulele, syncopated dulcet tones of the stand up bass and the tight staccato flourishes of the steel guitar. On top of this were Hawaiian vocals that, through the guidance of cultural elder Mary Kawena Pukui, were sung with proper intonation and pronunciation with conscientiousness adherence to the original intentions of the composer.

Soon they were one of the highest paid and most in demand Hawaiian music groups in all of Hawaii, as people eagerly attended their shows to soak up this “new” music that so strongly tapped into their ancestral consciousness with clearly an ear and eye on the future. With the release of their debut album “Gabby Pahinui and the Sons of Hawaii” (so named as Eddie Kamae was still under contract with another label and couldn’t legally identify himself with this recording) and the subsequent album “Music of Old Hawaii” The Sons set down onto vinyl their new sound. 30 seconds into the debut track “Na Ono Na Ia Na Kupuna” you can tell you are listening to something that sounds uniquely fresh, yet is firmly growing from the foundational trunk of the past. This is the moment of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries!

These well attended performances and popular first two albums, along with the recordings of slack key guitarists Leonard Kwan and Raymond Kane set the ground work for what would later became known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” in Hawaiian music. They were perpetuating a style that was soon to be actively absorbed into the younger generation that grew up hearing these recordings. Groups starting with The Sunday Manoa, Hui Ohana and later, Olomana, The Makaha Sons of Niihau, Keola and Kapono Beamer, were branches along this tree whose trunk grew from the Polynesian chants of the original Hawaiians.

And through it all The Sons of Hawaii continued to perform and record. Over the years, Gabby Pahinui left, Moe Keale joined, as did Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth and a formidable who’s who of Hawaiian musicians. One of the most influential being the late Dennis Kamakahi, whose original compositions jump started the Sons back into the limelight during the musically dense 1970s when every bar and restaurant in Honolulu were hiring “traditional” Hawaiian music groups. Later avoiding the ever growing reggae infused island music of the 1980s, Eddie Kamae and The Sons of Hawaii trudged on with new members Braddah Smitty, Goerge Kuo, Gary Haleamau and Paul Kim. With the passing of Joe Marshall, Ocean Kaowili joined and later Mike Kaawa. Always with their ever present palaka shirts, The Sons of Hawaii held high the candle of this new Hawaiian music sound with over 10 albums of music to draw from.

As a “Spiritus Mundi” took hold on the consciousness of the world with an emphasis on where we came from and the cultural identifiers of our past, so it did in Hawaii in well. Led by Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui, a concise musical language was developed to reflect this changing consciousness. This became the framework of the type of music being produced in the backyards and barrooms across Hawaii.

A parellel could then be drawn to the growing folk music scene of the 1960s in America. Much like The Sunday Manoa and the like were drawing from The Sons of Hawaii, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Cosby, Stills Nash and Young, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds were the new groups drawing from the foundation laid by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, The Weavers, Lead Belly and Big Bill Broozny.

Today as American musicians are looking back to these folk music traditions to create a new sound rooted in the past to oppose the electronic and pop laden music of today, will Hawaiian music do the same? Well that is a complex question and one I would like to address in more detail in a future post. Mostly because almost the opposite thing has happened here in Hawaii. Even though the popular music in the islands today is a watered down rhythm and blues reggae style called “Jawaiian”, “traditional” Hawaiian music has remained strong.  But again through the demands of the tourist industry to create a standardized form of Hawaiian music, the original intentions of Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui and other members of the Sons of Hawaii have been misconstrued. The idea as I see it is to coninue to grow. To continue to be the branches growing from the trunk. And this is the idea of HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. But unfortunately this has not happened. Instead the branches have ceased to broaden. The same branch has continued to grow in one direction, never having expanded into new territory. Unfortunately this will cause the branch to collapse under its own weight. So today I ask my fellow musicians and lovers of Hawaiian music to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. This is what I strive to do. Use different instrumentation, compose new mele with variations in tempo, key and rhythm. Experiment, try new things. Adapt and incorporate new sounds from music you enjoy. But always remember the trunk you grow from. Never forget that “i ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu”, “the branches grow because of the trunk.”


A Great Voice of Hawai`i Rediscovered



Besides an impressive lineage of instrumentalists, composers and dancers of hula, Hawai`i boasts an even more astounding history of world class male vocalists. Their heyday was found in the lounges and luau shows of Waikiki in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the more noteworthy are Alfred Alpaka, Bill Lincoln and Gary Aiko. Before the movement towards a more traditional slack key based sound the male crooner was a sought out and highly respected type of performer. One individual that is often over looked is Kalani Kinimaka. One big reason for this is the lack of recorded material available by him. Fortunately for us this changed recently when an entire album of material was discovered after his death in 2011. It is currently available on iTunes as well as on reputable Hawaiian music websites like mele.com.

This album was recorded in 1980 with talented guitar player Henry Ka`ahea and featured a mix of traditional Hawaiian tunes, hapa-haole classics and some pop covers. What you will find are some of the greatest vocal recordings in the history Hawaiian music. His voice is strong in the deeper registers yet reaches a feathery delicacy is the high ranges. His vocal phrasing is inventive and well thought out, showcasing his subtle vibrato and smooth tonality. Whether it is the love-lost yearning of “Ka Makani Ka `Ili Aloha” or the bouncy playfulness of “Jamaica Farewell” Kinimaka is equally at home. HIs voice reaches its apex in the classic Hawaiian love song “Pua Lilia.” And in listening to this recording I am left to wonder if my mentor Braddah Smitty was at least partly inspired by Kinimaka’s delivery.

All this is framed by the truly astounding nylon string stylings of Henry Ka`aheo. His spanish guitar provides the perfect backdrop to the vocals, providing complex chordal support for the fine vocal delivery. The solos are tastefully picked representations of the melody with an appropriate amount of decoration to leave you wanting more. The flamenco-esque flavors of his playing take the songs somewhere beyond a typical hapa-haole tune or traditional Hawaiian piece into somewhere beyond. The rendition of “I’ll Remember You” is a great example, as this version has now become my favorite recording of this classic Kui Lee tune. I would highly encourage you to take a listen to this album if anything for the remarkable version of this song.

I had recently posted about my top 5 under the radar Hawaiian music albums of all time. This one wouldn’t qualify as it remained unknown until it was discovered a few years back.  Having been originally recorded in 1980 it got me wondering what other recordings are out there that haven’t seen the light of day? If something of this quality can stay undiscovered, the possibilities for more are intriguing. I am just glad that this album made its way to my ears. So I ask all those out there to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries and try to dig deep into your vaults and bring out any unreleased recordings. There is a large enough Hawaiian music fan base that would love to hear some of these hidden gems from the past.

Talking Story With Jesse Kalima’s Nephew



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.


Another One Leaves Us Too Soon



I only met Chino once, but he left a lasting impression on me.  A few years back I went by the Kahilu Theatre to check out the free show during the Slack Key and Ukulele Institute series.  I had seen the name “Chino Montero” on the bill, but wasn’t familiar with him or his music.  What I saw that night blew me away.  The way he shredded on the guitar in such a relaxed and humble manner was shocking to my eyes and ears.  The way he tastefully and artfully completely ran circles around the melody put me in awe.  “Shredding” per se isn’t something that is overly valued in Hawaiian music. The idea is to humbly state the melody and embellish within the bounds of a restrained approach. Not to say there aren’t people who play fast or overly complex, it is just not something that is emphasized.  But there was something in the way this man did it that was so proper and fitting to who he was a musician.  He would be constantly smiling and laughing as he was playing like he was just as amazed himself as we were as to what he was playing.

Later that evening I was excited to see him and some of the other members of the Slack Key Institute at a show I was playing with Braddah Smitty.  After the show we all sat at a table together and do what musicians do after they have all played their gigs: eat and talk story.  The conversation was lively as it was a collection of eccentric musicians (what musicians aren’t!) talking story, shooting the shit and busting each others balls.  I was the greenest and youngest member of the group and just sat and listened the whole time.  I mean what can I really contribute when you have heavy weights like Aaron Mahi, Sonny Lim, Braddah Smitty and Benny Chong and others around?

Because musicians are always playing at different venues every night, it is rare that a bunch of them are able to get together at one time.  Add in that many of these guys live on O`ahu, there was a lot of catching up to do.  That night I happened to be seated next to Chino and his wit, charm, story telling and humor were second to none.  Topics ranged from Rap Reiplinger to seeing the original Makaha Sons to the status of various venues long gone in Waikiki to Gabby and Sonny getting drunk at the old Waimea Hotel (which is now the HPA Village Campus where I now work!) to well anything and everything.

Amongst all this discussion, Chino took the time and talked to me.  He said he was watching me while I was playing and he noticed that I was listening.  He noticed I was paying attention to what was happening around me.  He said my playing was respectful, restrained and refined.  He told me to keep at it.  He told me there was still time for me to learn and to improve. He told me I needed to HO`ANALU….to go beyond the known boundaries.  He told me to be grateful for my opportunities, continue to improve, never be satisfied, learn more, take chances and above all stay humble.  It made me practice harder, prepare better and it set a fire in my belly to humbly develop what I could do with my `ukulele

I will never forget that night.  It took me awhile to comprehend everything that I heard and that went on.  When I heard of Chino’s passing I immediately thought of this short moment I got to share with Chino.  The album of music he recorded before he passed “Made In Hawai’i” is sweet and soulful.  Chino may not have been in the realm of the “heavy hitters” in the business, but he deserves to be.  He is one of the countless many in Hawai`i who humbly went to work every evening perfecting his craft and constantly improving.  There is so much talent here it amazes me sometimes.  I have seen guys in the backyard to a no name guitarist in a trio at a hotel gig who could play circles around some of those that have shelves full of awards and accolades up the wazoo.

Unfortunately another one has left us to soon.  I am sure I am just one of many who Chino touched with his playing and his positive joyful attitude.  I am so grateful I had the opportunity to meet this man who contributed to my own journey of HO`ANALU, of going beyond my known boundaries.

A Painting of Eddie Kamae Takes Me Back



I humbly believe that the greatest ukulele player ever was Eddie Kamae. He recorded what I find to be the best ukulele album in existence “Heart of the Ukulele” in 1962. I was very blessed to have the opportunity to share the stage with and play with Eddie Kamae when I played ukulele for Braddah Smitty. It wasn’t my best night and I was honestly rather intimidated to be playing with such a master. As he sang “E Ku`u Morning Dew” and I transposed in my head the often played version in G to D, I prayed he wouldn’t ask me to pa`ani. Of course he did and I proceeded to mangle what is a perfectly constructed melody in my attempt to quickly transpose the melody up a fifth. This is a lot more challenging on an ukulele with its limited range and peculiar re-entrant high G tuning.

None the less, afterwards Smitty related to me Uncle Eddie’s impressions of me as a player. When Smitty asked him how “the boy (me)” did, he responded with “the boy still has lots to learn.” When Smitty said “I think in a couple years he get ’em” Pops said, “I think in 20 or 30 years he might get ’em.” That remains the most humbling assessment of my skills as an ukulele player and something that always reminds me to keep working at my craft and more importantly be ready for the moment. This painting is currently on display at the Isaacs Art Center at HPA, it is what got me thinking about that moment when Eddie Kamae sang “E Ku`u Morning” and tossed me the solo. An adjunct is I totally nailed “Ka Lama `Ae One.”


HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries

Me and da boys waikoloa                     smitty in hilo

On June 9th, 2012 I was standing deep in the jungle on the eastern end of Hawai`i Island.  In the silence of the moment I looked up and saw a falling star streak across the sky.  In the still of one of the remotest places in the world, where I had not heard a sound for hours, in the distance a dog barked.  I knew my friend had arrived safely on the other side.

I first saw Braddah Smitty at the Broiler in Waimea after I had returned home from college.  I walked into the bar area and saw a well built Hawaiian man in a palaka shirt singing music that reminded me of the time from my childhood.  It was that peculiar singing so unique to the people of Hawai`i and the odd rhythmic strumming of the guitar.  This was the sound I had longed to hear.  It had been locked in my memory from the braddahs under the tree at Napo`opo`o Beach and from the gatherings in the backyards of South Kona.  I needed to know who he was, I needed to know how this sound is created, I needed to know how I could find my way onto a seat at this jam session.

Over the next 5 years I had the privilege and honor to get to know Braddah Smitty, to get to know how this sound was created and finally onto a seat at the greatest jam session I ever got to know. What happened is what I have come to know as HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. This phrase was given to me by a keeper of the knowledge of the Hawaiian way. What my experiences in playing music has taught me is that there is a place beyond what is known.  There is something existing, not beneath the surface, but further past the limits of what we think we know.

I would like to explore these boundaries.  Through the stories shared with me, through the things I have seen and through the knowledge passed to me, it is my time and I would like to share.  I would like to use this blog to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries.  It was in that moment standing in the dark amongst the trees around me and the damp grass beneath my feet that I was confronted with his spirit.  And what he told me will stay with me forever.  I knew it was my time, it was time to HO`ANALU….