Tugging at the heart strings
By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
FAMILY: Divorced. Son Keoki, also a musician. Nine adopted children; one stepdaughter.
EDUCATION: The Kamehameha Schools; California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland.
OCCUPATION HISTORY: Now a musician and artist; special motivation teacher, Lahainaluna High School. Former jobs included farming and a director for the Hawaiian programs agency Alu Like in Hilo, where he also served as a musician with the late hula master "Aunty" Edith Kanaka'ole.
RECORDINGS: On the Dancing Cat label: "Drenched by Music," "Hawaiian Slack Key Masters" (volumes 1 and 2); on the Daniel Ho Creations label: "Island Classics"; on the Aire Music label: "Hymns of Hawaii, with Daniel Ho" (Hoku award, 2000); on the Kealia Farms label: "Ho'oilina - The Legacy"; "E Lili'u"
BOOK: "A Hawaiian Life" (Kealia Press, $14.95)
WEB SITE: www.kahumoku.com
George Kahumoku will sign copies of his book, "talk story" and perform:
The fact that he lived tells you that:
(A) Kahumoku is very, very lucky, and/or (B) he simply had too much living ahead of him to quit that soon.
He's an artist, who wrote and illustrated a new book. He's a Hoku award-winning slack-key guitarist, with 40 years of playing experience and three CDs out since the past holiday season. He's been a farmer, off and on, throughout his life. He's the divorced father of 11 children, one biological child, one stepdaughter and nine who came into the family through adoption.
And he's a teacher in Maui's Lahainaluna High School's special motivation program for "alienated" students. Perhaps it's not so coincidental that now it is Kahumoku who is throwing out a lifeline to kids who were, in a manner of speaking, also drowning.
"I think I reach about 95 percent of the kids," Kahumoku said. "Because the classes are smaller, we care for them. They're not a number. I find value in whatever their gifts are and build on that.
"Some kids are not so good at reading and writing, but they love music. And I love music," he added. "So I use the music to teach them about English through poetry and songwriting. We have a lot of hands-on stuff. We have a huge garden, and we cook all the time."
It's difficult to imagine how Kahumoku ever finds time to sit and think, but he's clearly done some of that lately. His book, "A Hawaiian Life" (Kealia Press, paperback, $14.95), is an examination of what to many seems the contradictions of existence with one foot in each of the Western and Hawaiian worlds.
Kahumoku believes it's entirely possible to do the dance, and keep your balance. In teaching, he said, his American modes of training and his Pacific ways become his yin and yang.
"What happens is like left-brain, right-brain," he said. "I learned the Western way of teaching, but when I'm in the classroom, I go back and draw on what I learned from my family."
Music has served as an effective bridge between American and Hawaiian influences in his own life, and in the lives of ki ho'alu devotees Kahumoku meets at guitar gigs around the country. The Hawaiian sound of slack-key guitar seems to cut through the tension of modern life and reconnect people with something more fundamental, he said.
"I've had people call me on the cell phone from California," after hearing one of his CDs. "It touches us in a place that's really deep. They feel that they're pono," he added, using the term for the Hawaiian concept of correctness and balance.
Kahumoku returned Feb. 19 from a 15-city tour across the Mainland, along with other slack-key artists. Among them was Owana Salazar, a vocalist and one of the few female guitarists trained in the ki ho'alu style. Salazar and Kahumoku had been acquaintances since both attended the Kamehameha Schools but became friends and colleagues three years ago when they sat in on a gig at BJ's Chicago Pizzeria in Lahaina.
A little later, Kahumoku called Salazar on O'ahu and asked if she'd perform an ongoing gig with him and son Keoki at the Westin Maui. For the next two years, Salazar commuted to the Valley Island three nights a week, an experience from which she learned a lot, she said.
"George and Keoki are very responsible human beings, the big chip off the big block," Salazar said. "You almost never hear them complain. I know from working with George, we're just going to get things done."
Kahumoku seems to make connections easily. Four years ago, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., programmer named Paul Konwiser, always fond of Hawai'i and its music, attended a pre-concert lecture Kahumoku gave at UCLA.
"It's not like any lecture you've ever seen," Konwiser said. "He sings songs and tells stories. He just draws you in."
Later, the two met, and after a chat Konwiser offered to help Kahumoku's students by setting them up with some computers. It was the beginning of a friendship that led a year or two later to "one of those conversations you have when you're about 50: 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'" Konwiser recalled.
"George said, 'I always wanted my stories written down,'" he added. "I said, 'I always wanted to be a writer.' And he stuck out his hand."
So Konwiser helped Kahumoku set down his story in "A Hawaiian Life." In addition to the narrative, Kahumoku contributed pen-and-ink illustrations that spotlight his skill with fine arts. After focusing his studies on art at Kamehameha, he went on to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. His skills include sculpture as well as drawing; one of his pieces, titled "Puhi," stands in the governor's office.
What enables Kahumoku to merge all these disparate aptitudes in his life is that he doesn't view them as particularly disparate. For him, work is connected to craft is connected to art.
He spent many of his growing-up years on the Kona coast, raised largely by grandparents and great-grandparents (his parents had divorced, and his father worked as a diesel mechanic on Kwajalein).
There were 26 cousins living in three houses in the family compound; one was a cookhouse, containing an imu and kerosene stove. Farming became a way of life that followed him into adulthood; Kahumoku has raised pigs and worked a Big Island macadamia nut and coffee farm.
In a very Hawaiian way of thinking, farming and artistry, he said, are all the same.
"When I was farming the land, I was sculpting the land," he said. "The medium doesn't matter . . . I can be sculpting, or raising a pig, and it's the same. You do all this preparation work, and once you get the piece out, you get to work it and polish it."
"The pig is better," he added, "because you can eat it."