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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

David Kupele, old-time musician, dead at 81

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

David Makahanohano Kupele was a child of the streets who became a man of God.

Kalaupapa-born singer/composer David Kupele was a self-taught instrumentalist.

Advertiser library photo • 1967

Many knew him as a Waikiki entertainer during the 1950s and '60s, a singer/composer who wrote the oft-performed "Lehuanani" and who appeared with legendary baritone Alfred Apaka.

But his family and friends also remember his gritty beginnings and his gentle final years.

Kupele, whose middle name means "majestic eyes," died May 14. He was 81. Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Hawai'i Kai Baptist Church.

Kupele was born in the Hansen's disease settlement at Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, the first of 12 children whom his father, a permanent resident there, helped deliver, said Kupele's youngest daughter, Kealani Gillis. Right away, health officials took the infant to O'ahu, where he lived with a succession of relatives and on the streets, "living off his wits," Gillis said.

As a teenager he returned to the settlement to live with his parents and work as a cowboy for territorial officials.

Gillis isn't sure when, but at some point her father taught himself the musical skills he used as a performer. He was a bass player who also played 'ukulele and sang.

He got his musical start in the late 1940s. While serving with the merchant marine in California he joined a Hawaiian band that played Sandy's 5-Mile House in Sacramento, Gillis said.

In the early '50s he was back in Honolulu, playing at Harbor Tavern with a band called Hawaiian Chimes.

He went on to write "Lehuanani" to help a friend mark the first birthday of her daughter, as well as "Birds of Paradise," "Four Lovely Dolls" and "Mu'umu'u Built for Two," which debuted in the Hilton Hawaiian Village Tapa Room with two dancers wearing an oversized mu'umu'u.

As a member of Apaka's group, which was adopted by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, he performed throughout the Mainland and Canada.

"He was always full of energy," Gillis said of her father. "When he was with Alfred Apaka, he was always the one with all the energy making jokes in the background."

He was "tough," she said, a former reserve police officer who would ultimately retire from the public defender's office.

In 1973, Kupele was involved in a head-on traffic collision and, while recovering, found religion. He began going to church and wrote religious songs, Gillis said.

Ken Newman, retired pastor of Hawai'i Kai Baptist Church, knew Kupele for about a dozen years. Newman will give the eulogy on Saturday.

He called his friend "a man after God's own heart."

"He was very gentle, loving, compassionate, always concerned about others," Newman said. "He was our greeter at the door where people came in. After a while I began to call him Mr. Aloha. That describes him pretty well."

Sometimes, Kupele played 'ukulele or sang during the services.

And for years, Kupele and fellow church member Asa Yoshimoto regularly visited incarcerated youth offenders, Newman said.

"A lot of young people, their lives were changed by that," Newman said.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.