Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Eddie Kamae: A life tuned in key of destiny

 •  Book explores music's spiritual connections

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Reason says that one evening in 1942, some absent-minded rider left a Honolulu Rapid Transit bus without remembering to grab his or her 'ukulele.

Eddie Kamae has been a key figure in the revival of Hawaiian music.

Kamae collection

One incarnation of The Sons of Hawaii — from left, Joe Marshall, David "Feet" Rogers, Gabby Pahinui and Eddie Kamae — records at the KPOI studio in the 1960s. A new book on Kamae's life details the complicated relationship the iconic band's members shared.

Hula Records

The 1976 members of The Sons of Hawaii — back row, from left, Moe Keale, Eddie Kamae, Dennis Kamakahi; front row, Joe Marshall and David "Feet" Rogers — were photographed at Maui's Seven Sacred Pools.

Bob Jamieson

Eddie Kamae, left, says the advice from his mentor Sam Li'a Kalainaina, right, was: "Play it simple. Play it sweet."

Boone Morrison

Myrna Kamae has collaborated on all projects by her musician/filmmaker husband, including the book "Hawaiian Son."

Philip Spalding III

It was driver Sam Kamae's last run of the night, the lost-and-found office was already closed, so Kamae took the instrument home and gave it to his brother, Eddie.

The rest is history.

But readers of the recently released "Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae" by James Houston and Eddie Kamae may come away with different take: A person whose name is lost to history steps off a bus one evening in 1942, leaving behind an 'ukulele that, as if by design, finds its way to its rightful if unknowing owner, the 15-year-old Eddie Kamae.

The rest is destiny.

"All through Eddie's life, there's been an aspect of destiny," says Houston, Kamae's friend and collaborator for the last 20 years. "There are times when Eddie has been guided in certain directions and to certain places. Things are sent to him that seem almost predestined.

"It's a fascinating part of of his story, the way things unfolded to keep Eddie on his own path of spiritual and cultural growth," Houston says.

Kamae's early experiences with the 'ukulele sparked a passion for music, leading Kamae to realize that a vast musical and cultural history was then in jeopardy of disappearing.

Kamae's personal reclamation of that history is, as Houston says, emblematic of a greater Hawaiian story. It's also the driving force behind Houston's and Kamae's amazing new book.

Compelling and elegantly written, "Hawaiian Son" traces Kamae's early rejection of Hawaiian music in favor of more technically challenging jazz and Latin forms, his complicated relationship with the brilliant Gabby Pahinui and their groundbreaking work with the Sons of Hawaii, collaborations with Mary Kawena Pukui and mentor Sam Li'a Kalainaina, and Kamae's more recent efforts to capture and preserve key elements of the Hawaiian cultural experience.

Houston, a former musician and an award-winning author of 15 fiction and nonfiction works (including "Farewell to Manzanar," which he co-authored with his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston), was a natural — some might say predestined — choice to write the book.

Since their first meeting some 20 years ago, Houston and Kamae have collaborated on seven documentaries for the Hawaiian Legacy series. (Kamae's wife, Myrna, is also key collaborator in the book and in all of Kamae's projects.)

"Over the years, Eddie has come to trust me with a lot of information that I don't think he would have shared with many other people," Houston says. "Without that, I never would have heard the stories that Eddie was carrying around in his heart.

"They're very personal," Houston says. "A few have to do with experiences that some people would call superstitious or mysterious — improbable. But in the Hawaiian world view, these things really happen."

"Hawaiian Son" reveals Kamae not just as a formidable natural talent, but a man whose scholarly pursuits inspired him to re-define the limitations of Hawaiian music by reaching back to the past.

In studying hula mele and other traditional compositions,

'Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae'

• By James D. Houston with Eddie Kamae

• Ai Pohaku Press

• $29.95 (hardcover)

• Companion releases: "The History of The Sons of Hawai'i" (DVD, $19.95) and "Eddie Kamae — The Sons of Hawai'i" (CD, $16.99)

Kamae sought out experts and community kupuna alike to find out the proper pronunciations and to explore the layers of meaning contained in each poetic line. "I wanted to understand how to approach each song," Kamae says.

Kamae's approach to filmmaking reflects similar values. The book details the lengths Kamae has gone through to understand not just the human subjects of his documentaries, but the lands in which they were raised and the familial legacies that inform their lives.

Neither whitewash nor tell-all, the book reflects Kamae's gentle demeanor and his reverence for the various teachers and peers who stewarded his development, without sacrificing the hard facts of his life.

Through Houston, Kamae candidly recounts his early days running dice games in the Farrington High School bathroom and his three-year imprisonment for his role in a medicine scam — a key turning point in his life. The book also chronicles the turbulent behind-the-scenes dealings that went on as the Sons of Hawaii recorded their seminal album, "The Folk Music of Hawaii."

Binding it all is that same sense of predetermination, the feeling that every meaningful experience that Kamae has had — from his early fascination with an old song written by Queen Lili'uokalani to his near-mystical introduction to sacred Waipi'o Valley by Kalainaina, to his documentary work on "warrior cowboy" Luther Makekau — has been availed to him for greater purposes.

Just like that first 'ukulele.

"Maybe it was fate that my brother picked up that 'ukulele and brought it home," Kamae says. "It's the same thing in every work that I do, in songs and everything. I have that feeling that it was meant to be at the time."

Reach Michael Tsai at 535-2461 or mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.