From delinquent to star: L.T. Smooth
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
"They say I play smooth," said entertainer Leon Toomata, better known by his stage name L.T. Smooth, about his ki ho'alu style.
The name may not ring a bell on O'ahu, but that may change when Smooth, 33, who lives and works in the Kona area, makes his debut at the 25th Slack Key Guitar Festival on Sunday at Kapi'olani Park bandstand.
"I went to hear him perform at Huggo's in Kona, and I was amazed," said Milton Lau, festival organizer and Grammy-winning producer for the Rhythm & Roots Records label. "And he picked up slack key only about year ago," he adds incredulously.
Lau first heard about Smooth through guitarist Donald Kaulia, who recruited the musician to guest-perform on his own CD, which Lau was producing.
"This guy was a really good slack player. He could play everything, from guitar to piano to horns — a one-man band. And he sings," said Lau, who is also about to launch Smooth's debut CD, "Freedom."
At the festival, Smooth will share two original compositions — one that's a fusion of rock, R&B and the classics, the other a jazz number — as well as a traditional Hawaiian favorite.
"All in slack key," said Smooth, speaking by phone from the Big Island.
Lau had aimed to release the CD in time for the festival, but it has been delayed a week. Its arrival should give him statewide exposure by the time he appears in the Kona version of the Slack Key Festival on Sept. 2.
Smooth chose the CD's title "because I survived the hardest time of my life — my youth. I've found my freedom."
Music has been a liberating — and lifesaving — force for Smooth. By the time he was a teenager, he was a runaway, a thief and an addict.
He is hapa — Samoan and haole — born in Maori New Zealand and raised by adoptive parents.
"Growing up Maori, with Samoan and haole blood, was a very touchy subject in Samoan culture," said Smooth, adding that the environment led to a bumpy life.
Nothing seemed to go right in his childhood.
"I grew up with the gang scene, I was a heroin addict, I left school at 9 and never finished," he said, with candor rarely heard in Hawai'i.
At 11, he was a runner — "you'd pick up drugs from a dealer, sell them, bring back cash. The boy who did all the dirty work, for a bit of cash and some drugs," he recalled.
"I was so good at hiding, my parents could never find me," said Smooth. "I think they gave up on me."
He once weighed 255 pounds, but his addiction saw him drop to just 130. "My body weight got eaten by drugs. I hit rock bottom," he said.
Homeless and hungry, he stole food from supermarkets. "One guy pissed me off. I blew up his shop when I was 12," he said.
"I was desperate. I'd wire and steal cars. I would pick one, then drop it off in another area, then steal another. When you behave like that, you know you're different. I was a rebel."
He remembered one particular night, at 15, when he was cold, famished and ready to pass out, sitting at an isolated bus stop back home. Contemplating suicide, even.
"I really was ready to take my own life there," he said. "And this may sound corny, but the Lord just spoke up, into my ear: 'Go home.' So I did. I ended up at the front door. It was my mom's birthday. The next day, my father sent me to a missionary organization — which ultimately saved me."
SAVED BY THE MUSIC
Even during his darkest days, Smooth said his ears were attuned to music, which soothed the beast within him.
"I'd be stoned, but I'd sit outside a pub, listening to music," he said. "Jazz, rhythm and New Zealand blues."
It was comforting. It made him forget some of his ills. It gave him a measure of hope.
While growing up, it didn't help that his dad was a reputed gang leader — not exactly a role model. "One night, I came home, burned the house down when everyone was sleeping; we lost everything," said Smooth.
"Freedom" is a reassurance of his changed ways. It's his passport to living right.
"The album portrays who I am as a person today; you put feelings you don't forget into your music," said Smooth of the original tunes on the disc. "There's slack key, but (elements of) flamenco, contemporary, jazz, Hawaiian — pretty much of who I am musically."
It's been Smooth sailing for years now. He cleaned up his act and started working as a musician in local lu'au shows, in visitor cruise shows, at conventions.
"I guess I've always been smooth (in music), but never recognized. Once I was clean, I started working. Music has helped me get through it all. Because of my background in jazz and R&B, I play differently when I implement my outside grooves with slack key. I try to take it to another level. It's fusion. It's contemporary, with other elements, even the classics, folk, gospel."
Some days, he still can't believe his transformation.
"I woke up this morning, grabbed my wife's hand, happy to be living and breathing another day," he said. "That I've come this far in my life."
Smooth met his wife, Jennifer, who is from the Big Island, in 1991. The couple now have two daughters, ages 8 and 4.
"When I met Jennifer, she had no idea who I was," he said. "A lot of people (who know him now) don't believe my past. I still try to go to New Zealand once a year. Most of my friends are dead from overdose, or are in prison. I shed a tear or two; I visit the pubs I used to sit outside of, and even those are not there anymore."
When he was growing up and immersed in the drug culture, Smooth said, he never knew joy or happiness: "My life has changed. I go to bed smiling, I wake up smiling."
In a "My Name Is Earl" type move, he even attempted to make restitution with a family he once robbed.
"I went to this old lady's house, when I was 8; I stole some golf clubs to sell so I could buy food," said Smooth. "Years later, I went back, and I knocked on her front door, and the lady said 'Can I help you?' I said that I stole from her garage when I was a kid. She didn't remember the theft. I handed her $500 cash, but she wouldn't accept it. I told her that she needed to. She invited me in for a cup of tea instead. We shared stories. She ultimately didn't take the money, but she learned that somebody was willing to make amends."
Reach Wayne Harada at email@example.com.