By Maureen O'Connell
Advertiser Staff Writer
'Ukulele virtuoso, singer and composer Eddie Kamae often arrives early for his shows to make time to relax.
"When they call me, I go on stage and I'm on my way. I have a lot of songs I can do. I just pick the songs I want at the moment," Kamae said. "That's what music is all about. You don't want to be stiff. You've got to have fun — that's what it's all about."
But Kamae, who will be performing with the Sons of Hawai'i at Wednesday's "Ukulele Legends in Concert" at the Waterfront at Aloha Tower Marketplace, hasn't always been so loose and self-assured.
When he was a teenager hanging out in Honolulu's Downtown area, he wrapped his 'ukulele in newspaper to avoid attracting attention.
"In those days, I was shy and never looked at people when I played," Kamae said.
Today, he's an 82-year-old legend, known as a key figure in the emerging Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance of the 1960s and '70s, when traditional music and arts gained new respect and prominence.
And he doesn't go out of his way to draw attention to it, but students of Hawaiian music history generally agree that Kamae almost single-handedly originated plucking techniques that revolutionized the method of playing 'ukulele.
It wasn't a destiny that his family could have predicted, in his early years. In fact, it hinges in part on a seemingly random incident: When he was 14 years old, one of his older brothers, a bus driver, spotted an 'ukulele left behind on the backseat of his bus and brought it home.
When no one was around, Kamae would pick up the instrument, sit next to the radio and strum along to the music — especially what he calls "Spanish" music.
"It was the rhythm section that I fell in love with," Kamae said.
"Xavier Cugat, I loved his music," he said, referring to the American bandleader of Catalan origin who led the resident orchestra at New York City's Waldorf Astoria in years before and after World War II.
"I just loved what I heard and that sort of set my course," said Kamae, who did not take formal music lessons until later years, but quickly found his way to a music store for sheet music and chord progression tips.
Kamae, the fourth-born son in a family of 10 children, also turned to an older 'ukulele-playing brother, who favored Hawaiian music and songs, for guidance. But many traditional tunes, based on hula chants, used just a few chords and hapa-haole ditties from the 1920s and '30s, such as "Lovely Hula Hands," did not seem challenging to a teen embracing Latin and jazz beats.
As a young man in 1948, Kamae and another 'ukulele player, Shoi Ikemi, formed The Ukulele Rascals. They immediately had O'ahu crowds clamoring for the duo's uptempo mix of Latin and pop instrumental standards.
The next year they went on a Mainland tour with bandleader Ray Kinney's "Hawaiian Review," but Kamae returned home early.
Shortly before a performance near Denver, nails on Kamae's right hand — turned brittle by chilly weather — had snapped off. He resorted to gluing on fake fingernails. After the frustrating show, he said: " 'That's it.' It was so cold so I was glad to leave."
Back in Hawai'i, Kamae continued to study difficult arrangements and pushed the 'ukulele beyond its rhythm-section limits with a technique of plucking all four nylon strings at once to create a sound that included both melody and chords.
Amid this musical wizardry, Kamae found himself taking a second look at simple Hawaiian music.
The move was prompted by his father's death in the mid-1950s. Samuel Kamae had grown up on the Big Island's north shore and loved traditional music.
"My father had asked me to play and sing Hawaiian music," Kamae said. "One day, after he passed away, I decided, 'Well, that's all he asked me to do.' So, I started finding my way into Hawaiian music."
Since then, Kamae has sought out experts on cultural tradition to serve as his guides. Also, he looks to Hawaiian elders and Bishop Museum archives for creative inspiration.
"I go to the elders because they always have something to share with you, but you need to know how to approach them," Kamae said, with knowing laughter.
"Respect is important. If they ask you what you want, then you can ask. But you don't barge in and ask: 'Can you tell me this and that?' They won't listen to you."
Kamae said his first visit to the Bishop Museum came with a spiritual nudge.
"One day I heard a woman singing a beautiful song that sounded familiar but I couldn't place it," he said.
The next morning, he went to see his friend 'Iolani Luahine, one of Hawai'i's greatest hula dancers and a curator at the Royal Mausoleum. After listening to Kamae hum the tune, she was puzzled and said, "Better go see Tūtū," one of Kamae's teachers.
Leaving the mausoleum grounds, Kamae passed the memorial marking the graves of King Kalākaua and Queen Lili'uokalani. "I then had a strong feeling I should go to the Bishop Museum," recalled Kamae, noting that he had never been there.
He arrived an hour before the museum opened and knocked on the front door. After mentioning his teacher's name, Kamae was invited into a library where he opened a Hawaiian music index file and pulled the card for Lili'uokalani because, at the time, she was the only composer he knew by name.
The librarian took the card and returned with a package — the queen's manuscripts, including more than 100 songs she composed. Not knowing where to start, he tucked into the middle of the 4-inch stack. The song he was looking for was on the first page he picked up to read.
"The song gives me chicken skin because it's titled 'Tūtū,' Kamae said in a written account of that morning in "Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae," published in 2004.
Kamae started adding long-forgotten Hawaiian tunes to his performance repertoire in the late 1950s when he teamed up with Gabby Pahinui (guitar), Joe Marshall (base and vocals) and David "Feet" Rogers (steel guitar) to form The Sons of Hawai'i.
By the mid-'60s, the band, along with other musicians, hula leaders and scholars were part of a movement dubbed the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance, which aims to preserve and advance traditional knowledge and culture. The ongoing movement references a re-examination of Hawaiian arts and culture under King Kalākaua.
Today, the Sons of Hawai'i includes Mike Kaawa on 12-string guitar; Analu Aina, bass; Ocean Kaowili, guitar; and Paul Kim, steel guitar. Their latest CD, which marks the group's 50th anniversary, is titled "Eddie Kamae & The Sons of Hawai'i: Yesterday and Today (Volume 2)." It was released last fall.
These days, Kamae divides his time between playing 'ukulele and working alongside his wife, Myrna, to make documentary films. In 1986, the couple formed The Hawaii Legacy Foundation, which is dedicated to ensuring "authentic Hawaiian cultural continuity" through films and other efforts.
"I love all the things that I do because it all has to do with people," said Kamae, who is soft-spoken and unassumingly friendly.
He still owns that first found 'ukulele. And he's still writing music, even in his dreams.
"I sleep with a pad next to me," Kamae said, explaining that way when he wakes up he can jot down thoughts, feelings and rhythms dancing in his head before they drift away.