Mon, 3 November 2014
As I write this, the KoAloha `Ukulele Company headquarters is packing up for a move from their modest space in an industrial center on Kohou Street in Kalihi to a new, more luxurious factory/showroom in the `Iolani Sportswear building in Kaka`ako. Not a long trip, but a whole hell of a lot of work for the thoroughly sawdust-encrusted environment of an `ukulele factory.
This is “Pops” Okami’s dream coming true over and over again. If you have seen the documentary film The KoAloha Story (and, if you haven’t, you should), then you already know that Alvin Okami is the original renaissance man who will transition seamlessly from inventing a device to more easily insert fret wire into the neck of an `ukulele (at just the precisely spaced intervals to ensure perfect intonation) to serenading you with a song he wrote (probably just this morning before breakfast). Always working, always thinking, always dreaming, ever diversifying, these are not merely the keys to Okami’s success. They are the secret to his seemingly eternal youth.
Son Alan largely manages the operation for his dad, while another son Paul creates beautiful new `ukulele designs and creates the templates for making these by hand with utmost accuracy and precision by the handful of craftsmen who work in the KoAloha shop. On my last visit to Honolulu, at Alan’s suggestion I stopped by KoAloha’s old factory for a visit and tour. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Alan was busy with the business that afternoon, but he yelled up the stairs to his father who bounded down the stairs to greet us. And from that handshake grew a fast friendship that was rooted in our mutual love of the `ukulele as well as the Great American Songbook and songwriters like Cole Porter and the Gershwin Brothers. Before we knew what was happening, we were pushing tables out of the way for an impromptu concert from Pops who debuted for us some of the new compositions he wrote for his first ever CD release. (His wife, Pat – a hula student studying with kumu hula Tony Conjugacion – even graced us with the hula that Tony created for one of Pops’ new songs.) A successful businessman like Okami might have bankrolled and produced his own CD. But he didn’t. The septuagenarian was discovered – for the second time in his lengthy career – by a producer on the West Coast who helped bring Pops’ dream of a full-length recording of his compositions to fruition.
The first time Pops was discovered he wasn’t yet old enough – or even father enough – to merit his popular nickname. Alvin was discovered the first time in the early 1960s by `ukulele virtuoso Herb Ohta (known professionally as Ohta-San). Back then Okami – who, perhaps egged on by his mentor, Ohta, went simply by his first name – was an up-and-coming singer who specialized in the popular standards he so loved – his voice reminiscent of Andy Williams and Matt Monro. It was a voice built to sing movie theme songs. But instead he was singing in the modest environs of Honey’s, the joint owned and operated for more than 20 years (at that time – the early 1960s) by James and Honey Ho. The ringleader of each evening’s musical madness was, of course, a then virtually unknown Don Ho. You have already read here the story of Waikiki Swings, an unauthorized recording made by Hula Records of an evening at Honey’s after its move to Kalākaua Avenue in Waikiki. Alvin was clearly the standout of that evening in the mind of Hula Records president Flip McDiarmid who personally made the tape that became the album – as evidenced by the fact that of the 13 tracks on the LP, three of them were Alvin Okami performances (one more than Ho got). And because Honey’s was also the proving ground for Kui Lee’s latest compositions, Alvin performed three of Kui’s originals that fateful evening – “Lahaina Luna,” “The Days of My Youth,” and “I’ll Remember You.” This means that Alvin – not Don Ho – premiered on record these three Kui Lee compositions – including the one that would put Ho on the map, “I’ll Remember You.” It just so happens that Ho’s versions were released first and were distributed worldwide by Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records, while Alvin’s were released on Hula Records which had little distribution outside of Hawai`i. Had it been the other way around, today we might be asking Alvin Okami for an encore of “Tiny Bubbles.”
But everything turns out the way it is supposed to. For all of his success, Pops is the most even-keeled, modest, and – dare I say – happy human being I have ever had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of. And perhaps this is because it wasn’t handed to him, you know? Pops struggled, his family struggled, and so he never stopped thinking, dreaming, creating – until he created the thing on which he and his family could rely. When I asked Pops why he waited so long to release his first CD, he said it was because he was “too busy with other things.” Those other things, it turns out, were findings ways of surviving. Now that he and his `ohana are not merely surviving but thriving, Pops could turn his attention back to his first love. And the world should be glad he did for the CD is absolutely beautiful and a testament to Pops’ love not only of his Hawai`i, but his America. After all, he lived the American dream. Why shouldn’t he be a proud American?...