Wed, 30 July 2014
I often use this space to tell you about how a haole child of New Jersey fell in love with the music of islands more than 5,000 miles from his home. By now you know – however strange it may seem – that I grew up listening to Hawaiian music. Unlike liver and spinach, I didn’t have to learn to love Hawaiian music. I just did. But as I was listening to these records – and, whenever possible, grabbing a guitar or an `ukulele and repeating what I heard – I never dreamed that I would grow up to meet and hang out with any of the Hawaiian music legends whose albums lined my shelves or whose pictures graced my bedroom walls (like so many other kids hung that iconic Farrah Fawcett poster). But in a few cases I have met them, and there are no words to describe that thrill. In a few still more rare cases, these meetings turned into lasting friendships – a dream I never would have dared to dream.
It was 1976 when one of my local Pennsylvania aunties – Ruby Ku`uleialoha Misawic – brought home from her trip to Hawai`i a new LP for me. She said, “This is the hottest group in Hawai`i. Check it out.” And I broke the seal and put an album entitled “No Kristo” on the platter and took it for a spin. The group was called the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau. And the first thing I thought was… Well, are you from O`ahu or are you from Ni`ihau?Make up your minds. But my youthful wise-assery was quelled immediately when I heard the first notes of “Hanakeoki.” It was a kind of Hawaiian music I had never heard before and – no matter how times has been imitated since – to my mind has truly never been repeated. Although the group’s lineup (and number of members) has changed over the years, the iconic sound never did. Regardless of their membership at any point in time, their voices combined in a way reminiscent of the largest church choir you can imagine, and the orchestra of guitars, `ukulele, and washtub bass (or pakini) was like a freight train in my headphones. I collected each new album by this group one at a time as they were released – learning each one backward and forward. And while I had once wondered how I could become a Kaapana or a Pavao or a Cazimero, I began instead to wonder how one grows up to become a Makaha Son.
Fast-forward a little more than a decade… I heard that the Makaha Sons were coming to Washington, D.C. to perform at the Capitol for Kamehameha Day. Having not yet been to Hawai`i, I thought this might be my one and only chance to meet my musical heroes on my coast. I made the three hour drive to D.C. to attend a pre-concert workshop led by the group’s leader, Moon Kauakahi, and a then up-and-comer, Robi Kahakalau. I sat near the back but sang as loudly as I could – wondering if Moon would notice me. And he did. He asked me how I fell in love with Hawaiian music, and I told him my story. I also told him that three records moved me in a way no others did when I was younger: the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau’s “No Kristo,” Hui Ohana’s “Young Hawaii Plays Old Hawaii,” and Sunday Manoa’s “3.” Too modest to talk about his own records, Moon did confess that the Hui Ohana and Sunday Manoa records inspired him too and further explained to me that it was his own obsession with the music of Sunday Manoa’s founder, Peter Moon, that led to his unique nickname. From that moment was born a friendship that has lasted more than 20 years. I spent that entire weekend – when the Makaha Sons weren’t on stage – hanging out with them by the hotel pool – eating, talking story, trading guitar licks with Moon and Jerry. I distinctly remember Moon showing me the slack key tunings taught to him by Atta Isaacs. (I still play those tunings in an attempt at honoring both of them.) And Moon spoke candidly of a life in Hawaiian music – rarely glamorous, always a kuleana (or responsibility), and strongly encouraging me to keep my very responsible day job. And, most importantly (although I could not have known it at the time), we spoke about faith – a subject even my own parents had never broached with me. Because of Moon Kauakahi, I learned to examine my life in ways I had never imagined and in ways that had nothing to do with Hawaiian music. Thanks to Moon, I learned that Hawaiian music was not the most important thing in my life. I learned to prioritize. My priorities are still in order. And so I say mahalo ke Akua every day for the gift of this friendship that turned my world upside down and – ultimately – in the right direction.
The Makaha Sons – despite turmoil and lineup changes – became one of the greatest success stories in Hawaiian music history. But as that has been chronicled over and over again, that is not why I am writing today. I am writing because Moon celebrates a birthday today – July 30. (I am not going to give away his age, but according to his bio, if the year of his birth is accurate, this is one of those pivotal birthdays for which equal numbers of candles and lei are in order.) To honor him today, I have put together a set list (if you have not already clicked play) of some of the early Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau work that inspired me. Two of the three songs here are (to an extent) rarities as they are no longer available on CD or MP3.
The set opens with “Nane,” a composition from the pen of Uncle Jimmy Kaholokula. The song is a riddle Hawaiian-style. This is one of the first Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau recordings I heard on that first album, “No Kristo,” and it features both the freight-train strings and church choir harmonies for which the Sons became famous. When Poki Records released not one, but two “Greatest Hits” collections with the advent of the CD, oddly “Nane” didn’t make the cut. I thought it deserved to be heard again today.
The set continues with a Moon Kauakahi original composition, “Kahea O Keale.” The little known trivia about this song is that the group recorded it twice with different lineups of musicians. The song first appeared on the 1977 LP by the same name, “Kahea O Keale” when the group was comprised of Moon, brothers Skippy and Israel Kamakawaiwo`ole, Jerry Koko, Sam Gray, and Sonny Lim (on – of all instruments – steel guitar). They then re-recorded the song for the 1978 LP “Keala” which featured the lineup of Moon, Skippy, Iz, Sonny, Mel Amina, and Abraham Nahulu. Only the later version of this song is still available digitally on their hits collection (Na Mele Henoheno – Volume 1). But listen here to the original version – still out of print in any format.
Finally, a Moon Kauakahi composition that is already considered a classic, and it is most timely to include it here. Moon wrote “Kaleohano” to honor Piggy Kaleohano, a Big Island musician known for his work with Da Blalahs of Keaukaha. It became a favorite of Makaha Sons fans everywhere, and you will still hear it at least once a day on local Hawai`i radio. But it is sadly apropos now that Piggy passed away a short while ago. And, more bittersweet still, it is the song the Makaha Sons sang for the last time when they most unexpectedly approached the stage to join Israel Kamakawiwo`ole for a final reunion at the 1996 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards ceremony.
I ran into Moon most recently about three weeks ago at Dennis Kamakahi’s memorial service. Moon was just beginning to settle into his new life after officially announcing just a few days earlier his retirement from the Makaha Sons. Undoubtedly, more than merely being the leader in name, Moon was the musical and spiritual leader of the Sons since its inception. But he assured me that while this is the end of an era, it is not the end of the Makaha Sons which – as many times in the past – will go on with a new lineup. And Dr. Louis Kauakahi has many exciting projects ahead too. I can’t wait to see just what he has in store for us…
Hau`oli la hanau e ku’u palala… Wishing you as much happiness and aloha as your heart can hold. I wish I could give you more in exchange for all you have given me.
~ Bill Wynne