Fri, 17 October 2014
Gilbert Francis Lani Damian Kauhi was born in Rainbow Falls, Hilo, on the island of Hawai`i, on October 17, 1937. He was three-quarters Hawaiian and one-quarter English (courtesy of a grandfather from Michigan). Explaining his unusual nickname, his mother assured an interviewer that she sent her son off to school with his hair neatly combed but that it would become disheveled at football practice. Since he and his teammates were studying the Zulu – a Bantu ethnic group of Southern Africa – in a social studies class, his buddies likened Gilbert’s hair to that of these African natives. They nicknamed him “Zulu” – a moniker which he stuck with (or one of several variants such as “Zoulou,” which he claimed was the French Tahitian spelling) throughout his career.
Zulu and his family moved to Honolulu where he became one of the noted Waikiki beach boys – giving surfing lessons and outrigger canoe rides to tourists. There are conflicting accounts of Zulu’s schooling – several indicating that he attended the prestigious Kamehameha Schools, and others stating that he attended Saint Louis School in Kaimuki but dropped out after the 10th grade and worked in construction before serving four years in the U.S. Coast Guard. But formal schooling anywhere likely would not have changed Zulu’s destiny. A natural musician and comedian, Zulu and his buddies formed a group called “Zulu and The Polynesians” which performed at parties for “all of the food they could eat.” Later he formed a Polynesian revue which toured Japan and entertained on cruise ships.
Throughout the 1960s Zulu’s entertainment career unfolded slowly but carefully. He appeared in numerous Hollywood productions based in Hawai`i, starting with the Hawaiian Eye TV show in 1959, followed by the films Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Diamond Head (1962), Rampage (1963), and Hawaii (1966). He also worked as disc jockey at radio station KHVH and was appearing nightly at a club called Honey’s in Kane`ohe – a breeding ground for a raft of future superstars in Hawaiian entertainment, recruited by the owner’s son, a still then virtually unknown Don Ho. When Ho hit the big time and moved his act to Duke Kahanamoku’s at the International Marketplace in Waikiki, Zulu started another band, "Zulu and the Seven Sons of Hawaii," which – despite that Zulu could sing in five languages – performed primarily Hawaiian music.
Zulu’s big break finally came in 1968 when he went to a cattle call audition for a new CBS detective series to be filmed in Hawai`i and quite unexpectedly landed the role of Kono Kalakaua on Hawaii Five-0. The role was perfect for the large and occasionally acerbic Hawaiian who could say more with a look or a head butt than with words. But it was – at least, anecdotally – words he would exchange often with series star Jack Lord that got Zulu fired from Five-O in 1972 after only four seasons.
Zulu continued appearing in films and television shows such as Magnum, P.I., Charlie’s Angels, Midnight Special, The Glen Campbell Show, The Brian Keith Show, and Roger That. But it didn’t matter how much film or television work rolled Zulu’s way. Hawaii Five-0 was Zulu’s launch pad into a successful career as a showroom headliner – singer, comedian, or both – in and around Honolulu which included first a stint at Duke Kahanamoku’s (after his former boss Ho’s departure) and then an unprecedented (except, perhaps, for Ho) five-year, $2.5 million contract with the C’est Si Bon Showroom in the Pagoda Hotel & Restaurant.
I thought it would be interesting to revisit the earliest part of Zulu’s career and his start at Honey’s in Kane`ohe with Don Ho in the early 1960s. Precious little tape from those evenings remains. But in 1962 – long before Don or Zulu would become famous – Hula Records’ owner Donald “Flip” McDiarmid II heard about the magic that was happening in Kane`ohe every night at Honey’s and went over there one evening with a portable tape recorder to capture part of the magic of an evening at Honey’s exactly as it happened. The material recorded that evening was eventually released on the Hula Records label under the title Waikiki Swings despite that the recording was of subpar sound quality. It sounded like what it was – a “bootleg.” I spoke to Flip in his home shortly before his passing in 2010, and this tape was one of the topics I broached. According to Flip, he had taken the recorder in to capture some of the magic so that he could review it to see if he had an album in the making in order to offer a deal to the participants in the band at Honey’s. If the deal had come to fruition, Flip would have returned with a professional remote recording crew and made an “album.” No such deal ever came to fruition. Don held out for a national deal – which came after his show moved to Duke Kahanamoku’s at the International Marketplace in Waikiki just a year or two later. However, according to others familiar with the situation, there was no such deal in the making; the recording was a bootleg – and pure and simple – and when Don released his first two live albums nationwide for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records label in 1965, Hula Records released the bootleg from Honey’s in 1966 to capitalize on Don’s burgeoning success. Making the accusation even worse, some involved with the performance captured that evening claim that they were never paid when Waikiki Swings was released. (And, the icing on the cake is that the recording was made nowhere near Waikiki!)
Regardless of McDiarmid’s motivations, nobody can deny that he captured an important moment in Hawaiian music history – including a pre-fame Zulu Kauhi. In this set you hear Zulu lead the Honey’s pack first on the comic “Coed Song” and then a romp through Charles E. King’s “Ne`ene`e Mai A Pili.” But you’re hearing something else as well. You should be able to hear some other future legends in the mix: Assisting Zulu here are Kui Lee (the high voice in the vocal group), the voice and guitar of Sonny Chillingworth, and the voice and `ukulele of Alvin Okami (now best known as the proprietor of the KoAloha `Ukulele company).
To close the set, a rarity… Zulu reunited with his old boss for The Don Ho Show, Ho’s short-lived mid-day half-hour television variety program for ABC in 1976-77. From an episode of this program you hear Zulu sing “`Ukulele Lady.”
After a series of legal and health woes, Zulu passed away on May 3, 2004 at the age of 66. He will always be remembered as the wise-cracking, face-stuffing Kono Kalakaua. But I thought we would take this opportunity to remember the exciting stage presence and the beautiful voice that Zulu possessed – perhaps the greater of his gifts than his acting talents.
Although there are many wonderful pictures of Zulu in circulation, I chose instead this amazing caricature by artist and Hawaii Five-O fan Josh Pincus. Visit Josh’s website for more of his amazing creations.