Hawaiian Son and Son
Dennis and David Kamakahi bring slack-key and uke to Sly’s.
Thursday, September 7, 2006
Wherever he goes, Hawaiian songwriter and slack-key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi cannot escape hearing his own songs. Recently, Kamakahi, who has penned about 500 tunes, was in New York City for a series of performances. There, while riding an elevator in the Lexington Hotel, he heard his album Pau’ena piped over the sound system. On the way home, Kamakahi’s plane landed on Oahu. As he used the restroom in the Honolulu International Airport before grabbing his luggage, he heard another one playing over the airport’s speakers.
Music has always been a big part of Kamakahi’s life. Growing up on the rural Hawaiian island of Molokai, where his grandfather was a taro farmer, Kamakahi was playing the ukulele by the time he was 3 years old. Without electricity or running water, his family spent their evenings performing songs outside their farmhouse. “We would sit out on the porch and play sweet music until we fell asleep,” he says.
At 19, Kamakahi was recruited as the slack key guitarist in the hugely popular traditional Hawaiian music group the Sons of Hawaii. “These guys were legends,” he says of the band. “I grew up as a child listening to their music.”
From his bandmates, Kamakahi says, he discovered a great deal about playing music. “I learned that we never rehearsed,” he says. “We would just go onstage, and the music would happen instantaneously.”
Sons of Hawaii bandmate Eddie Kamae encouraged Kamakahi to start writing his own material for the group. During 22 years, Kamakahi wrote about 200 songs. “[Writing] the music was just like drinking water,” he says.
In 1996, Kamakahi, who by then had ended his stint with the Sons of Hawaii, released his first solo album on pianist George Winston’s Dancing Cat Records. The following year, he made an album titled Ohana (Family) with his son David, who plays the ukulele.
The father and son team have toured together off and on for the last decade. The elder Kamakahi says that his offspring has pushed him to add more contemporary material, like Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” to the duo’s repertoire of mostly traditional-sounding numbers. In addition to unexpected cover songs, the senior Kamakahi believes there is another reason audiences appreciate the players’ performances. “I think the appeal is that a lot of people haven’t seen a father and son play together,” he says.
For the prolific Kamakahi, this next year is filled with a trio of upcoming releases, including a greatest-hits collection, an album of pop numbers called Songs in the Key of Slack, and a CD of originals and traditional Hawaiian songs called La’akea (Sacred Light). Kamakahi has particularly strong feelings for La’akea. “That whole album is probably the most spiritual one I’ve done,” he says.
DENNIS AND DAVID KAMAKAHI play Sly McFly’s, 700 Cannery Row, Monterey, Monday at 8pm. $14/advance; $16/at the door. 649-8050.