A Long Journey to Hawaii (June 22-30, 2003)

I came to Hawaii
to search for the source of the sound;
Here in Waikiki
it's hard to describe what I found.

Morning mist on Diamond Head
the crashing surf on the shore;
Sea turtles in Haunoma Bay
how could you ask for more?

I came to Hawaii with the stated purpose of attending an international conference on educational use of computers and new technology. I don't think I was fooling anyone. Not being a sun-worshiper, a surfer, a botanist, or a naturalist of any particular bent I confess now before you all that I did indeed have an agenda -- one which was not especially hidden. I am a sucker for Hawaiian music. Sol Hoopi'i, Frank Fererra, Gabby Pahinui, the Sons of Hawai'i, Led Ka'apana -- if it has slack key guitar (ki ho'alu), a touch of steel (kika kilu), and a 'ukulele it's got me. You might track my interest to Ry Cooder's adventures here in 1975, but that was only when I started seriously looking at the music and the players. My interest in Hawaiian music goes back earlier than that!

I recall standing at the Canadian National Exhibition with my Nana listening to a genuine Hawaiian band. I would've been 14 or so. My Dad played Jimmy Rodgers and Bob Wills records when I was an infant, all featuring steel guitar. The Charlie Chan films my Mom watched always had a club sequence with a steel guitarist, who might have been Sol Hoopi'i himself. Yes, this music and I go way back. So this opportunity to travel halfway around the world -- to endure separation from home and family -- to sacrifice coaching a couple of soccer games -- well, it seemed a chance worth taking.

We arrived in Honolulu in the dark. Without a window seat I didn't even see the approaching lights. The fellow next to me slept from Vancouver to Hawaii. He woke up as the wheels screeched and said, "Did I miss the meal?" You missed the whole flight, pal! The rough air, the bad movie, the tasteless lasagna. He had 12 hours more to fly...to Perth!

After being forced to clear customs a second time we took a taxi to the Sheraton Waikiki -- it was dark all the way. At 4:30 am on my body's clock I saw only lights and the vision of a bed. A short night's sleep, and awake at 5:00 a.m. local time. I stepped out onto the lanai to see the view. For an extra $100 per night I could've faced the ocean -- but then I wouldn't have seen the city, spread out before me as far as I could see. The houses rose up the hillside like a mosaic against nature's green, with Diamond Head engulfed in mist off to the right, and the west end of Waikiki Beach off to the left, if I leaned over the railing a bit. And more hotels, everywhere more hotels.

I had two days before the conference started. 48 hours to find the source of a lifelong passion. Where to begin?

I wandered up the street to the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, home of the Ukulele House. They were closed. The sign said they opened at 9:30, and it was 10! I asked a passerby -- he shrugged. Hmmm. Aloha time! Soon enough, though, I was looking at a wall of tiny stringed instruments, itching to play. But the prices were out of my range for this trip. The nearer to Waikiki you are, the higher the prices! Remember that. The clerk said, "If you're around at 11 o'clock we give free 'ukulele lessons, right here on the mall. And we supply the instruments." You should know, that the proper pronunciation is "oo-koo-lay-lay" spoken quickly and softly -- not sharp and hard as we've anglicized it. That pronunciation makes the name of the instrument more closely resemble the sound it makes. Either way, it still means "dancing flea."

A bus trip to the Ward Warehouse, and Island Guitars, led me to my first purchase -- a new design -- the best "uke" for the money, a "Flea." A radical new synthetic (read "plastic") soprano uke, with spruce top (painted pistachio) unsurpassed at the price for sound and playability. Now I had something to practice the morning's lessons on. I was away.

Trying to fit tourism, exploration, and 'ukulele practice into a full conference schedule proved to be challenging. Since the office paid for this trip, they did have some expectations. It required a delicate balance of attending workshops, seminars, keynote addresses and utilizing the beach, weather, and water to their fullest potential. After all, I may want to search for other sounds in a different location sometime.

The music I heard in Waikiki was a mixed bag: Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor songs sung by guitar trios or duets accompanying the requisite pretty girl dancing the hula; music in the night-club was rock/funk/disco; radio stations blared a reggaefied-polynesian conglameration. It was not until we had dinner at Denny's one night that I heard Gabby singing "Hi' Ilawe!" Denny's!

IZ and Na Leo were played at the hotel, quietly -- but if you listened you could hear them. Na Leo are local favorites, influenced by rather than strictly traditional music. Stores all sold a small selection of Hawaiian music at fairly steep tourist prices. Street musicians came out at night -- any slack key players? Nope! I saw a steel drum duet who played "Jingle Bell Rock" (talk about incongruous!) and a Hawaiian fellow who played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes! When questioned he admitted that he was taking lessons on Oahu.

One afternoon we took a nature tour around the east side of the island, round Diamond Head to Hanauma Bay, where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr made love in the surf in "From Here to Eternity." We saw red-footed boobies and frigate birds, sea turtles, Rabbit Island (and YES, it looks like a rabbit!) and we stopped at Waimanalo Bay. Crystal blue waters, light fine sand, gentle waves, beautiful...this is the land the Pahinui Brothers sang about. Pali Lookout, above the cliff where the defeated soldiers of Kahekili jumped to their death rather than submit to capture by the victorious King Kamehameha. A spectacular vista, it is perhaps one of the best views in the world.

A night at the Waikiki Aquarium was enlivened by some local live music; "Blue Hawaii" and "Isa Lei" in harmony with a touch of Patsy Cline. The conference was winding down. We decided to bus it into Honolulu proper to visit the palace, but first we stopped at Easy Music, where the locals buy their instruments. The same 'ukulele I bought was $30 cheaper, plus it was on for an additional 20% off! Aah well, I'd had five days of playing out of mine! I tried a RainSong guitar. Graphite, so it can deal with any changeable weather. And it rang like a bell. (Next time!)

There was an older Hawaiian gentleman, playing a concert 'ukulele, his wife holding a microphone for him as he tried out a p.a. system. It sounded good. I walked over to look at the little p.a., and talked to the fellow about it. Just a couple of musicians talking about equipment. He walked over to the cash register to pay for the mic. I continued to talk to his wife. "Where you from?" she inquired. I told her somewhere near Toronto. I told her of my disappointment in finding real Hawaiian music on this trip. I told her about my long obsession. My record collection. My favorite album, called the Red Album, the first record of the 70s resurgence of traditional Hawaiian music. The Sons of Hawaii, with Gabby Pahinui.

And she said, "Well, that's Eddie Kamae."

That fellow I'd just been talking to! I stammered. It was like meeting one of the Beatles. When he came back Myrna Kamae introduced me to her husband Eddie. I gushed. I shook his hand. I believe a tear came to my eye. He signed the only piece of paper I had. My Honolulu Bus Map. "To David, with much Aloha, Eddie Kamae, 06-23-03." It was an honor, Mr. Kamae. He doesn't play much anymore; he's a documentary film-maker. But he was the King of the Music. He said goodbye, and he drove off.

I have stood in the water of Waimanalo Bay. I have looked out at Pali, and into the blue water of the Pacific. I have felt the soothing ocean breezes, seen the mist over Diamond Head. Run my hands along the koa banister in the Iolani Palace. And in the last place I looked, the day before I left, I met one of the greats. And then that night -- was it a dream? I found myself playing the uke with Jim & Bob, the Genial Hawaiians.

The source of the sound? It's the land, the people, the feel. Will I go back? I don't know. I do know, I left a part of myself there. I brought a part of Hawaii home with me.

[David Kidney]