Gods of Uke: Waikiki Stalwart Kahauanu Lake Took the Ukulele to Exciting New Places


Though his name is not well known outside of Hawaii, Kahauanu Lake (1932–2011) was one of the most admired and successful musicians in the Islands during the second half of the 20th century—an outstanding singer, songwriter, bandleader, ukulele master, teacher, and music historian who did so much to preserve and popularize traditional Hawaiian songs and hapa haole numbers, and also added many new hula tunes that are regarded as standards today. Lake—also known as “Uncle K,” “Mr. K,” and simply “K”—enjoyed a career that spanned more than six decades and included a number of hit records in the Islands during the 1960s and ’70s fronting the Kahauanu Lake Trio, and long residencies at several of Waikiki’s top hotel nightspots. He won a lifetime achievement Na Hoku Hanohano award in 1989, and the Trio was inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 2004.

He was born in a rural part of Maui into a family and extended family (cousins, etc.) that loved music. “My mother was [an entertainer], my grandmother was, too,” he told writer Burl Burlingame in the out-of-print 1970s Hawaiian musicians interview book Da Kine Sound. “In fact, my step-grandmother, Madame Alapai, was the first singer for the Royal Hawaiian Band.” Asked when he got involved in music, Lake said, “Always was. At four years old I tried to play ukulele, and I haven’t stopped since. So you see, it was an everyday thing.” 

He grew up mostly in Honolulu, went to the highly regarded Saint Louis School there, then to St. Mary’s College in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area town of Moraga. Though he majored in business administration, “music was always with me,” he said in Da Kine Sound. “I always played my uke. I listened to the old-timers—Vickie l’i Rodrigues, Sol Bright, and those people. I grew up in their shadow. Hapa haole music [often mixing English and Hawaiian lyrics, but written mainly by Hawaiian songwriters] was very influential at that time: composers like Alvin Isaacs, Andy Cummings, Andy Iona; those are the real oldies.” His first “serious” ukulele was given to him while he was at St. Mary’s, around 1950: a baritone made by the Boston-based Vega Company, a popular choice in the ’50s because they were endorsed and played by entertainer Arthur Godfrey.

Then and now, the baritone ukulele was a somewhat unusual choice. “Kahauanu’s the one who really revolutionized the playing of the ukulele as a lead instrument in a group, and he also revolutionized the usage of a baritone-size ukulele,” comments Walter Kawai’ae’a, who became one of Lake’s protégés in the mid-’60s and is still deeply involved in documenting Lake’s career and music. “Prior to that, going back to the early 1900s, most of what you’d hear were sopranos. But Kahauanu was determined to change that. He had big fingers, so the smaller sizes didn’t work as well for him.” Adding to the novelty of the deeper-register instrument is that he played left-handed.

Though steeped in Hawaiian music from an early age, Lake was also heavily influenced by the popular music of the ’40s and ‘50s. Kawai’ae’a comments, “Every generation has its own music, and for his generation, which would also be my parents’ generation, it was jazz music and the big band sound, so he was brought up on that. I know that while attending St. Mary’s, some of his favorite artists were people like the jazz piano player Erroll Garner and singer Sarah Vaughan, who did ‘Misty,’ which he loved. He also loved the Mills Brothers, and much of his three-part harmony arranging for the Trio was based on them. I learned about all those people from him. [Our lessons weren’t] ‘You’re going to learn this song, these chords, this part.’ It was everything else, going way beyond
Hawaiian music…He knew how to incorporate jazz things or big band things without un-Hawaiianizing the song. That was part of his creative genius.” During the 1940s, Andy Iona had also brought some jazz/big band sensibilities into his Hawaiian arrangements, which no doubt also influenced Lake.

“We’ve tried to incorporate jazz and swing into our Hawaiian music,” Lake said in Da Kine Sound. “You sing the Hawaiian and what makes it Hawaiian is the lyrics you sing and the way you sing it. But the swing is definitely American and gives it that special tinge.”

The famed Kahauanu Lake Trio was formed in 1955, with Lake on ukulele, his brother Tommy (another Saint Louis School grad) on standup bass, and their friend Al Machida on guitar. All three were great singers whose voices blended magically: “Kahauanu was the highest voice,” Kawai’ae’a says. “He had a wonderful thickness to his falsetto. Sometimes a falsetto can sound thin, but he had a deep and profound speaking voice, so he had a lot of depth to his vocals. Tommy was the crooner—he was sort of the Frank Sinatra of the Trio. Al Machida was the baritone.” All three could sing falsetto. The Trio landed a regular gig at the famed House Without a Key venue in Waikiki’s Halekulani Hotel, where Lake had been playing on and off with various musicians since he was 19. The Trio was a fixture there from 1955 to 1967, and it was during the last few years of their tenure that they made their first recordings for Hula Records: the masterful and influential Hawaiian Style (1965) and Kahauanu Lake Trio Featured at the Halekulani Hotel on the Beach at Waikiki (1968). Lake’s Vega baritone is the featured uke on both of those albums.


It was during that period, too, that Lake began intensively training three Saint Louis School students in their late teens—Walter Kawai’ae’a, Wayne Reis, and George Helm—who became a group in their own right, the Na Opio Trio—learning from the master in long sessions. Reis recalls, “Each week, the three of us would practice at
Kahauanu’s Kahala home for several hours at a time. Each visit would include learning, harmony, chords, arrangements, Hawaiian words and meanings, and the history of each song. It was like going to school but being the only students. We were rewarded with his cooking at the end of our music practices. What a royal treat to have him teach us week after week while he honed our raw talents into a musical trio that reflected his style of Hawaiian music!” 

Kawai’ae’a, who was the closest of the three to Lake, says, “In the summer, literally every day Monday through Sunday, I was at his home from 8 o’clock in the morning, and during the nights he wasn’t playing music, I was there until the wee hours. He became like a second father to me. He even took me as his hanai [unadopted] son.”

Reis ended up having a literal family connection to Lake: Reis’ aunt was Margaret Ma’iki Aiu, one of Hawaii’s most renowned kumu hula (hula master) and teachers and a key part of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the ’60s and ’70s. She and Lake were married in 1972 and remained musical partners until her death in 1984. She danced hula regularly with the Trio, and one of Lake’s most popular songs, “Pua Lililehua,” was written for her.

Following the Halekulani years, the Trio did a two-year stint at the Kaimana Beach Hotel (1967–69), followed by a year at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel (1969–70), and then 17 years at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s legendary Surf Room (1971–88). He never tired of playing mostly for tourists—though truth be told, he had a large, dedicated following among Hawaiian “locals,” too, and he was widely respected by other musicians. He was highly influential as an ukulele player, breezily moving from deft, melodic fingerpicking to all sorts different strums; always mixing it up and keeping things interesting.

“Before Kahauanu,” Kawai’ae’a says, “most Hawaiian musicians had basically one way of strumming the ukulele, but when you listen closely to his music, you’ll hear different rhythms, whether it’s straight downbeat or swing or jazz or even flamenco. His first serious instrument was not the ukulele, it was the guitar—he played flamenco guitar. His guitar playing was spectacular! One time I asked him, ‘When you started your trio, why didn’t you play guitar?’ which made more sense as the lead acoustical instrument. His response was, ‘If I’m going to be the leader of a Hawaiian group, I’m going to play a Hawaiian-made instrument.’ He grabbed his guitar and played flamenco music with me; then he grabbed his baritone ukulele and played the same song on that. I was in shock, and I slowly began to see how the style he created was all based on rhythm: waltzes, swing, downbeat, hula. He said, ‘You have to be rhythm-oriented. You have to know your rhythms because that’s what people connect to, whether your listening audience realizes it or not. That’s why their feet start to move and their bodies start to wiggle.’”

“He is one of Hawaii’s ukulele pioneers,” Reis offers. “His chords and strum style were unique and truly set him apart from his peers. He played the baritone uke with a low-G tuning, but using the traditional GCEA tuning, which hadn’t been done before. He had a passion for perfection in vocal harmonies and arrangements that set him apart from other musicians and music groups in Hawaii. He was instrumental in reviving traditional Hawaiian music by raising the bar and providing a style that has not been matched to this date. His music brought about a new energy and appreciation for Hawaiian music and influenced so many of us to this day.”

After Lake’s years playing his Vega uke, luthiers Sam Kamaka and K.C. Young took a slightly different approach in building an instrument for him in 1971, to coincide with the Trio starting their run at the Surf Room: A baritone instrument that Kawai’ae’a calls “a baby baritone, because it’s larger than a tenor but smaller than a regular baritone. Kahauanu loved it! The volume was incredible. He could literally drown out the guitar player,” he adds with a laugh. That became Lake’s primary ukulele—which he named “Pua Ahihi,” after his most famous recording—for the rest of his career. He also owned but rarely played tenor and jumbo baritone models made for him by Kamaka. All three are now owned by Kawai’ae’a, given to him by Lake before his passing. 


The Trio stopped performing regularly in the late ’80s, but Lake still played occasionally at events and continued to promote Hawaiian music any way that he could. That included becoming a co-founder of the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and chair of their advisory board. In 1997, he put together a group called the Kahauanu Lake Singers, which originally consisted of Walter Kawai’ae’a, his wife Luana Pugmire Kawai’ae’a, and two of Kahauanu’s cousins, Arthur Akina and Verna Mae Gomez Perkins. Tommy Lake played on the group’s Na Mele ‘Auhau: Songs of Tribute CD, and both Tommy and Kahauanu occasionally played with the group live. Tommy died in 2006 at age 76; Kahauanu was 79 when he died in 2011.

The trio reunited for a special one-time concert in 1997

 As for the three protégés, Helm, who was also a hanai son of Lake’s, went on to become a renowned falsetto singer, guitarist, and activist who perished at sea in 1977 during a political protest against the U.S. Navy using the deserted Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe for bombing practice. Multi-instrumentalist Reis moved to Utah many years ago, but has put out several albums of Hawaiian music (including one called Uke It!) and continues to celebrate Lake: “We were truly blessed to have been the first ones that were mentored by
Kahauanu Lake,” he says, “for his legacy will live on long after we, too, are gone.” 

Meanwhile, Kawai’ae’a is still very much in Lake’s world, and in many ways is the true keeper of the legacy. In addition to owning Lake’s three Kamakas, he still performs now and then with his wife and pickup players as the Kahauanu Singers, and “I have a contract right now with Kamehameha Publishing to produce The Kahauanu Lake Instructional Songbook, which will have all of his recorded music and compositions. It’s been a 15-year project. I learned all the stories of the band’s career and songs, so those will be in there.” There will also be a video component. “I’ve selected 30 of his songs and I’m going to physically go to the locations of where the song is talking about. I have all of his ukuleles. And I’ll have one other person with me. We’ll talk story. It will be my musical legacy.” 

And with any luck, Kahauanu Lake will be discovered by a new generation of Hawaiian music players and fans.