Gods of Uke: Eddie Kamae Reinvigorated Hawaiian Culture and Helped Make the Ukulele a Global Phenomenon

From the Winter 2015 issue of Ukulele | By Audrey Coleman

When Sam Kamae took his teenage son Eddie to perform at a down-home Honolulu club called Charlie’s Cab Stand, the audience wildly applauded his playing and threw money onto the stage. The younger Kamae first picked up a ukulele—his brother’s—at age 15 and taught himself to play. Attracted to jazz and Latin rhythms he heard on the radio, he played along with them, and quickly acquired technical proficiency. By the mid-1940s, he’d innovated a method of playing rhythm and plucking melody at the same time. He was ready for professional gigs. [Ed. note: Eddie Kamae died at his home in Honolulu, Saturday, January 7, 2017. He was 89.]

Uke luminary Jake Shimabukuro has listened to rare recordings of Kamae’s work from that period. “He was just a monster on the instrument, and his ideas were mind-blowing! We wouldn’t be playing ukulele the way we do today if it wasn’t for him. If you talk to all of the greats, everyone will tell you he was a pioneer with an incredible vision for the ukulele as a solo instrument.”

Even at an early age, Kamae found “Hawaiian” melodies—mainly the Americanized hapa haole tunes —“too simple,” as he once told his dad. Nevertheless, in a career journey lasting more than 50 years, he emerged at the forefront of the Hawaiian renaissance as a traditional ukulele player, singer, composer, bandleader, record producer, cultural researcher, and documentary filmmaker.

Ukulele player Eddie Kamae in 1948
Kamae and Ikemi in 1948.

Following his auspicious debut, Kamae formed a duo with high school buddy Shoi Ikemi. The Ukulele Rascals dazzled crowds with jazzy arrangements inspired by Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Xavier Cugat. Despite his love of performing, Kamae thirsted for training in music theory and chord structure so that he could read scores. Always resourceful, he asked Barbara Smith, a professor of music from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, to tutor him in exchange for giving her ukulele lessons.

What seemed like a big break came in 1949, when bandleader Ray Kinney invited the duo to join his mainland vaudeville tour. It drew crowds along the West Coast, but when the troupe headed inland, the show fell on hard times. Kamae returned to Honolulu disillusioned, but he eventually landed a nightly gig with the band at the Biltmore Hotel in Waikiki. During that stint, he became friends with a charismatic singer and guitarist who would influence his musical direction dramatically.

Weekend jam sessions at the home of Gabby Pahinui in Waimanalo were already legendary. “It was a magic place,” recalls Kamae. “People would arrive Friday night and start jamming. More people joined in on Saturday and Sunday.” Extended family and friends kept arriving with instruments. Some played guitars in an open-tuning style they called “slack-key”—of which Pahinui was a master.

“He had a beautiful guitar strum,” says Kamae. “What struck me was the way he plucked his instrument. I never heard anything so sweet. And he had this beautiful kind of old Hawaiian voice, and I’m looking at him and I say to myself, ‘Wow. This is special.’ I fell in love with the sound of his voice and Hawaiian music.”

Jamming together for hours and sometimes days at a time, the two men were searching for a new—or was it old?—Hawaiian sound to present to the general public. “So I stayed there playing with him, not knowing anything about Hawaiian music, but I also found out that everything happens from the soul, from the gut feeling.” With bassist Joe Marshall and steel guitarist David “Feet” Rogers, they formed a band dedicated to Hawaiian roots music called the Sons of Hawaii. When they opened at the Sandbox, a club far from the Waikiki scene, within weeks the place was packed.


Eddie Kamae with the Sons of Hawaii

“Everybody came,” says Kamae. “It was a party place, just like Gabby’s house.” The popularity of the new group signaled a changing consciousness among many Hawaiian students, teachers, artists, and scholars. They were rejecting the mainland fantasy of the Islands and reclaiming their authentic history and culture. Amid this slowly rising sentiment during the mid-’60s, the Sons of Hawaii began recording top-selling records. In 1970, Kamae co-organized a cultural gathering, Hana Ho`olaule`a, known as the Hawaiian Woodstock. Hawaiian music had a new sound, grounded in the music of past generations.

“Eddie, along with the Sons of Hawaii and Gabby Pahinui, created that sound,” says Shimabukuro. “They invented the arrangements you hear of all the top Hawaiian artists today.” Acknowledging that he represents a later generation, Shimabukuro adds, “Eddie inspired all the people who inspired all the people who inspired me.”

More than a uke player for the Sons, Kamae was singing and composing now-classic songs such as “E Ku`u Morning Dew.” He took on the bandleader role when Pahinui left the Sons to pursue a solo career. Recruiting slack-key guitarist and composer Dennis Kamakahi, he sustained the group’s spirit even as the lineup changed during the ’70s and beyond.

Eddie Kamae with ukulele

Meanwhile, Kamae was learning Hawaiian and studying the layers of meaning in the songs the Sons performed. He visited libraries and archives, delving ever deeper—with guidance from language expert Pilahi Paki, cultural scholar and composer Kawena Pukui, and Big Island kupuna (elder) Sam Li`a, in order to uncover a treasure trove of songs and stories. Pukui was especially insistent that Kamae travel to rural areas to collect songs from the elders. He remembers asking a kupuna named Olu for songs about the area on the Big Island where the man lived in his little shack. Olu knew only one verse of one such song, “Mauna Kea.” “So I taped him,” recalls Kamae. “He had this high, raspy voice. I wrote it down and I sang it with him.”

When Kamae reported his findings to Pukui, she told him to sing it. “So I took out my ukulele and I sang it. She jotted down notes for a long time. Then, all of a sudden, she reached out and gave the paper to me. And I was looking at the lyrics—eight additional verses added to this one verse. I couldn’t believe it!” She told him that the song was finished now and that Kamae should sing it. Through such experiences, Kamae crafted Sons of Hawaii songs in the traditional style to perform and record.

By the 1980s, Kamae was feeling the urgency of preserving the songs and stories of the rural kupuna for future generations, and decided to do so through the art of film-making. With his wife, Myrna, overseeing fundraising and production, Kamae directed ten documentaries on Hawaiian cultural heritage between 1988 and 2007. The films won awards at festivals, aired on PBS stations, and became rich resources for Hawaiian studies courses.

Approaching his ninth decade, these days Kamae mostly plays ukulele at home and for special events. Shimabukuro recalls the thrill of strumming alongside his idol onstage during the Na Hoku Hanohano music awards a few years ago. “When we actually got time to sit down and talk, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ He also told me, ‘Don’t forget the traditional music. You’re from Hawaii and you should always represent your home.’”


Occasionally, Kamae agrees to play a number with favorite performers such as traditional slack-key guitar and uke master Led Kaapana. Always supportive of young musicians, he recently jammed with a spunky trio called Boom Boom at the local farmers’ market where he and Myrna shop.

As for the global ukulele phenomenon, Kamae reflects, “It’s really important because it brings Hawaii to the front row. The ukulele has been an instrument played in families, and maybe now it’s making the whole world a family.”

From the Ukulele store: The Ukulele – A Visual History traces the ukes evolution with colorful whimsy. Meet some of the world’s greatest ukulele players through profiles, photos, and more, with color photos showing more than 100 exquisite and unique ukes, vintage catalog illustrations, and witty ads that capture the craze of the 1920s and ’30s.