BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
For many years, I’ve been curious to learn more about the multitalented uke player, singer, and songwriter David Kamakahi, who played on two of my all-time favorite Hawaiian music albums, both from the late ’90s on Dancing Cat Records: ‘Ohana, a release by his father, the legendary slack-key guitarist Dennis Kamakahi, known for his many years with the Sons of Hawaii following the departure of the great Gabby Pahinui, as well his later solo career; and Hui Aloha, the lone album by a short-lived all-star quartet featuring Dennis and David Kamakahi, double-neck guitarist George Kuo, and bassist/singer Martin Pahinui, son of Gabby Pahinui and former member of the Peter Moon Band.
David was still a teenager when he made those albums—literally at the beginning of a more than two-decade career during which he has taken tremendous strides as a player and a songwriter, usually working in groups; for the past eight years with the multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winners the “neo-traditionalist” trio Waipuna. He also won a “Hoku” for his first solo ukulele album, Pa‘ani (2004), which was produced by his dad. Father and son also collaborated on the soundtrack of Disney’s Lilo & Stitch 2 and various other projects.
Since his father’s death from cancer in 2014, in addition to an active career playing music, David has been helping his mother, Robin, perpetuate Dennis’ legacy, which includes hundreds of songs he wrote during one of the most storied careers in Hawaiian music history. We tracked down David in early June at his home outside of Honolulu—where he lives with his wife, Kristin, and daughter, Michele—to learn more about his own journey.
Your bio says you took up the ukulele when you were 15. I’m curious to know about your musical life before that. Obviously you grew up in a musical household.
Yes, there was a lot of music around. When I was a kid, Dad would always take me to performances of the Sons of Hawaii and I got to meet all kinds of amazing musicians. I basically grew up with the Sons of Hawaii, so that was a plus. But my interest in music didn’t really click until 1992 or ’93, I’d say. There was a lot of different kinds of music in my house growing up. Big bands, symphonies, rock ’n’ roll, country. But that was listening; I wasn’t playing.
I was more into sports and martial arts when I was younger. I first learned music in school through general music education from K-6. When I attended intermediate school, music was a requirement so I took up the clarinet in the band. I haven’t picked up a clarinet since. I started being interested in music watching my classmates play ukulele during my sophomore year at Kamehameha Schools. I decided to start playing ukulele because it was much easier to carry between classes and it was just a different sound that I wanted to try.
I would imagine that Eddie Kamae [leader of the Sons] must have been a strong influence. What were his greatest strengths as a uke player, and what sort of things did you learn from him that you incorporated into your own playing? Did he give you any actual lessons?
Uncle Eddie was a great influence both musically and personally to me. I grew up with him, whether tagging along with my father performing with the Sons or him coming over to our house to show dad the footage of the documentaries he was working on. He was a fantastic player and a more fantastic human being. He always had a smile on his face, and he made everyone around him laugh and smile with his stories.
I’d say his greatest strength as a player was his ability to play “clean,” meaning when he would record you could hear every single note with precision, no matter the tempo. When I first started playing I decided to work on that first, so I refined my technique focused on just producing a clean tone. Another technique I integrated from Uncle Eddie was his use of tremolo—constantly repeating notes from one or two strings. And the last thing I integrated from Uncle Eddie was humility; the way he carried himself and the way he treated others with kindness and aloha.
I never took any actual lessons from Uncle Eddie. What I would do is seek him out wherever he was playing, and I would sit, watch, and listen to what he was doing and I would ask him questions during the breaks, or I would call him if I was stuck on something. He would always answer the phone, but he never gave me the answers straight away. He sort of laid breadcrumbs for me to figure things out on my own.
Who were some of the other players who influenced your style as you were learning? What sorts of things did you pick up from them?
My biggest influences have to be Peter Moon, Ohta-San [Herb Ohta, Sr.], and
Ledward Kaapana. Studying Peter’s recordings and watching Ohta-San and Uncle Led live, I learned countless techniques, like triplets, pull-offs and hammers, muting strings, and the list goes on. But mainly they provided perspective on how the limitless potential of the ukulele can be applied to any genre of music.
I heard some story about you going to the Kamaka factory with your dad when you were 17 and picking out an instrument? Can you tell me about that?
I was graduating soon and told Dad that I had decided to pursue music as a career. He asked if I was sure, and I told him music is what I wanted to do. He looked at me and said, “OK, get in the car, let’s go!” We started driving but I had no idea where we were going. He was telling me about how hard the music industry is and that there will be hard times: “It’s not an easy life. Are you sure?” I told him I was, and that’s when we pulled up to the Kamaka factory. “OK, then this is my graduation present to you,” and we stepped into the factory where I met Chris Kamaka for the first time. Then Dad told me to pick a ukulele to perform with. And I went home that day with a Kamaka tenor, which I still have to this day.
I gather that your dad’s album ‘Ohana was your first recording. By that point had you performed live much with your father or in other situations? Were you nervous about going into the studio with your dad?
‘Ohana was recorded at Audio Resource in Honolulu. It was my very first time in a recording studio; I was 15 years old. By the time I recorded that album I had only been playing for six months and only performed with Dad once. I was terrified! Dad taught me what to expect, but when you step into a studio with microphones, mixers, and processors everywhere, it’s intimidating. We rehearsed that album for weeks nonstop. I’ll never forget that session—I learned a lot from Dad and Howard [Johnston, engineer] about microphone technique, expectations, and how to be creative and step outside the box to make a song sound better. I was very lucky.
What led to the formation of Hui Aloha with your dad and George Kuo and Martin Pahinui? Can you tell me a little about what the ukulele’s role in the group was and what it was like playing with three giants of traditional Hawaiian music?
Hui Aloha was actually formed by accident. Uncle Martin was working on his solo recording at Different Fur [studio in San Francisco]. We all had been performing together in Waikiki for a few months and Uncle Martin asked if we could sit in on one of his songs for his album. We did a recording session and when Dancing Cat heard it they asked us if we wanted to record as a group instead. The rest is history.
The ukulele’s role was mainly rhythm and leads here and there. Dad and George just wanted a solid rhythm from me so they could focus more on the guitar leads.
Again it was terrifying, but I learned a lot about how a group records compared to a duo. Mainly, I got to hear the stories from everyone as we traveled. I learned what it means to be on the road for weeks, sometimes months, and how to manage a grueling travel schedule playing almost every day.
Why did that group not last beyond the first album and tour?
That’s a touchy subject. But honestly, it was because Dad proposed to the group that if Hui Aloha was going to record again, then I should be paid an equal share. The funny part is I wasn’t even in the meeting. I was being paid less because I was still young and was being told I hadn’t “paid my dues.” I accepted that for the first album and went on tour anyway because I was learning a lot. But later, no one budged so Dad and I left the group. So Hui Aloha didn’t record a second album. Even today it makes me smile knowing my dad fought for me like that.
I’ve never heard the group you were in next, Na Oiwi, with your dad, Mike Ka’awa on 12-string, and Jon Yamasato on guitar. Was that still playing mostly your dad’s songs in a traditional Hawaiian folk style, or did it also play more material not rooted in traditional sounds?
After Hui Aloha, Dad wanted to have fun and step outside the box. He wanted to try a more progressive sound—the look on my face was priceless. “Oh, OK . . .” was all I said. But when I started hearing the ideas for Na Oiwi’s sound, it was different and fun. We grabbed stylings from reggae, country, rock ’n’ roll, jazz. It was just the four of us having fun creating music.
Your solo album Pa‘ani, featured your dad and also Herb Ohta, Jr., mostly on original tunes. What made that the right time to “go solo”? You must have had strong confidence in your abilities at that point.
Going solo was another part of the journey. Dad was actually the person to convince me to do it. This project was the first time I would be a part of an entire project from start to finish. He was teaching me what being a producer is, so I learned a lot. It was the first time I actually composed my own music.
I always felt during the project that I could do better. But I remember what our engineer Howard Johnson from Different Fur told me a long time ago: “Are you playing for feeling? Or perfection?” It always reminds me that the feeling of the song is the most important thing.
Can you say what sort of things you learned about songwriting from your father, who was one of the most prolific songwriters in modern Hawaiian history?
He always told me the same thing: “Write about your time, what is happening now, tell your story.”
On Pa‘ani and the follow-up album, Shine, you chose some interesting cover tunes, including the ’30s Cole Porter song “Begin the Beguine,” Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” and Kalapana’s “Nightbird.” I’ve seen a video of you with Herb Ohta, Jr. playing Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” What makes you decide to adapt a song and work up a ukulele arrangement?
It’s mainly to highlight the versatility of the instrument. But I also see it as a way to highlight songs that mean something to me. Every single one of the arrangements I do is connected to a memory of significance in my life.
How did you get involved with Waipuna? I know they put out a few records before you joined. Was it hard to fit your sound in with what Kale [Hannahs, bass] and Matt [Sproat, guitar] were doing?
I received a call from Kale asking if I wanted to do a recording session as a guest artist for one song. I’ve known Kale since college and we met on the circuit here and there while we were in different groups. So I went into the studio for that and a few weeks after the session they asked if I wanted to sit in on a gig they had at the Ilikai Hotel in Honolulu. I sat in and had fun, and after that gig they asked me if I wanted to join, and I said yes. It wasn’t hard fitting into their sound at all.
Waipuna has been described as Hawaiian “neo-traditionalist.” Do you think that is accurate?
I would say so. Our approach is to deliver a fresh take on the old Hawaiian songs, and push it a little further.
I know that since your father’s passing, you have been working to nurture his legacy? In practical terms, what does that mean?
Dad’s music is a huge undertaking. Currently, my mom owns all copyrights to Dad’s catalog of music. I am currently in a consultant role. We have unreleased recordings and are currently planning how to present them. Songbooks, compilation albums, DVDs—we are exploring possible ways to release the material.
A couple of uke questions: Can you tell me what your favorite ukes to play have been through the years? What’s your go-to instrument at the moment?
My go-to uke right now is a Kamaka Tenor (low-G tuning), but my favorite one I have ever played is a 1955 Martin tenor, which I still have and play once in a while.
Who are some of the uke players of today you admire most?
That list would be ridiculously long because so much young talent is getting out there every day, which is truly exciting. If I were to narrow it down, the players from this generation I always try to listen to are Brittni Paiva, Kalei Gamiao, and Karlie G.
Any albums, tours, or collaborations you have coming up that we should know about? Any “dream projects” you hope to get to one of these days?
Because of COVID-19, the future of touring is unknown, but I’m still hopeful we can get back out there. I am currently in studio with Waipuna right now. No release date is set but recording is underway.
A dream project would be to record a collaboration album with Herb Ohta, Jr., Bryan Tolentino, and Jake Shimabukuro.