‘You Can Do Anything on the Ukulele’ Lessons from Living Legend Led Kaapana

From the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY AUDREY COLEMAN

The remote little town of Kalapana once nestled alongside the famed black sand beach on the eastern tip of Hawaii Island. Destroyed by a massive lava flow in 1986, Kalapana lives on in the memory and music of Ledward Kaapana, virtuoso on both slack-key guitar and ukulele. Growing up in the Puna District town immersed him in the rich musical life of his extended family. This legacy permeates the award-winning ukulele album Kaapana released in 2017, Jus’ Press, Volume 2.

“My father played guitar, ukulele, autoharp, piano, steel guitar, and saxophone,” he recalls. “Four uncles on my mother’s side played ukulele and they all had their own style.”

Particularly influential was his mother, who played ukulele and sang. At home and during family get-togethers, he would intently listen to her play, watching her hands move deftly among the four strings. In a community where houses had no electricity and the nearest market was 32 miles away, families entertained themselves. Every weekend they would gather to play music for hours in the kani ka pila tradition. While the adults played favorite mele (Hawaiian songs) on which they improvised effortlessly, kids like Led would sit on the sidelines, listening, singing along, and hungrily observing chord positions and tunings.

“Ukulele was my favorite when I was growing up because it was simple to play,” says Kaapana. “I used to carry my ukulele to school to play for the kids. When I was in fifth grade, me and my brother used to play music sitting on the steps while the other kids were playing kickball. The schoolteacher was listening to us play. And that’s why I love the ukulele.”

When radio reached Kalapana, he listened to master uke players. There was young Eddie Kamae, who, ignoring his Hawaiian cultural roots at that time, enthralled audiences with Latin jazz stylings. Maui-born Nelson Waikiki interpreted some of the Hawaiian melodies in his repertoire playing “slack-key ukulele.” Pennsylvania-born multi-instrumentalist Roy Smeck performed novelty numbers from his vaudeville acts. The pop-tune embellishments of Cleveland-born Lyle Ritz appealed more to Hawaiians than to mainland listeners, who only lauded his playing some years later.

This varied ukulele fare, along with the music of kani ka pila, stayed with Kaapana even as he embarked on a new kind of experience in the school band, playing trumpet. He learned how to read sheet music, something he had never seen people do at home. An encounter with the music teacher who conducted the band had a lasting impact on him. “I was playing the horn,” he recounts. “At the same time that I was playing the song and reading the notes, in my head I would hear a lot of notes… and I played those notes that I wanted to hear. So one time the band teacher stops the class. He looks at me and says, ‘Mr. Kaapana?’

“I says, ‘Yes?’

“‘Was that note on your music sheet?’

“I says, ‘It’s not there.’

“He says, ‘Play the note on your music sheet.’ So I played the note on my music sheet, but then I keep on hearing music my head and automatically my fingers go to play them. After the class was done, the teacher came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Kaapana, I want you to stay.’ So everybody left and he said to me, ‘Mr. Kaapana, where did you get those notes?’

“I say, ‘I just hear the notes. They come from inside.’

“And he tells me, ‘You know what that is?’

“I say, ‘No.’

“He says, ‘That’s called gifted.’”

“I said, ‘Oh. Thank you.’ I thought he was going to scold me for doing those things. So ever since that time, he never cared if I was or was not reading the notes. I could hear all these notes in my head even though I was playing the same song as the band—but with all these notes. And he was just looking at me and smiling.”

Throughout his career Kaapana has welcomed the notes that enter his head. They contribute to the remarkable freshness of his playing, whether he’s interpreting a Hawaiian song or a mainland standard. “As I play the music, it comes naturally because for me it was not learning from the book. It was learning from the inside—watching and listening to the family play. The music they were playing was making us feel good and made us want to do it. That’s the way we learned. That’s why every time I play a song, it’s different. It always comes natural. It comes from the inside with a lot of feeling, not from a music sheet. That’s what we learned—enjoy playing and feel with the instrument. I create plenty of things while playing and I surprise myself and think, ‘Whoa! What’s that? Something new here!’ It just comes. And it goes on and on. Never stops. You are always creating, always improvising. So many things happening.”

Best known as a master slack-key guitarist, Kaapana always plays the ukulele in performances. He contends that the two instruments can do the same things. “You can do anything on the ukulele. I do plenty stuff with the four strings. But because you have only four strings, you have to work a little harder than on the guitar to get all those other notes. But I can improvise.”

He has played most of the songs and instrumentals in his repertoire on both instruments. However, some pieces, such as “Turkey in the Straw” seem to please audiences more when played on the ukulele. () And one piece—“Killing Me Softly”—he only plays on his four-stringed tenor because he finds the moves up and down the fretboard to be easier.

Kaapana mostly fingerpicks using his thumb and index finger. “Most people play two fingers and the thumb or four fingers and the thumb. My dad used all his fingers. I feel comfortable just using the thumb and the one finger. And they always tell me, ‘How you do that with just one finger?’ I remember when I used to play with [the late guitarist] Bob Brozman, he used to tell me I should use two fingers and the thumb. So I tried it. I got all screwed up with the strings. It didn’t work.”



Between roller coaster rides of fingerpicking, his fingers land on chords that keep the musical direction flowing. Sometimes he plays “waterfalls,” a dramatic chord effect he learned from his Uncle Fred. “So I start rolling my thumb and my finger on a chord,” he explains, “rolling the string so it sounds like waterfalls. You can make it sound like ten or 20 notes all at one time. When I first started, it was difficult, but now I got so used to it through the years that it’s OK.”

Led Kaapana Ukulele Ledward Hawaii Uke Music Chuck Moore Ukulele

Often he plays in the open-tuning slack key style that he uses on the guitar. In his view, once you learn various slack-key tunings, the playing actually becomes easier. “It’s because you’re only using two strings and the rest is open strings. It looks like you’re holding a whole chord when you’re just playing two notes at a time. Or sometimes just one.”

Wherever he performs—a college auditorium, an outdoor bandstand, or an intimate coffeehouse, Ledward Kaapana relishes sharing his music. Wearing his trademark black Stetson with its feather lei hatband and his red leather boots, he strides onto the stage to welcoming applause, and acknowledges the audience with a warm, relaxed smile.

He rarely uses a playlist, and says he usually decides on the spot whether he will play a given song on the ukulele or guitar. He says he never knows how he will play it. “When I go up to play, I don’t think what I’m going to do. Whatever I do, there’s always something extra added to it because of the feelings I have, and it just comes out. Sometimes I’m playing waterfalls. Sometimes I’m rolling the strings so it sounds like three guys are playing. It just comes.”

It’s hard to believe that Led Kaapana was ever anything but totally at ease on stage. But he admits that as a teenager playing gigs with family members, he felt nervous standing in front of people. Even when he started playing in Hui Ohana, the influential trio he formed with his twin brother Nedward and cousin, Dennis Pavao, he got butterflies at first. This dissipated as the trio soared to success, recording a string of albums that became musical milestones of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance. Incidentally, it was for Hui Ohana that Kaapana composed a tune specifically for ukulele, his only one so far. The recording of “LND,” which stands for Ledward, Nedward, and Dennis, features Kaapana on uke.

Kaapana experiences performing as simply sharing what he loves. “Once I go on stage, to me it’s like I’m sitting in my garage and playing music, doing the best I can, trying to create, and surprise the people and watch them smile. I enjoy it.”

This rapport with the audience comes through when he introduces a song or instrumental. Presenting the well-known American folk song “Turkey in the Straw,” he calls it “Chicken in the Straw,” reaping smiles especially among Hawaiians who long have witnessed an overabundance of feral mua chickens that congregate in parking lots and waddle across sidewalks, particularly on Kauai and Hawaii Island. Before playing “Killing Me Softly,” he makes a mischievous slip of the tongue. “I know they know a song called ‘Killing Me Softly,’” he chuckles, “so I tell them I’m going to do a song called ‘Killing Me Slowly.’ And they all pause—like ‘What?!’ And then I say, ‘Oh no, I mean ‘Killing Me Softly,’ and they all laugh.”

His enjoyment is infectious. “Someone told me, ‘You’re the only guy I see have fun on the stage, and people have fun watching you have fun. How you do that?”

“I say, ‘I don’t do it. It just comes from inside.’”

Although he owns soprano and baritone ukuleles, for performances he plays a tenor strung with a low-G that produces a bass quality he finds pleasing. Currently, his uke of choice is a cutaway made of curly koa constructed by Chuck Moore of Moore Bettah Ukuleles in 2011. The shape allows him to reach the last fret without having to stretch so much, he explains. Its soundhole is positioned closer to the fretboard than on most ukes. A second, smaller hole located on the side allows music to rise directly to the player’s ears. Moore is also known for creating inlays of images that are meaningful to his customers. The peghead on Kaapana’s ukulele shows the black sand beach at Kalapana and the ebony fretboard is inlaid with his signature phrase, “Jus’ Press.”

Moore crafted a second tenor that sports the musician’s red boot next to the soundhole and black Stetson hat and sunglasses on the peg head. Led has not played it in performances. [Editor’s note: However, Led did play it for the exclusive session he played in our studio.] “I always take the one with the black sand on it,” he says. “The red boot one, I gotta break in—the sound will change because the wood gets older. You get the round sound, the full sound.”

Kaapana’s most recent CD, Jus’ Press Volume 2, is a solo, all-ukulele album, his first. He put off this cherished project for years due to the demand for his slack-key guitar recordings. Finally, with nudging from his wife and manager, Sharon, he began selecting songs and instrumentals for it. Some tracks, such as “E Nei (My Strange One),” are mele his mother played during his childhood. Others, like “The Whee Ha Swing,” are audience favorites. He also included a few mainland pop and jazz tunes, like the ever-popular Henry Mancini tune, “Baby Elephant Walk.” Another, “Honeysuckle Rose,” he learned from one of his uncles back home. “He used to sing that song and play it on his guitar,” recalls Kaapana. “We would sit down and listen to him. When we were playing ukulele, we were strumming behind him, just keeping the rhythm.”

The expression “Jus’ Press” came from his Uncle Fred—virtuoso slack-key guitarist Fred Punahoa—who profoundly influenced his musical development. “Back in those days they didn’t read music,” says Kaapana. “When I used to play and I used to ask my uncle what key he was in, he’d look at me and say, ‘Jus’ press.’ And I used to press the wrong key, so he looked at me and said, ‘Press the right key.’”

The first Jus’ Press album, released in 1985, set a stellar example for Volume 2. Featuring Kaapana on guitar with the trio that followed Hui Ohana, I Kona, it won the Na Hoku Hanohano (Stars of Distinction) award for Island Contemporary Album of the Year from the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts. In 2017, Jus’ Press, Volume 2 scooped up the Na Hoku Hanohano for Best Ukulele Album of the Year. It’s one of several Na Hoku Hanohano awards Kaapana has received over the years.

Interesting perhaps from a marketing standpoint: The CD cover of Jus’ Press, Volume 2 gives no indication in words or graphics that this is a ukulele album. Although Kaapana frequently has toured the mainland and beyond, evidently he prioritizes his following in Hawaii: “I figured they all know that I play the ukulele. I just won the Hoku.”

No stranger to the Grammy Awards either, he has gleaned several nominations for his albums, and compilations of master slack-key guitarists that that included his performances won Grammys in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010.

In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Ledward Kaapana a National Heritage Fellowship. The honor is reserved for artists “deserving of national recognition and who embody artistic excellence, authenticity, and significance within their tradition.”


The desire to perpetuate the rich tradition of Hawaiian music has drawn Kaapana into teaching. He loves to lead workshops and visit ongoing classes as a guest instructor. At first, however, the prospect of teaching intimidated him. He approached respected slack-key guitarist and music educator Ozzie Kotani and asked to observe him teaching students in his class. Kotani’s response surprised him. “He looked at me and said, ‘No… I’d rather you teach them the way you learned.’

“I said, ‘But it’s going to be hard, you know.’”

“‘But that’s the best way because if you can teach them the way you learned, it’s going to be better for them because they don’t have to read music; you are teaching them how to feel the music.’”

Ultimately, the advice gave him confidence. In his workshops for guitar and ukulele students, he provides no tablature or standard notation sheets. Instead, with clarity, patience, and kindness, he demonstrates how to play a song. “What I do is I play the song slowly and then I play it part by part. And I, say, ‘OK, let’s play from this point to this point.’ Soon, as they get it, we go from that point to the next point until the end of the song. Before the class is over, they’re playing the music. When I ask them how they liked the class, they say, ‘I love it and we are not even reading music. It’s something different.’”

“And I say, ‘Well, that’s the way I learned.’”

He encourages students to bring audio and video recorders to his classes to help them remember the lesson and practice. However, he says teaching on YouTube or working with students on Skype does not interest him.

For Ukulele magazine readers who are eager to learn the basics or to improve their playing, Led has recommendations: Intermediate and advanced players should practice improvising on their own and let their feelings flow into those improvisations. Beginners should take advantage of structured ukulele classes and find other opportunities to play, such as ukulele clubs.

The most important advice from Led Kaapana applies to all levels: “Know what you want to do, play from the heart, and enjoy the ukulele. You gotta love the instrument and love what you wanna do with it. You don’t love it, you won’t play it right—doesn’t matter if it’s ukulele or guitar. You love it and you do it from inside, from within your heart—and the rest just comes like a blessing.” 

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