BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Everybody loves Kimo. Five minutes into an hour-long phone interview, Honolulu-based uke master Kimo Hussey is calling me “buddy,” and I feel like I’ve known him for years. OK, I hear from reliable sources he calls everybody “buddy,” but his friendliness is real, and so is the relaxed but engaging personality that comes across so well on his many popular ukulele instructional videos on YouTube. I asked around, and heard nothing but gushing praise for the unassuming 75-year old—both as a teacher and a person. Jake Shimabukuro even called him a “legend” and spoke of the many players Kimo has nurtured and influenced through the years.
Though Kimo has literally been playing the ukulele for 70 years, his career as a professional performer and teacher is actually a relatively recent development, beginning only after his retirement from a 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard.
But he’s packed a lot into his 20-plus years on the uke circuit: countless workshops and concerts all over the world—including many community service benefits for worthy causes; dozens of YouTube teaching videos—both solo and with uke friends such as David Chen and Zanuck Kapala Lindsey—that cover everything from strumming and plucking techniques to how to play specific tunes; two exceptional instrumental albums—Eminent Ukulele (1999) and Low G (2015)—showcasing his virtuosic and imaginative mastery of jazz, pop, standards, Hawaiian, and other music forms; and, with Vicky Hollinger, writing the ukulele arrangements for the classic, essential songbook He Mele Aloha, which collected 267 songs stretching from Hawaii’s missionary days in the 19th century through the hapa haole era to the present. Kimo has had a long association with the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii, even serving as president for many years, helping promote the work of custom uke builders. He has also been involved in such nonprofit organizations as Sounding Joy Music—specializing in clinical music therapy—and the Pacific Music Foundation, which he co-founded to help promote Hawaiian music.
It’s not surprising to learn that at the heart of Kimo’s love of ukulele is kanikapila— friendly, casual gatherings/jam sessions where musicians play and sing informally just for fun; a Hawaiian tradition that has by now also been adopted by uke players wherever you find them.
“In kanikapila, proficiency means nothing, enjoyment is everything,” he said in a 2018 interview. That joyful spirit infuses his teaching and his playing, and helps explain why he is one of the most loved and respected figures in contemporary Hawaiian music.
You’ve said you were introduced to uke through your uncle Richard when you were five. Can you tell me about him and what you might have gotten out of the instrument when you were that young?
At the time in Hawaii, and it’s still true in some places today, there was an ukulele in every single house. Of course at that age, the ukulele was probably more of a toy than a musical instrument to me. But I was so in love with hearing my uncle, who was a musician, play. Every weekend he would come over with some of his friends and play. He was the first one to show me some chords and to this day he is the only teacher I ever had for ukulele.
I can’t remember when I consciously decided that music was something important to me, but I know I was very young. At the time, and still today, most of the kids learned through kanikapila. In my case it was my uncle and his friends, and then my friends and I would sit and watch and that’s how we really learned. That’s how most of the kids learned about music.
What sort of music was being played at kanikapila gatherings in the 1950s? Was it mostly older Hawaiian tunes, or some of the hapa haole or Tin Pan Alley repertoire, or contemporary pop tunes from the day?
Most of the music that people played when I was growing up, and most of the music I participated in playing, was Hawaiian music. And a lot of that Hawaiian music descended from hymns that missionaries brought over—and because of that, the Hawaiian music was very, very melodic and the chords very, very simple. So hymns played a very important role in the ukulele’s development, because it was great accompaniment for those songs and almost anyone could play them.
Growing up, especially when I got to middle school and high school [late ’50s, early ’60s, respectively], rock ’n’ roll was extremely popular, so that became an important part of the music we enjoyed playing, too. In addition, the hapa haole music also had a big influence. So those three types of music colored my own upbringing in ukulele.
The Kamehameha Schools, which you attended, are highly regarded. What sort of musical education did you get there?
The biggest influence that Kamehameha had on me personally was choral music and choirs. I became very interested in that and choral conducting, and as a result, I ended up going to Occidental College [in Claremont, California, east of L.A.], where my high school music teacher went. My major was in choral conducting.
Did you play other instruments growing up?
Growing up, all the way through high school, I played mostly ukulele. Most of my adult life I lived on the mainland, because of college and what I did after. I was on the mainland for 27 years before I came back to Hawaii, and during those years my primary instrument was the guitar. I think I got my first guitar in junior high school, and having played ukulele so long in my youth really helped me a lot in learning guitar.
What did you believe you were going to do with your choral conducting training once you got out of college?
Teach! I always thought that once I got my degree, I would come back home and teach. With just another two-year investment, I could come home with a master’s degree and my specialty would be men’s chorus, which I dearly love. Well, halfway through the graduate program at Occidental, I ran out of money, so it was time to go to work, and in those days [late ’60s], when you did that, you suddenly became very draftable. And that’s exactly what happened to me. So rather than being drafted, I decided to enlist in the Air Force, and then the longer I was in the Air Force flying airplanes, the more I enjoyed it, so that turned into a 30-year career.
Because of the Vietnam War, no matter what I did I was probably going to end up there anyway, so I thought I’d try and do something that could maybe can help me forge a career when I got out, because I was originally only planning to stay for one tour and then get out. Some of my friends were very much against the war, and that was OK. Some of them were running away to Canada or getting their influential parents to essentially buy them out of the draft. But it turned out well for me.
Where were you stationed?
Initially in Riverside, California. But most of the time I was stationed over in Thailand, flying missions out of there.
So you were in the war?
I was in the war. But I was in the sky rather than on the ground, so that was a better place for me to be. The way it worked over there is we’d go over for three months, come back for a couple of weeks to a month, and then go back; rotating. That started for me in 1971 and went all the way through the early part 1973, when the war started winding down.
Even not being involved in ground combat has got to be a little heavy emotionally, no?
It was a tough, tough time. Thailand is a beautiful place, filled with wonderful people; great food, of course. But war does really bad things to people, especially where it’s occurring.
What happened after you returned to the United States after the war?
Most of those 30 years were spent as a full-time pilot in the Air National Guard, though we wore the same uniform [as in the Air Force]. It was really a full-time job [laughs] and I barely played any music. But I always had a uke, and sometimes I even found time to play it!
One time we were in a tanker escorting some Australian Air Force F-111s back home after participating in an exercise. Their commander was in one of their aircraft and it was one of those trips during which I had an ukulele. So I figured out how to get ‘Waltzing Matilda’ into my inventory and played it for all the other planes in our gaggle. This turned out to be a seed that grew into several subsequent trips to Australia to share ukulele on the ground.
In 1990 I transferred to the Air National Guard in Hawaii, and I retired in 2000.
And that’s when you decided to get into music?
Yes, throughout my military career, there was no doubt that I was going to somehow get back into music and I also was going to be a teacher. So when I did actually retire, I first thought that maybe I’d get back into choral music and maybe teach at a high school, because teaching high school is always what I wanted to do. At the time, though, ukulele had already started this magnificent renaissance . . .
The “third wave” . . .
Right, and that got my attention. What really made me decide to go all-in on the ukulele was that at the time it was becoming popular around the world, and it was growing. I was thinking, “Wow, small instrument, very portable, I don’t have to work for anybody, I can be my own boss, and I can enjoy everything I love about choral conducting just by playing and singing with other people.” So I decided I was going to try and use ukulele as a catalyst to come up with my primary retirement activity, and that has worked out wonderfully!
At the beginning of that period, Jake [Shimabukuro] was very popular, as you know, so I thought, “OK, I need to figure out how to get famous!” [laughs] But I decided the best thing for me to do was go opposite—Jake was playing really, really fast and so I started playing slow. Also, at the time and still today, a lot of young ukulele players not only play fast, but also play loud. So I played soft. And also, young ukulele players love to improvise, which is wonderful, so I focused on melody. And going opposite has been wonderful for my teaching. People around the world talk to me about my “style,” which is basically to combine melody and harmony chords in real time.
At the time, there was a huge demand for good ukulele instruction, and there still is. I ended up at a point where most of my time in retirement is spent traveling the world playing ukulele workshops and concerts and teaching.
One of the really wonderful things about my Air Force career, relevant to ukulele, is that I have a very high interest in education and teaching, and the Air Force provided me with the very best teacher-training available. It was very easy for me to take music and ukulele and apply that to what I was learning from the Air Force about education.
Are the students different around the world, or are they all looking for the same sort of things from you?
They’re pretty much the same and looking for the same things. And the reason for that is the teachers around the world are basically the same. The thing I really love about teaching ukulele is that there are no standard methodologies in pedagogy, in how you teach a person to play. I think the biggest challenge in ukulele from the standpoint of instruction nowadays is to figure out how to get beyond C, F, and G7. Most of us teachers teach a beginner to hold C, F, and G7—nothing wrong with that—and then inside of ten or 15 minutes we’ve got them playing “You are My Sunshine.” Nothing wrong with that! But then after that we change the song and keep the chords the same and keep doing that over and over and over, and eventually players get to the point where they feel that they’ve reached a plateau and they’re not too sure how to go beyond that. And the reason I know that is because it‘s the most common question or problem that’s posed to me as I go around the world. It’s an area where my training in teaching and my understanding of how music is organized has stood me in very good stead.
What is the hardest part for beginners to master? Is it the coordination of the two hands?
I think the biggest challenge is not on the technical side, because with ukulele there is nothing that is difficult if we take the time to break things down. I think the most challenging thing for beginners is that psychologically we can understand a concept instantaneously, so if you’re in a lesson and you’re explaining a concept, people will understand it; the problem is sometimes we unconsciously believe that just because our brains can understand something really quickly, our hands will be just as quick, and they’re not. It’s the reason I think ukulele teachers need to spend a good amount of time sharing with their students how to practice, and to teach them the discipline of patience—patience in allowing your hands to get caught up to your thinking, which can be difficult and frustrating. That’s why I’m always very high on bringing the emotional aspect of music into not only lessons that I do, but into playing. When music is beautiful, it’s usually because they’ve permitted an emotional participation in the music, in the playing, that is completely aside from technique.
You have a famous two-finger right-hand approach. I know you didn’t study with teachers, so how did you pick up on technique? Did you listen to players like Eddie Kamae or Peter Moon in the ’60s and ’70s?
I was not influenced as much by a person as much as I was influenced by a style of play, because the way I play is the way most professional ukulele players played at the time, which was combining harmony and melody at the same time. As for the two-finger method, that term was coined by a real good friend I mentored, named David Chen. David and I spent a lot of time together and for a two- or three-year period he followed me around the world just so we could learn from each other. He’s written a couple of instructional books. That [technique] became well-known, especially in Taiwan. For me it was just the way I play [laughs].
Can you describe it briefly?
Yes. Basically what I do is I assign my forefinger to play the melody—so the forefinger plucks up, because it’s hard to get your forefinger to pluck down. Then, in order to get harmony, my thumb brushes down. So coordinating—or synching—those is the two-finger method.
Do you have any general thoughts on the current generation of uke teachers and players?
I love it! However, I would appreciate it more with the youngers players if they would begin to exercise a style that goes beyond trying to be like Jake. Or trying to be like Kalei [Gamiao]. The problem that a lot of these younger players run into is that a lot of them get stars in their eyes and they want to get rich and famous playing the ukulele without realizing that it’s not going to happen in today’s economy. The common rebut is “Jake did very, very well.” And he did. But the situation with Jake is that he was the first, and to this day, the only, player who developed a sponsor with deep pockets. They have to figure out a means of support. Some of them teach, of course, but for economics instead of because they really enjoy it, and that’s too bad.
You’re a well-known supporter of and advocate for ukulele luthiers. You were director of the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii and are still associated with them. I’m curious—are there ukes you’ve carried with you through your life’s journeys?
Throughout my ukulele career I’ve always played different instruments. I remember when I was in high school and my father bought a Martin baritone ukulele for me and I thought, “OK, this is it! I’m gonna die with this ukulele and take it to heaven with me!” [laughs] I think there’s no such thing as the ultimate ukulele, and all instruments have their own personality. I don’t know what pushed me in the direction I went in, but the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii was a big catalyst for me.
Because I played a lot and taught a lot, I got to know many really good ukulele builders, and to this day I have several friends who are acknowledged to be among the best builders in the world. So what I started doing was, I’d buy one of their ukes and make a commitment to the builder that once I had the uke I would play it in a concert or do a workshop with it or do something to promote that builder’s work. Through the Guild I met even more builders and learned more about the building process and what it is about that process that contributed to things I enjoy about ukulele. I am not a builder, never had a desire to be one, but I am forever indebted to builders because of the work they have done. One of my favorite activities is to collaborate with the builder on the next uke. Because I’ve never gone to a builder and said, “I want another one like that other one you made for me.”
I’m almost afraid to ask, but how many ukes to you own?
Ukes that I own right now? I would say. . . zero! [laughs] And it’s mostly been that way. When I developed an interest in custom instruments, I couldn’t afford to be a collector. At one point many years ago, I had 30 or 40 ukes, and one day I was thinking, “This is ridiculous! I love all of them, but I can only play one.” So I got rid of them all and that’s when I started to buy a uke, play it for a while, play it to learn about it and promote the builder, sell it, buy another one, sell it, buy another one, and that’s what I do to this day.
So do you have a go-to uke for when you’re sitting around the house, or does that change all the time, too?
It changes. In the house right now, I think I have three ukes: A Lichty—I’ve owned a bunch of those through the years; a Mike Keller; and a Les Stansell baritone. I just sent back a Kinnard baritone to California.
Do you have a favorite size? Sounds like you’re into baritones.
I am. I’ve been doing a lot of work with baritones. I guess I’d say I’m working toward a size; or a scale. I think I’ve got it narrowed down to where my scale of preference is 19 or 20 inches. A normal tenor is 17 inches. A normal baritone is 21 inches. So I’m right between them. We’ll see what comes next. I still have so much to learn about the ukulele. It’s endless!