Big MACC of Slack Key: Ki Ho‘alu Guitar Festival

Before performing at the annual Ki Ho’alu Guitar Festival outdoors at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Sunday, Dennis Kamakahi has been immersing himself in teaching at George Kahumoku Jr.’s music camp in Napili.

It’s a role one of Hawaii’s most distinguished musicians relishes.

“At my age now, I just reached 60, this is a time when you start teaching,” says Dennis. “This year makes 47 years in entertainment, and I’m not going to stay in music forever. I find it thrilling to see my students excel. I’ve come across some really talented young boys and girls. I’ve seen probably three prodigies in my lifetime. I wouldn’t be here if the masters hadn’t imparted their knowledge before us. In turn you pass the same thing down.”

One of Hawaii’s most prolific composers and accomplished slack-key guitarists, Dennis won the Best Slack Key Album Na Hoku Hanohano Award last year, with fellow musician Steven Inglis, for their extraordinary collaborative recording, “Waimaka Helelei Falling Teardrops.”

The project pays tribute to the many Hansen’s disease patients who were banished to Molokai’s remote Kalaupapa peninsula. The profoundly haunting title track encapsulates some of their suffering.

“Tears fall at Kalaupapa, grieve, grieve; Sad rain in the distant uplands, grieve, grieve; Gone are the ancestors of the land, grieve, grieve; Silent are the voices of the ancestors, grieve, grieve.”

“Steven was going to do an album and he asked me to guest on it,” Dennis explains the genesis of the project. “The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘What is the theme of the album?’ When he mentioned Kalaupapa, the light bulb in my mind went on. I said I knew a lot of people from Kalaupapa. When I joined the Sons of Hawaii, we did a concert there in 1975, when there were over 250 people in Kalaupapa. I was thinking this would be a great time to thank some of the kupuna who were alive at that time. So I said, ‘Why don’t we do an album to honor the people, especially Bernard Punikai’a, the activist from Kalaupapa?’ Steven’s father was the executor of Bernie’s estate. Bernie had written some songs that were never recorded, and Steven came across a song written for Father Damien (“Eia a’e O Damiana Ka Makua O Kakou”). It was perfect, and so we started putting all the material together.”

Just one of the highlights on the album, the lyrics of “Eia a’e O Damiana Ka Makua O Kakou” were composed by a young Kalaupapa resident around 130 years ago. Two other songs are by Punikai’a, who spearheaded the long struggle to try and stop the state from demolishing the Hale Mohalu treatment center on Oahu in the 1980s.

“We’re proud of the project, we just wanted to thank the people,” Dennis continues. “And we actually went down to Kalaupapa to perform a concert. There are only about 15 people left, and the day we went down there, they were celebrating the forthcoming sainthood of Mother Marianne. We got down and there were almost 100 people, it was quite a day. Kalaupapa is one of the most peaceful areas I’ve ever been in Hawaii. You step off the plane, and it’s complete peace and silence.”

Talking about the project, Dennis recalls how moved he was on the day when he first visited Kalaupapa with Eddie Kamai. That trip inspired him to compose the song, “Waimaka Helelei.”

“The old hospital had a terminal ward, and Eddie Kamai and I started playing for the patients. We came across this one woman who had no hands and no nose. She was about to expire, and she asked us to play her favorite song. When we finished, she clapped with what was left of her hands. It was like an ovation of thunder. It was a moment I will never forget. She smiled and then we went to the community center to play a concert, and we heard after that she passed on. I wanted to honor that woman. When people hear the song, they cry.”

Born in 1953, this revered musician began playing ukulele at the age of 3, and slack key guitar at 10, taught by his grandfather. He credits his father, who played trombone with the Royal Hawaiian Band, with being the first to set him on a musical path.

“You could put an instrument in his hand and within a week he mastered it,” Dennis notes. “I was the oldest grandchild, so in the Hawaiian tradition, I was hanai’ed (Hawaiian for adopted) to my grandfather. He had graduated from Lahainaluna in 1915, and he worked for the Territorial auditor’s office because he had total recall with memory. He was a good mentor for me because he loved music.”

The love of Hawaiian slack key guitar comes from how peaceful he feels playing. “It’s the peace I get knowing that when I play, I’m not only playing for myself, but for the teachers who came before me,” he says. “I remember Manu Kahaiali’i, Willie K’s dad, would say, ‘Whenever I play, I’m playing for my ancestors, all of those before me who taught my teachers.’ It’s always a joy to play.”

In the 1950s, he recalls being mesmerized by the music of the Sons of Hawaii as was played on Hawaiian radio station KLEI, knowing it was the style of traditional music he wanted to play.

A dream came true in 1974, when the young guitarist was invited to join the group he so revered, replacing Hawaiian music legend Gabby Pahinui.

“I was in total shock,” he recalls. “My first thing was, ‘I can’t be another Gabby.’ When you go into a legendary band like the Sons of Hawaii, where everybody knows exactly how the music is going to go just by Eddie’s rhythm, it’s a whole different experience. We never rehearsed, except for albums when we would spend a week in Hana. No TV, no newspapers, just music. Hana has always been the place to go for the Sons of Hawaii to record albums. We would throw a big party for the community and play the material and it became a tradition. Hana was the magic place.”

Under Uncle Eddie Kamai’s tutelage, Dennis was encouraged to compose for the Sons. In time, he produced many classics such as “Pua Hone,” “Wahine ‘Ilikea,” “E Hihiwai,” “Koke’e,” and “Kou Aloha Mau A Mau.”

Studying with Hawaiian cultural icon Mary Kawena Pukui helped hone his composing gift.

“She became my teacher, it was a wonderful learning experience,” he recalls. “Kawena gave her all to the end. We learned from the source.”

Near the end of her life, the celebrated historian suggested that Dennis’ talent had a unique source.

“She was in Queen’s Hospital, where my mom was a nurse. Tutu (Kawena) told my mother that I lived before, that 100 years ago I was a composer who died young, and I had come back to fulfill a destiny. I thought about it, and I can go to places I’ve never been, yet I feel like I’ve been there before. So I feel I have to finish my work and hopefully have a good retirement.”

Now that he has completed the homage to Kalaupapa, this Grammy Award and multi-Hoku-winning artist has another major project looming he calls, “The Travels of Grey Wolf.”

“As I age, the projects that I do are more meaningful, because they have to do with important stories that need to be brought out,” he explains. “For the last 30 years, I’ve been doing research on Native America tribes along the West Coast. To me, the next story will be the contact between Hawaiians and Native Americans. There are so many historic stories.”

One of those fascinating stories involves a Hawaiian man, John Kalama from Kula, who settled in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1830s, working for the Hudson Bay Company. He later married the daughter of a Nisqually Indian chief. The Washington state town of Kalama was later named after him. Dennis attended the 175th anniversary of the town’s founding in 2005.

“His oldest son, Peter Kalama, became the first Native Hawaiian/Native American tribal chief,” he notes. “He looked like Prince Kuhio.”

Maybe the most intriguing discovery relates to the Navajo Nation.

“The Navajo were originally a coastal tribe,” Dennis reports. “They had contact with ancient Hawaiians. They have celebrations, where they bring out holy relics, and one is a canoe. Aka Pule (Hawaiian teacher Haleaka Iolani Pule) went there and told me this fantastic story. She was brought by a chief to one of the celebrations, and he asked, ‘What kind of wood do you think this is?’ Aka looks and says, ‘It looks similar to koa.’ He said, ‘It is koa, the canoe was exchanged as a gift.’ I had chicken skin.”

Dennis plans to distill these varied stories of native contact into, “The Travels of Grey Wolf” project.

“It’s going to be my last project,” he says. “Grey Wolf is my Indian name given me by the Yakama Nation. It will cover all my travels from Alaska to California.”

* 2013 Ki Ho’alu Guitar Festival is presented by The Maui News at the MACC’s outdoor pavilion/ amphitheater from 1 to 7 p.m. on Sunday. Besides Dennis, musicians performing include Kevin and Ikaika Brown, Danny Carvalho, John Cruz, Stephen Inglis, George Kahumoku Jr., Bobby Moderow, Paul Togioka and Japan’s foremost Hawaiian slack key guitarist, Yuki Alani Yamauchi. Admission is free.

The 2012 Lanai Slack Key Festival produced this year’s Na Hoku Award-winning Compilation Album. Musicians featured on the album included Dennis. Now comes the third annual Lanai Ukulele Festival set for Friday through Sunday at the Four Seasons Resorts Lanai Lodge at Koele.

The free, three-day event includes performances by stellar artists Richard Ho’opi’i, Tony Conjugacion, Sheldon Brown, CJ “Boom” Helekahi, Paula Fuga, Walt Keale, Makana Lopez, the Romero ‘Ohana, Hula Honeys, and the Zenshin Daiko Taiko Drummers.

Weekend highlights include performances at The Lodge on Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Saturday from 4 to 8 p.m.

Music will also be featured at Coffee Works, Cafe 565 and Mimi’s Place in Lanai City. All are free and open to the public.