Fellow musicians pay tribute to ‘talented, humble’ mentor

Musician Eddie Kamae, who died Saturday at age 89, spent time on Maui visiting family and met his wife, Myrna, in West Maui in 1965. Hawaiian Legacy Foundation photo

Honolulu-born musician Eddie Kamae became a renowned entertainer on the stage, but the way some local musicians best remember him is in their families’ backyards, playing Hawaiian music with their fathers.

“He was the epitome of what I call Hawaiian front-porch music and backyard jam,” said Lahaina-grown musician Willie K, whose father was best friends with Kamae. “He dedicated himself to teaching the world about the history of Hawaii through the eyes of a Hawaiian man.”

Kamae died Saturday in Honolulu at the age of 89. Those who knew him well said Sunday that he captivated and inspired others with his simple style of play, his passion for keeping the stories and songs of past generations alive, and his humble, gentle manner.

Kamae was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1927, to Alice Ululani Opunui and Samuel Hoapili Kamae. Growing up, Kamae split time between Honolulu and Lahaina, said Ted Sakai, president of the Hawaiian Legacy Foundation that preserves and promotes Kamae’s work. Kamae’s mother was born in Lahaina and, over the years, he came to Maui often to visit family.

Kamae learned to play the ukulele after his brother brought home an instrument someone had left on a city bus, but he initially avoided Hawaiian music, thinking it was “too easy,” according to a news release from the Hawaiian Legacy Foundation.

“His father always wanted him to play Hawaiian music,” Sakai said. “(Eddie Kamae) became quite well known as an ukulele virtuoso. He even toured the Mainland, but he got very lonely and homesick, so I guess things converged and led him back to Hawaiian music.

“They say he could pluck all four strings of the uke at the same time,” Sakai added. “It’s a gift.”

In 1948, Kamae went professional with Shoi Ikemi as part of The Ukulele Rascals duo. Kamae began digging deeper into Hawaiian music and, in 1960, he co-founded the Sons of Hawai’i with longtime friend Gabby Pahinui. Joe Marshall and David “Feets” Rogers rounded out the group.

“The group was totally balanced,” Sakai said. “There’s a lot of energy to the music but there was no real star because everybody’s voice was important and every instrument was important.”

Together, the Sons of Hawai’i produced 14 albums and became known for classics like “E Ku’u Morning Dew,” “Kela Mea Whiffa” and “Pua Hone.” The group helped bring back music from Hawaii’s past, including songs written by Queen Lili’uokalani during her incarceration in Iolani Palace. Kamae found them in Bishop Museum archives, arranged the scores and started playing them, according to the foundation.

In 1965, Kamae met his future wife, Myrna, on Maui. Myrna was working at a restaurant called Pineapple Hill in Kapalua, and Kamae was playing music at the restaurant.

“And the romance blossomed from there,” Sakai said.

The two were married in 1966.

Maui slack key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr. said that his sister-in-law Leona Kamoku also worked at Pineapple Hill and was best friends with Myrna. Over the years, the two families got together often to share meals and music. While Kahumoku was in college, Kamae would send him Sons of Hawai’i albums.

“He inspired me to start writing,” Kahumoku said. “He brought back the old style of playing. It was your voice and your instrument. . . . It wasn’t highly technical stuff. It was the simplicity of his music.”

Kahumoku was 11 when he first met Kamae, who stopped by the Kahumoku home in Pauoa Valley in the early 1960s to jam with Pahinui and George Kahumoku Sr.

Kamae’s advice has been invaluable over the years, Kahumoku said. He pushed the younger musician to manage and publish his own work, which few other artists were doing at the time. He also told Kahumoku to “write the songs of your time” while still remembering the old music.

“I’m going to miss him,” Kahumoku said. “I’m going to continue his work of mentoring younger people. I share a lot of his knowledge with students still today.”

Willie K met Kamae in much the same way as Kahumoku. His father, Manu Kahaialii, was best friends with Kamae, and they often played music together in the late 1970s at the Kahaialii home in Lahaina. The two men worked together on many cultural awareness programs, and Kahaialii even appeared in a couple of Kamae’s films.

Willie K described Kamae as “talented, humble, just an all-around good guy,” whose musical talents helped foster his appreciation for Hawaiian music.

“During the renaissance years of the 1970s, when Hawaiian music was hitting the airwaves really hard and people started to become big fans, I was one of those people,” Willie K said. “Who didn’t want to play like Eddie Kamae?”

The last time Willie K saw Kamae perform was at Manu Kahaialii’s funeral in 1993.

“I’m glad I met the man,” Willie K said. “I’m glad I learned to play his music, because there’s a little piece of Eddie Kamae in my Hawaiian music when I play.”

In the 1986, Kamae branched into filmmaking with his wife, wanting to preserve the stories of kupuna for future generations, Sakai said. His 10 films have premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1999, Kamae traveled to Maui to document the closing of the Pioneer Mill, which inspired the film “Lahaina: Waves of Change,” which explores the history of the first capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“The tourist industry was really taking over, and he wanted to preserve the memory of the old Lahaina while some of the kupuna were still there,” Sakai said.

Sakai said that he met Kamae in the early 1970s. At the time, David “Feets” Rogers, a member of the original Sons of Hawaii, was struggling with a drug addiction, and Sakai worked for an organization that ran a drug treatment program, which Kamae made sure his friend attended.

“I was really struck by his loyalty, because I remember asking him, ‘When are you going to start playing again?'” Sakai recalled. “He told me, ‘When Feets is ready.”

Over his lifetime, Kamae received nearly 50 awards, honors and tributes, including his 2007 induction into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. Among Kamae’s unique accomplishments was receiving his high school diploma at the age of 82. After Kamae left Farrington High School in 1948, one credit shy of graduating, the school decided to give him a final credit for life experience, according to a 2010 Honolulu Advertiser story. He marched with the Farrington Class of 2010.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.