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Eddie Kamae makes the Sons shine again

‘Play it sweet and keep it simple. That’s Hawaiian music.’

February 14, 2008
Immersed for two decades in documenting Hawaii’s cultural heritage on film, legendary ukulele virtuoso Eddie Kamae had turned away from recording music. As a founding member of the groundbreaking Sons of Hawaii, whose grassroots sound helped spawn the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, his musical legacy was well established.

While he was diligently archiving the essential traditions and voices of Hawaii’s kupuna for future generations, there were moments when he missed the joyous times of playing with his old compatriots, and wished once again to grace audiences with his heartfelt, soulful music.

And so finally, supported by a new group of musicians able to capture the magic of the past, this 80-year-old icon has returned to the recording studio releasing his first new music in 25 years.

“Yesterday & Today” seamlessly combines the old and new, dipping into the Sons’ rich treasury with songs recorded by Joe Marshall, David “Feet” Rogers, Moe Keale, and Dennis Kamakahi, interwoven with material recorded by the new Sons featuring Mike Ka‘awa, Ocean Kaowili, Paul Kim and Analu ‘Aina.

“When the boys passed away, the old group, there was just a few left, Dennis Kamakahi and George Kuo,” Eddie Kamae explains during a lunch at Tasty Crust.

“I told them to form a group and go. I thought that was the end. Time went by and I met new musicians. I sat in with them and said, well, I think I can do something. I found the right musicians, the steel sound, the rhythm, slack key guitar and bass, and the voices. It was a sound similar to what I did before. So we went into the studio with material I have had for many years.”

“Eddie was always saying, ‘I’m not going to be playing live music anymore, I’m too busy doing films,’” adds Myrna Kamae. “He was too busy making documentaries, but all this time he was missing the steel guitar of Feet Rogers and the rhythm pattern from Gabby, and he found that.

“(Steel guitarist) Paul Kim has been growing by leaps and bounds playing with them and with Mike Ka‘awa on rhythm guitar, that’s the sound Eddie needed to share again.”

We can also thank some bootleggers for Eddie’s return to playing music. A few years back when the Sons of Hawaii’s vinyl catalogue was unavailable on CD, some unscrupulous folks had taken matters into their own hands.

Eddie recalls the time when a friend relayed the surprising news that he had picked up a Sons’ CD.

“When I recorded with the Sons of Hawaii, we did it on LPs, no CDs,” he notes. “So when a friend said, ‘I bought your CD,’ I said, ‘You didn’t buy my CD.’ He said, ‘Yes I did,’ and mentioned the store. So the next day I went the store and there on a rack were all my albums on CD. I picked one up paid for it and asked for the manager. I said, I want you to know this product I just bought is my work, and you must have taken it from the LP. He was stunned; he didn’t know what to say. I said, ‘I have one question. Why?’ ‘People ask for it,’ he said. I said, ‘All right, it’s for the people, but no more.’ He never did it again, but it gave me an idea.”

Thus the Sons’ classic Hawaiian repertoire, re-mastered for CD, was heard on the Na Hoku-winning anthologies “Eddie Kamae and Friends,” and “Eddie Kamae: The Sons of Hawaii,” which was named Album of The Year in 2005.

Paying homage to the Sons of old on “Yesterday & Today,” Eddie includes such nuggets as the country flavored “Ka ‘Opae” (“The Shrimp,” with banjo and harp) and “Punalu‘u Nani,” composed by Eddie and one of his mentors, Mary Kawena Pukui.

Among the new recordings are a version of his classic “E Ku‘u Morning Dew,” marking the first time Eddie has sung the lead vocal on the song he composed, and the moving “Maka Ua,” (“Little Raindrops”) composed by Eddie and Myrna, that’s guaranteed to elicit tears.

“Tears are maka ua in Hawaiian,” Eddie explains.

“It was the first song we ever wrote together,” says Myrna. “We wrote it years ago, about 1966, but never recorded it, and he’s never really played it live either. It was a rainy afternoon and we were talking and made up this song. So we dusted it off.”

Originally Moe Keale was the featured vocalist on “E Ku‘u Morning Dew” (re-released on “Eddie Kamae Presents The Best of The Sons of Hawaii’).

“Moe did a beautiful job and that was it,” says Eddie. “But because I got into this scene again, it was time that I sung it for my wife, because I wrote it for her. We were having dinner with Larry Kimura from the University of Hawaii and I was inspired. This tune came to mind and I went into the bedroom and taped it. And I asked Larry to write some lyrics. I always ask Myrna, do you remember what you prepared for dinner that night?”

Eddie Kamae was 15 years old when his brother brought home a ukulele he had found on a Honolulu city bus. Though he knew no chords and had no idea how to play, he loved the sound. Within a short time he became one of Hawaii’s great players.

Resisting Hawaiian music at first, he applied his talent to Latin, pop and jazz, and earned a reputation as a master of his instrument. It was not until he met Gabby “Pops” Pahinui that he experienced the joy of playing Hawaiian.

“When I heard Gabby play the first time I said, now I know why my father asked me to play Hawaiian music,” he recalls. “I had told my father it was too simple. He (Gabby) played the same rhythm that I liked in Spanish music. So that’s how we formed the Sons of Hawaii.”

For most of his life, Eddie has felt divinely guided. Doors open, events unfold and pertinent people show up just at the right time.

“I always ask my spirit friend,” he says. “My mother always told me, ‘You ask and you thank.’ When I did my first film, it was amazing how things happened. We were at Waipio Valley and I was walking with my ukulele, looking for my teacher (Sam Li‘a) and it was hot and humid, no wind. My cameraman was filming me and I said, when I get past a tree, call. He didn’t call because what he saw in the camera shook him up. The leaves of the tree and the bushes on both sides were rustling, and nowhere else. And there was no wind.

“Myrna was having breakfast with a Hawaiian woman and she asked, ‘Where’s Eddie?’ Myrna says, he’s filming in Waipio Valley. The woman turns and says, ‘He’s already successful.’ When Myrna told me that, I said, call her up, let’s have breakfast. I said I’ve just started and you said I’m already successful. She smiled and told me, ‘Sam Li‘a told me.’ I asked her about the incident with no wind and the leaves rustling and she said, ‘Oh Eddie, the spirits there love you.’ That’s what it’s all about. I know my spirit friend is there. All you have to do is ask.”

Beginning with the first documentary, “Li‘a: The legacy of a Hawaiian Man,” with Eddie directing and Myrna producing, this dynamic team has created a remarkable legacy, an invaluable trove of Hawaiian lore that will serve generations.

Frequently earning film festival awards, this compendium includes “Listen to the Forest,” “The Hawaiian Way,” “Words, Earth & Aloha,” “Keepers of the Flame: The Cultural Legacy of Three Hawaiian Women” and the most recent, “Lahaina: Waves of Change.”

“The elders have so much to offer, you need to go there and inspire them to express their opinions and thoughts about what life is all about,” says Eddie.

“That’s what I want to capture, so the little ones can understand what was life in the old days? How did they survive the hardships? Togetherness, respect and kindness were important in the old days. I saw that in my mother. When she went shopping she would wave at everybody, every nationality, even the policeman directing traffic. She always had that Hawaiianess. It’s not there any more; it’s what’s missing today.”

Upcoming, we can expect the new video works, “Those Who Came Before,” about Kamae’s Hawaiian teachers, and “Feeding the Soul,” that includes scenes of Kalaupapa.

“That has to do with music and the arts,” Eddie reports. “Father Damien stressed to the patients at Kalaupapa, do the arts instead of just drinking and dieing. I went and filmed musicians there.”

And we will hear more new music including a projected children’s album that includes a song composed at the beginning of the 19th century.

“Maybe next session I’ll do half English songs,” he continues. “A song I wrote is called ‘Sometimes,’ and another for a little baby is ‘Baby Days.’ So I might do three or four English songs and then Hawaiian things. And there were other sessions that I will use with my teachers and me.”

“Eddie has written songs with each of his teachers, songs that haven’t been recorded,’ Myrna explains. “One of Eddie’s gifts is that he takes these old songs and nurtures them and arranges them and sometimes it takes him years to make them sound the way they should. After he records them, they always live on and others record them. All this music he has that hasn’t been heard, it can furnish music for generations coming, written in the old way.”

Throughout the years Eddie has kept some sage advice in mind, heard from his teacher Sam Li‘a.

“Play it sweet and keep it simple, that’s Hawaiian music,” Li’a pronounced.

“And he always told me, ‘Play it for the children, Eddie.’ All his life he played for children.”

• Contact Jon Woodhouse at

Article Photos

Eddie Kamae & the Sons of Hawaii, Paul Kim (from left), Ocean Kaowili, Mike Ka‘awa and Analu ‘Aina.

Fact Box

Eddie and Myrna Kamae’s latest documentary, “Lahaina: Waves of Change,” will be broadcast at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 on Hawaii Public Television channel 11.

The DVD will be available for sale on Feb. 26.

The “Yesterday & Today” CD by Eddie Kamae and The Sons of Hawaii is widely available.



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