I may have unlocked the secret to eternal youth. It's a two-pronged approach. Surround yourself with youngsters and music.
That's the conclusion I reached after emceeing two very different music festivals recently, both of which left me naturally high for days. Then I thought about each of the band and music teachers I've known, and I was further convinced. They all look so young, even after decades of service. When longtime Baldwin High Band Director Lance Jo retired, I swear he looked exactly as he did when he was my 5th-grade band teacher at Makawao School.
At the 44th annual Maui Intermediate Music Festival, students from Emmanuel Lutheran, Iao, Kamehameha Maui Middle, St. Anthony, Doris Todd and Oahu's Stevenson Middle schools comprised the 350-piece Massed Band. Even with less than ideal acoustics in the War Memorial Gym, they made incredibly beautiful music together. When they capped their performance with the big band classic "Sing Sing Sing" and Katy Perry's "Firework," I thought my heart would burst with joy. Seated beside me, festival organizer and Doris Todd Christian Academy band teacher Noel Kuraya beamed with pride and satisfaction. He wore the same youthful smile I remember from 20 years ago, when he taught at Iao School and allowed my teenaged son to assist him in the band room.
Last weekend, I had the honor and pleasure of hosting three evenings of performance during the Maui Steel Guitar Festival at Ka'anapali Beach Hotel. Thursday night's tribute to retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka featured three young steel guitarists from Alan Akaka's Ke Kula Mele Hawaii School of Hawaiian Music. High school freshmen Alexis Tolentino and Keen Ching, and Malie Lyman, who turned 10 on Sunday, charmed the audience with their renditions of steel guitar favorites like "Maui Chimes" and "Sleepwalk." Malie, great-granddaughter of the legendary Genoa Keawe, played and sang "Henehene Kou Aka" like a pro. Keen and Alexis are both multi-instrumentalists, having started with piano and ukulele lessons when they were in elementary school.
The rest of the performers at the Steel Guitar Festival were considerably older than Ke Kula Mele's Next Generation trio, but they displayed even more stamina than the youngsters. On Friday and Saturday, KBH guests and festival attendees enjoyed continuous Hawaiian steel guitar performances on the Tiki Terrace open stage from 11 a.m. to nearly 9 p.m., followed by jam sessions from 9:30 to midnight. And the senior performers were the last to put away their instruments.
More than a dozen professional steel guitarists and perhaps 30 or more students of the instrument, from as far away as Germany and Japan, provided the weekend's live soundtrack. Many of them were accompanied by Honolulu's Kaipo Asing and Gary Aiko on guitar and bass. From our seats under the sound engineer's tent, young Alexis and I enjoyed the music of pros like Western Swing Hall of Famer Patti Maxine from Santa Cruz and Kiyoshi "Lion" Kobayashi, who is Japan's premier steel guitarist, as well as local masters Geri Vadriz, Ross Kaaa, Greg Sardinha, Owana Salazar . . . the list goes on and on.
There were so many wonderful performances, it's impossible to pick out a favorite, but I did take the liberty of recording, on my cellphone, the final song of the Saturday night kanikpapila. It was just past midnight, the 10 or so musicians left in the Kanahele Room agreed it was time to wrap it up, and Gary Aiko began "Hawaii Sang Me to Sleep," the last track on his latest CD, "Poina Ole Ia (Unforgettable)." The oldest son of Aunty Genoa, Gary is reportedly 80 years old and is a 2014 Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. His baritone crooning is as rich and romantic as ever, and I have replayed my BlackBerry clip each night since, trying to recapture the magic of that moment.
I don't know what Gary's secret is; perhaps the Keawe ohana discovered a fountain of youth in Laie, where he was born. But I do think my theory holds water. My new young friend and her mother both say Uncle Gary has been especially supportive of Alexis in her musical endeavors (Did I mention that this tiny teen also plays upright bass?). And her own kumu, Alan Akaka, also looks and moves like a man half his age.
It's too late for me to pursue a new career as a band teacher, but I'm thinking about enrolling in Joel Katz's steel guitar class at the Institute of Hawaiian Music at the University of Hawaii Maui College. As Henry Ford said, anyone who keeps learning stays young. Between Ford's theory and mine, I'm bound to live forever. Or at least until next year's Steel Guitar Festival, when I plan to join Gary and the gang at the jam.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.