Kihei Maui, 6/12/2022
Eleven days ago we arrived in Maui for the 24th George Kahumoku Jr. Ki Ho ‘Alu and ‘Ukulele workshop. The workshop was held at the Napili Kai resort, as it was last year. Just leaving the airport felt like we were arriving back home. We were met at the airport by Destiny Aponte, whom we had met last year while touring George’s farm. Destiny is a remarkable woman. Originally from San Antonio, she has worked as a chef, as a farmer, as a student of agriculture, and as an entrepreneur. It was great to see her again.
Napili Kai is beautiful. It is situated on a crescent shaped beach, whose soft golden sands slope down to beautiful blue waters. Across the bay, the islands of Moloka’i and Lana’i are clearly visible. Our first two days, Maui was under a high surf advisory. The waves were huge, bigger than we’d even seen on Oahu in May. I ventured out into them for a brief swim but thought better of it after one crashed over me. For the remaining days of the workshop, however, calm waters returned.
Beautiful as Napili Kai is, its beauty is not what makes the workshop magical. George and Nancy Kahumoku are the spirit of the workshop. I would say they are the driving force, but driving does not describe the workshop. “Aloha,” “ohana,” “kanikapila,” “hang loose.” are the best descriptors. As soon as we arrived, we renewed friendships we’d formed last year with participants and instructors alike. The music began immediately and didn’t end until eight days later. Nobody was too busy to talk story or to teach you a chord. or a riff, or a song. Everybody encouraged you to try and nobody criticized you for failing.
There is a strong feeling of community or ohana among slack key guitar and ‘ukulele players. Even though we play different instruments employing different techniques (some musicians play both) the music and the history unite us. That feeling of unity is felt no more strongly than at the kanikapilas (let’s play music). I might be sitting between such masters as Ledward Ka’apana on guitar and Bryan Tolentino on ‘ukulele and we’re all playing the same song. No judgement. When I screwed up on a song, Bryan jumped in to get me back on track.
Every morning about 5:30, Led Ka’apana would set up and start playing in the pavilion or under one of the tents. Other instructors would soon join him and they’d all play until breakfast. You can’t get better performances than that. I showed up with my phone (like a lot of other participants) and captured more than an hour of videos of uke players—mostly their hands—so I can study them later. Each evening after dinner, instructors and students would get together for more kanikapila.
Speaking of ohana, or at least ‘ukulele ohana, Bryan Tolentino, whom I already mentioned, and Herb Ohta, Jr., another great musician and instructor, left the workshop a day early to attend a memorial service for Sam Kamaka, Jr. who passed away in March at age 99. Sam was the patriarch of the Kamaka family (yes, Kamaka ‘Ukuleles) and Bryan and Herb are close to the family. Sam Kamaka Jr. ran the ‘ukulele business for many years before turning it over to other family members. It is still a family owned business. Sam Jr. and his brother, Fred Kamaka, inherited the business from their father, Sam Kamaka, Sr., who started the company down in Kaka’ako in 1916. Kamaka introduced the pineapple shape about 1920. That was the first significant change to the ‘ukulele since its arrival in 1879. Prior to starting his own company, Sam Kamaka had apprenticed with Manuel Nunez, who is generally credited with inventing the ‘ukulele. So how’s that for ohana and six-degrees of separation?
So what did I get out of the workshop? First, I gained some insights into how Hawaiian music is structured. Last year, I had the songbook, with the chords and lyrics, vitually glued to my hand.
Still, I was always a few beats behind on every song. This year, I was able to anticipate the chord changes and rely more on my ear than the book. I still missed chord changes, but I know where I made mistakes. I also learned to play on more of the fretboard instead of only the first four. After all, I paid for all the frets so why not use them? Our workshop songs were “Sweet By and By” by Dennis Kamakahi, and Kauanoeanuhea by Keali’i Reichel. I also learned Ulupalakua and, before the workshop, Kaimana Hila. Ulupalakua is a paniolo (cowboy) song and Kaimana Hila is about Diamond Head.
I’ll do more reflections on the the workshop in the coming days. We’ve already decided we’ll be back next year.