Story by Nate Chinen
Photos by Brad Goda
The sun is shining over Waimanalo Beach Park, where the Sons of Hawaii sit in a circle, instruments at hand. They’ve gathered for a Sunday morning kanikapila, an informal jam, framed by the beauty of the Ko‘olau Mountains on one side and the expanse of Waimanalo Bay on the other.
Eddie Kamae, the 82-year-old ‘ukulele legend who founded the Sons in 1959, talks story while the others tune up. Then he turns to the guys, looking for a song. Having released their first two albums in twenty-five years—Yesterday & Today in 2008 and Yesterday & Today, Volume 2 in 2009—they have plenty of options. “We can do a medley,” Eddie suggests.
“Whatevah you like do, brah,” chuckles Mike Ka‘awa, the latest in a line of ki ho‘alu (slack key) guitarists in the group. “We in Waimanalo!” Beside him, the Rev. Dennis Kamakahi, who held that guitar seat longer than anyone, cracks a sly smile. Eddie strums, and they ease into “Ka Hanu o ka Hana Keoki,” a standard composed by Queen Lili‘uokalani. Everyone sings, including bassist Analu ‘Aina, his voice a sweet falsetto. Paul Kim adds a silvery sigh from his lap steel, and Dennis plays a tasty slack key interlude.
It’s a pinch-me moment—this music, these mountains—especially because I had been on a crowded flight only twelve hours earlier. An Island-born transplant to Manhattan, I return home about once a year. This year my visit coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Sons of Hawaii. Hearing Eddie and the group singing this beloved Hawaiian song on the grass at Waimanalo, something powerful stirs.
It stays through the next tune, “Wahine ‘Ilikea,” the wistful ballad Dennis wrote in his early days with the band. Passers-by gather; one or two braddahs in board shorts mouth the lyrics. Like me, they’re lost in this reverie, this place created by their songs. The musicians go to that place, too: There’s the briefest silence after the song is pau and before everyone breaks into a grin.
“I’m the quiet one of the group,” Analu says then, speaking for the first time from behind his wraparound shades. “But the feeling that we feel when we play, you cannot explain.”