He’s known as the Woody Guthrie of Hawaiian music, a virtuoso ukulele player who’s helped to introduce new generations to music that might otherwise be lost.
But on the autumn morning I met up with Eddie Kamae, few people seemed to recognize the octogenarian wearing Levis and a blue work shirt. It was just after 9 a.m., and Eddie was eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream at the Wailana Coffee House in Waikiki.
He had risen before sunrise to pray, read the paper and watch the sky lighten from the nearby apartment building where he and his wife, Myrna, have lived for nearly half a century.
Many people who know his role in reviving Hawaiian culture assume he lives in one of Oahu’s more remote spots, such as Waimanalo or the Waianae Coast — areas with large concentrations of native Hawaiians. But he’s chosen to live amid tourists, where he can, as he says, hide in plain sight. As one of Hawaii’s best-known musicians he likes it there, he says, “because nobody can find me.”
As a founding member of the influential Hawaiian band the Sons of Hawaii, Eddie has made seven CDs of his music. Eddie and Myrna together have made 10 documentary films about native Hawaiian life.
The couple met in 1965 in Lahaina, on Maui. “My haole girl,” he says affectionately, using the Hawaiian word for “foreigner.” Myrna, who has produced all his films, is from Utah.
I’d read his account of growing up on the hard streets of Honolulu in “Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae,” co-written with the late James D. Houston, and wanted to know more. I asked him to show me his hometown.
I was no stranger to Honolulu and had spent several years visiting here to research my history of the islands, “Lost Kingdom.” But I had spent most of my time downtown at the Hawaii State Archives. I hoped Eddie would show me a different Honolulu.
Eddie’s Honolulu is a place where the old ways live on: Ukuleles are still made from koa wood by the same family that’s been making them for nearly a century, and the memory of Hawaii’s last monarch is evoked anew every Sunday on the terrace of a Waikiki hotel.
“Talking story” with Eddie made me rethink my mainlander’s habit of hurrying. His Honolulu reveals itself slowly, a layer at a time.
The early years
Eddie was born in 1927 and grew up near Honolulu’s Chinatown. The Kamaes were the only native Hawaiian family living in a Chinese “plantation”-type camp, a few blocks from the harbor. The Aloha Tower, which was built the year before Eddie was born, remains one of the city’s best-known landmarks. The tower and the sight of Diamond Head signaled to cruise passengers they had arrived.
Before jet travel to Honolulu became the norm, passengers on the Matson Line’s ships and other big liners anchored in the harbor would toss coins into the water, and Eddie and his brothers would dive for them.
Just a few blocks from the Aloha Tower, at North Hotel and Maunakea streets, is one of Chinatown’s oldest and busiest locations. That’s where a young Eddie shined shoes and sold copies of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. In junior high, he began running dice games.
The Chinatown where he once roamed has changed dramatically over the years, from a teeming red-light district with tattoo parlors and taverns to today’s epicenter of hipster Honolulu.
In the courtyard of the lively Maunakea Marketplace, where Asian delicacies such as mangosteen and dragon fruit can be found, locals gather to play mah-jongg. Chinatown’s nightclubs and booming arts scene now draw crowds, especially during the city’s First Friday evenings.
Eddie has been part of this blossoming downtown scene too. He played at a First Friday evening on the lawn of the Hawaii State Art Museum in 2011 with slack key guitarist Ledward Kaapana. Both musicians have been awarded National Heritage Fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Eddie’s first ukulele was a Martin “Standard.” Later on, he started buying his instruments from Kamaka Hawaii, a local family ukulele business founded in 1916. The Kamaka shop is a little more than a mile from the Maunakea Marketplace. You can strum the melodies of the islands for yourself by trying out one of Kamaka’s instruments.
Not far from the ukulele shop, the Kamaes live modestly in Waikiki, which has grown up around them. In the 19th century it was the royal bathing grounds of the Hawaiian alii nui, or high chiefs. When Eddie started going to Waikiki, it already had a pulsing nightclub scene that drew GIs returning from World War II.
Today Kalakaua Avenue, the heart of Waikiki’s commercial strip, is the Rodeo Drive of the Pacific, packed with visitors who are there to shop at Tiffany & Co., Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. The Kamaes largely ignore the shoppers, tourists and honeymooners.
On Sundays at sunset, Eddie sometimes heads about two miles down Kalakaua Avenue to the Moana Terrace at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort to hear former Royal Hawaiian Band leader Aaron Mahi play with Hawaiian musicians George Kuo and Martin Pahinui. He also likes to hear Jerry Santos and Olomana and the band Maunalua at the Corner Kitchen at Kapahulu and Kanaina.
But usually he begins each day by stepping out of his apartment and looking through the high-rises, searching for a patch of sky.
“That’s all I want,” he says. “Go out and say good morning to the birds.” Later in the morning, he drives to the Diamond Head end of Waikiki and makes his way to the beach. “I like to go out there and talk to the ocean,” he says. “I just say, “Aloha, aloha…”
Childhood memories mingle with his daily ritual. In the 1930s he and his brothers spent a nickel each to ride the streetcar to Waikiki on the weekends. The conductor rang the streetcar’s bell as the car approached each stop. The first hotel he’d see was the Moana Surfrider, a Beaux Arts confection built in the early part of the 20th century. The hotel is still there, having gone through several incarnations and renovations, but of course, the streetcar is gone. Now the Route 8 bus runs through Waikiki — announcing the names of each stop in Hawaiian.
The Kamae family would sometimes take drives to the bandstand at Kapiolani Park, once a dusty plain in the shadow of Diamond Head. It was developed as a 19th century pleasure ground where horse races took place. By the time Eddie was a boy, he and his parents would come here to listen to the Royal Hawaiian Band, said to be the oldest continually performing municipal band in the country (and the only one in the U.S. that began as a royal band, in the 19th century when Hawaii was ruled by a constitutional monarch). Today you can hear the band on Fridays on the grounds of Iolani Palace about five miles away in downtown Honolulu.
Across from Kapiolani Park is another of Eddie’s favorite places, the Hau Tree Lanai at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel.
The Hau Tree Lanai overlooks a stretch of Waikiki known as Sans Souci Beach Park, made famous after Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson struck up a friendship there with teenage Hawaiian Princess Kaiulani and wrote her a poem before she left for boarding school in Scotland.
Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan’s shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.
San Souci Beach is where Eddie greets the ocean each morning with his aloha — a word with many meanings in the Hawaiian, including love, affection and kindness.
He’s found ways to connect to the sea and the natural world here despite the tour buses and the tourists with their designer shopping bags.
“I feel like I’ve been guided,” he says, recalling his experience decades ago when he first visited the Bishop Museum Archives and found originals of Queen Liliuokalani’s musical compositions, which he began incorporating into his band’s repertoire at a time when few people remembered her songs.
At 85, he focuses on the gratitude he feels for his role in sharing and performing the queen’s work, and the lives of many other Hawaiians who otherwise would have been forgotten. That’s one of the reasons he visits the sea each day, to say mahalo, mahalo to the ocean for the gifts given to him over the years.
They are ours now as well.
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If you go
THE BEST WAY TO HONOLULU
From LAX, United, American, Delta and Hawaiian offer nonstop service, and Alaska, United and US Airways offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $445.
WHERE TO GO
Wailana Coffee House, 1860 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu; (808) 955-1764. Open 24 hours a day.
Aloha Tower, . Observation deck open daily; free.
Kamaka Hawaii, 550 South St., Honolulu; (808) 531-3165, . Open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Free factory tours at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays-Fridays.
Hau Tree Lanai, New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, 2863 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; (808) 921-7066, . Reservations suggested.
Kapiolani Park, . The park includes the Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Shell and the Diamond Head Tennis Center.
Waikiki Beach Marriott
Resort, 2552 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu; (808) 922-6611, . Hawaiian slack key with George Kuo, Martin Pahinui and Aaron Mahi on the Moana Terrace, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Jerry Santos and Olomana Music,
Sans Souci Beach Park,
PHOTO: (no caption);PHOTOGRAPHER:Marco Garcia For The Times;PHOTO: THE GRITTY Chinatown that musician Eddie Kamae explored as a child has been transformed into the heart of hipster Honolulu.;PHOTOGRAPHER: Marco Garcia For The Times;PHOTO: UKULELES ARE crafted by hand at Kamaka Hawaii, a family business opened in 1916 that Kamae has frequented for years.;PHOTOGRAPHER: Marco Garcia For The Times;GRAPHIC: MAP: Honolulu;CREDIT: Los Angeles Times
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