Story by Michael Stein | Photography by Jason Moore, Joe D’Alessandro, Cecilia Fernández
You don’t have to know Walter Kawa‘i‘aea’s qualifications—his fifteen years as a professional musician, his classes on O‘ahu and Maui—to see that he has the right look for an ‘ukulele “professor.” Of Native Hawaiian descent, tall, tanned and cheerful, he has just enough of a furrowed brow to keep the circle of adult students in his ‘ukulele class thoroughly focused.
The atmosphere couldn’t be more friendly and relaxed—and yet there’s a serious purpose to this gathering, for the group is meeting to rehearse for what Kawa‘i‘aea calls a mele kuka‘i, an exchange of Hawaiian song. They will be playing at kumu hula (teacher of hula) Gordean Lee Bailey’s farm, a place renowned not just for its protea but for its importance in the preservation of local hula tradition. These students, who range from an alternative-health therapist to a realtor to a former sailmaker, are not just learning ‘ukulele technique, but discovering the role that the good old “uke” has played in the history of Hawaiian music.
Some believe that the ‘ukulele got its name, a combination of ‘uku (flea) and lele (to jump), from the nimbly hopping fingers of its players. But Queen Lili‘uokalani, herself an accomplished musician and songwriter, liked the interpretation “gift to come,” referring to the instrument’s migration from Portugal. The ‘ukulele (pronounced ook-oo-lay-lay) had as its ancestor the twenty-one-inch, four-string Portuguese guitar called the braguinha, or machete de Braga, reputedly brought by musician Joao Fernandez to Honolulu on the British ship Ravenscraig in 1879. Many modifications later—including the use of indigenous koa wood and a new tuning based on the top four strings of the guitar—craftsmen like Manuel Nuñes, a maker of instruments and cabinets, developed the ‘ukulele and began selling it in Hawaiian shops in 1884.
With its delightfully lilting tones, the instrument became part of the flowering of Hawaiian music that sprang from royal composers like Queen Lili‘uo-kalani (writer of the world-famous melody “Aloha Oe”) and from the Royal Hawaiian Band; their lively, tiny British braguinha player, Henry Purvis, might also have been the source of the “jumping flea” description of the ‘uke. King David Kalakaua himself played the ‘ukulele during his Jubilee Celebration in 1866, when it became the first melodic accompaniment for the hula beyond chants and percussion.
After the ‘ukulele showed up at the Hawaiian pavilion of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, its evolution diverged along twin strands. On the Mainland the ‘uke and accompanying Hawaiiana were a fad for decades, beginning with Tin Pan Alley Hawai‘i novelty songs like “Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo,” and peaking in the ‘50s and ‘60s thanks to popularization by Arthur Godfrey, Tiny Tim, and, of course, Elvis Presley in the movie Blue Hawai‘i. Meanwhile the ‘uke played a more serious role in Hawaiian music. Ernest Ka‘ai wrote the first instruction book, The ‘Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar, in 1916. Jesse Kalima was its first great “chord soloing” master, strumming and picking the melody and harmony simultaneously, and Eddie Kamae joined with guitarist Gabby Pahinui in the Sons of Hawai‘i in the ‘60s to create a truly Hawaiian playing style.
Kawa‘i‘aea’s Maui class begins with a recapitulation of those roots. “I start the students off with four basic chords—F, G, A, C—and basic Hawaiian progressions in four keys, and that tells me what they know and don’t know.” It’s a teaching technique he carries on from his mentor, Maui-born Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame honoree Kahauanu “Uncle K” Lake, the artist who, more than anyone else, established the ‘ukulele as a lead instrument in Hawaiian music.
Says Kawa‘i‘aea: “Here Uncle K comes along with a Vega baritone ‘ukulele given to him by his stepfather, Prince David Kalakaua Kawananakoa [a grandnephew of the king who first popularized the ‘ukulele]. There were only five Vega baritones in the world at the time.” Soprano, concert and tenor ‘ukuleles provided a sweet high end to ensembles dominated by pedal steel or regular guitars. The baritone had not only a lower, richer sound, but a more open chord tuning, which meant that, with more strings left “open,” less fingering was needed to formulate chords.
Lake loved jazz rhythms and chords, and he used jazz techniques to bring a whole new level of strumming and rhythm work to the baritone ‘uke’s harmonic possibilities, making it an instrument that could truly lead the group. During the class, Kawa‘i‘aea demonstrated the kind of cleanly articulated, syncopated jazz strumming Lake pioneered: the four strings blended and yet resonated beautifully one by one, and the downbeat truly swung.
That jazz influence inevitably found its way into the mid-century wave of hapa haole tunes (Hawaiian-style songs with English lyrics and Mainland influence) that tourists loved, and Lake’s seminal 1955 trio, with his brother Tommy Lake on upright bass and Al Machida on guitar, secured spots at the Halekulani, Royal Hawaiian and other major Waikiki hotels for over three decades. Kawa‘i‘aea had been a fan of Lake’s music since the trio’s first recording in 1961, and then he met Lake at a May Day musical celebration at his high school in 1966—Kawa‘i‘aea sought him out and convinced Lake to become his teacher.
It was the ‘ukulele equivalent of being tossed into the deep end of the pool: five hours of lessons every day, no tape recorders allowed, no written music—and since Lake was left-handed, Kawa‘i‘aea had to watch him finger the chords and figure them out upside down and backwards. But, Kawa‘i‘aea says, “I was lucky to have that kind of time from him every day when the trio was at the prime of their career.”
Many years later Kawa‘i‘aea received two other invaluable gifts from the man he calls his “hanai papa” (adopted father). One was Lake’s custom 1969 baritone ‘ukulele, engraved with Lake’s name and made by Kamaka, the oldest ‘ukulele company in Hawai‘i. The second gift was the inspiration to follow in Lake’s footsteps as a teacher.
Kawa‘i‘aea had played for fifteen years in his own Kulia Ika Nu‘u Trio in Waikiki, but after giving lessons jointly with Lake at Gordean Lee Bailey’s halau hula (school) five years ago, “I discovered a new passion for teaching with these young kids, and realized this could be my greater calling. That was the fork in the road for me.”
Kawa‘i‘aea above all seeks to “get to the people that simply want to learn to sing and play Hawaiian music.” He told me that while Kahauanu Lake understood the mass appeal of “Little Grass Shack” and “Beyond the Reef,” he never forgot that his mother was a direct descendant of King Kamehameha, and had been a ward of Madame Alapa‘i, the first female vocalist of the Royal Hawaiian Band. And so Kawa‘i‘aea, just as Lake did for him, carefully teaches his students not just the music but the songs of his ancestors, and always with the correct Hawaiian pronunciation, reminding them that “the old people will hear you.”
Students agree he’s remarkable in orchestrating his classes to get the best out of everyone. Margaret McIntyre, a Feldenkrais practitioner, told me how, when she asked him to demonstrate the “marvelous little runs and virtuoso stuff” he does, he took extra time to reveal some of the subtleties and complexities of his playing to her. At the class I attend, Kawa‘i‘aea tells one student he should strum more softly because he’s just graduated to a better ‘ukulele. Kawa‘i‘aea corrects another student’s thumb position on the ‘ukulele neck and has her playing better in minutes.
In 1992, Kawa‘i‘aea, his wife, Luana, and two of Lake’s cousins formed the Kahauanu Lake Singers, playing Lake’s compositions under Uncle K’s musical direction. The group has outlasted Lake’s retirement to carry on his legacy. Some of that influence was heard at Maui’s first annual Starbucks ‘Ukulele Festival last year, along with the incredible variety of sounds that contemporary players have coaxed out of the old “jumping flea.” Kelly Boy Ilima rendered classic Hawaiian favorites with a bit of his own slack-key picking. The Hula Honeys delivered smooth versions of hapa haole Honolulu “Boat Days” serenades, while Jake Shimabukuro’s tender but technically audacious set took us right up to the cultural and musical diversity of present-day Hawai‘i.
As the festival proves, and as visits to stores like Mele ‘Ukulele and Bounty Music confirm, ‘ukuleles are going strong in the new century, from beautiful Kamaka and Koaloha ‘ukes with streaked finishes of golden-brown koa, mahogany and mango, to a line of electric ‘ukes built by Craig Fujii. But it’s older, simple nylon-stringed ‘ukuleles you’re most likely to hear around Maui, strummed by kids at the beach or campground, taken out lovingly for family get-togethers, played by a lone picker as the sun sets in the park in Kihei. The ‘uke remains the most accessible and communal of Hawaiian instruments.
Kawa‘i‘aea has come to prefer teaching in Maui’s more relaxed Upcountry setting because it fosters that kind of neighborly warmth. “Maui has more of a country mindset,” Kawa‘i‘aea told me. “I love the people of Maui and the students I have.” His students give that feeling back—in the words of McIntyre, “You spend three hours with Walter and feel happy and connected. He has such warmth, aloha, incredible knowledge. And it’s not just the playing but the slice of history we get, the way he lived and breathed the music with Kahauanu Lake, that enhances our knowledge of it.”
There are smiles all around Kawa‘i‘aea’s ‘ukulele class, as busy Maui professionals form a circle and strum one of the Hawaiian kingdom’s classic tunes together, singing along in traditional hula rhythm punctuated by Kawa‘i‘aea’s holoholo ka‘a, the calling out of the verse with the first word of the first line. With generosity, skill and good humor, the ‘ukulele professor applies himself to the commitment he expressed on the notes to the album by the Kahauanu Lake Singers: “to learn from the master and perpetuate the history of the Hawaiian people through music and song.”