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Pacific Northwest Hawaiian Music Institute

by Gregg Porter

February 2005

Hawaiian music fans here in the Pacific Northwest are fortunate, in that we are one of the few Mainland regions that is seeing an increase in concerts and tour stops for Island musicians. We usually get two or three slack key performers a year (note: Keola Beamer in Kirkland Feb. 4 and Kent Feb. 5; Led Kaapana at Seattle’s Triple Door on March 9), along with at least one other popular Hawaiian act, like Nā Palapalai, the Brothers Cazimero, Nā Leo Pilimehana, Hapa, Mākaha Sons, or Amy & Willie K. Rarely, however, do we get several of them to not only do a show, but also stick around for a weekend of intensive teaching, as was the case with the Pacific Northwest Hawaiian Music Institute in Seattle on January 8 th & 9 th.

Organized by Bay Area-based guitarist Patrick Landeza, Seattle skies opened to share some snow with living legend Dennis Kamakahi, his `ukulele-playing son David, Herb Ohta, Jr. (son of the famed Ohta-San, and an `ukulele player/recording artist in his own right), and Landeza himself. Workshops were held all day both Saturday and Sunday, teaching beginning to advanced slack key guitar and `ukulele, as well as songwriting skills. (Dennis Kamakahi admitted to enjoying the cold and snow, as he had lived for many years in Alaska. In fact, he had been out playing in some snow Saturday morning, and had to be brought back inside to do a scheduled radio interview.) Attendees came from California, Oregon and Idaho, as well as Washington State.

The workshops were held at the Greenwood Senior & Community Center, as was a sparsely-attended concert on Saturday evening. (Landeza tried to find a better venue for the concert until the last minute, so the promotion of the show was limited.) As the doors were opened to the audience, workshop students were encouraged to come up on stage for an open mike, to spotlight their range of skills. One highlight was when an `ukulele player from Eugene took the risk of playing an arrangement of “Kaulana `O Hilo Hanakahi,” which he said he had learned off of one of Ohta, Jr.’s recordings. Not long into the performance, he was joined onstage by the aforementioned musician … and then by David Kamakahi as well. (Kudos to the student, who kept pace with the masters, even to the point of nailing a tricky ending.) Local guitarist Kory Tideman (who just came to hear the concert) was also encouraged to play a few numbers with a guitar borrowed from one of the students.

Landeza took the stage to begin the “official” show, telling stories of how his family encouraged him to follow his musical dream, and to do what he could to share it with others. His fresh and witty set included a touching tribute to his grandmother, as well as noting that he will have a new album available this year. Ohta, Jr., was next up, showing how he has made a name for himself in recent years, outside of the shadow of his world-famous father. Even though his father’s influence shows in the precision of his playing, “Ohta-Son” is more deeply involved in Hawaiian music, and injects new life into many classics.

In bringing David Kamakahi to the stage next, Ohta, Jr., teamed up with him for a fiery duet rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” which brought the crowd to its feet. (Their introduction implied that they rarely do the song together, but it was clear that they were no strangers to the elaborate complexities of the tune; the two also have a regular Waikiki gig.) Kamakahi has only been playing as a soloist for a short time (after touring and recording the past few years with his dad), with one solo album out, but there is a gentle intricacy to his playing.

After intermission, the master himself, the Reverend Dennis Kamakahi (complete with black fingernail polish) captivated the audience. If he was in any way disappointed in the attendance that night, it didn’t show in his performance; concert-goers were treated to an intimate set of standards and original compositions, along with both heartwarming and chuckle-inducing tales of their creation and inspiration, and anecdotes about his life, his tours, and the musicians he’s been fortunate to have played with over the years. His set included a song he recorded (as a member of Nā `Ōiwi) about the Washington town of Kalama, a piece he co-wrote with Herb Ohta, Jr., and some duets with son David.

Based on the response to the workshops at this weekend institute (the first time in Seattle, after a few times in the Bay Area), Landeza says to expect a return visit, probably in August 2005 – where we guarantee them a snow-less weekend. (Special thanks to Susie, who came along with the tour and helped in innumerable ways, including making all the students feel as if they had been friends for years.)

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