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My New Friend George Kahumoku Jr.
October 13, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Recently, I had a delightful meeting with the larger-than-life Renaissance-man George Kahumoku Jr. I am not a follower of Hawaiian music, so I did not know that I was meeting such a distinguished musician, who lives on a farm on Maui. Later I listened to George’s CD compilations, ranging from the traditional Hawaiian “Hymns of Hawaii” to the English-dominant lyrics in “Island Classics”, and I was overwhelmed by his virtuosity and range. What is impressive in the two-Volume “Hawaiian Hulas” CD is George’s wondrous dexterity on the 12-string slack key guitar (simply, “slack key guitar” is a musical genre based on a finger style of playing using open tunings while combining bass, rhythm, and melody onto one instrument), resulting in the transcendence of “classic” hula tunes to universal lyrical expression. Perhaps the “purest” musical recording is George’s “E Lili’u” CD, composed of his emotional solo instrumental playing on the slack key guitar, haunting melodies based on songs written by Queen Liliuokalani, including the beautiful and powerful “Aloha ‘Oe” and “Queen’s Prayer” . . .
George certainly deserved his four Grammy awards . . . voted by legions of talented musicians.
Yet George is more than a musician: he is a tireless global teacher/mentor of new generations of Hawaiian musicians.
Throughout the world Hawaiian music is enjoyed by tens of millions of fans, and there is a universe of individuals who aspire to play Hawaiian music. For decades George has been teaching students the ukulele and slack key guitar. He has taught at the Berklee School of Music in Boston (the school is unique for courses on rock-and-roll, the Rolling Stones version of classical mecca Julliard in New York City), and at the World’s Fair in the northern German city of Hanover (thousands of students), and in Nashville (additional thousands), and throughout Japan. George surprised me: he said that in Japan there are more than one million hula dancers, >100,000 ukulele players and >10,000 steel guitar players (the latter figure tops the entire population of Moloka’i at 8,000!). In Germany, he estimates there are >250,000 hula dancers and >50,000 ukulele players.
The most surprising statistic was 1 million ukulele players in cold Canada. In the Canadian province of Ontario, nearly 60% of all elementary grade school teachers teach music with no musical background – utilizing the ukulele as the teaching/learning platform.
In the late 1960s a visionary school instructor in Halifax, Nova Scotia named J. Chalmers Doane launched a student music program, which is now known as the Doane-Hill Method (www.ukuleleintheclassroom.com). Hundreds of thousands of Canadian children and adults were taught music fundamentals, including “sight reading, ear training, singing and playing together” – all based on the Hawaiian ukulele. What is extraordinary is that in far-off Halifax city, many students continued with the ukulele (even though learning another instrument or two) and “eventually there evolved a hierarchy of all-city ukulele ensembles, the best of which was the famous "A" Group, which performed across Canada and produced many recordings and television specials”.
The “Hill” of the “Doane-Hill Method” is James Hill, a younger man whose teachers were Doane’s students – and Hill emerged as a ukulele wunderkind virtuoso who gave concerts throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Japan and Western Europe. Interestingly, he traveled from Canada to teach ukulele playing at a Hawaiian music school on the Big Island.
George pointed out that he has seen a resurgence of music interest among Hawaii’s children, and he mentioned that he has witnessed Samuel Enoka Kalama Intermediate School Makawao campus students arriving at the school cafeteria at 7 AM for ukulele lessons led by instructor Benny Uyetake. George laughed and said “they (the children) all want to be next Jake (Shimabukuro)”. . . This is a great ambition to emulate a youthful, innovative musician, at such an early age!
After my all-too-short meetings with George, I had several takeaways:
First, the ukulele -- plus music education in general throughout Hawaii schools -- has not yet reached its potential in its birthplace of Hawaii. The mid-October Maui Ukulele Festival reflects the musical enthusiasm of many ukulele-lovers in the community, yet the cold Canadian Northland executed a sustained musical program over decades. The metric achieved was 1 million ukulele-strumming children and adults -- that’s about the population of Hawaii – out of Canada’s total population of barely 35 million. There should be a similar musical program on a micro-level in my childhood community of Kalihi-Palama or Kihei or Lihue. I have regretted not learning a musical instrument; my life could have been richer, fuller, and artistic.
Second, after watching George record separate tracks – slack-key guitar and ukulele – then meld them on a tablet computer utilizing a music software program, I was impressed by his easy embrace (and promotion) of sophisticated technology for music composition and teaching – he sees no contradiction between traditional music and tech adoption. If students learn faster and the musical results sound better, George is a tech believer; his smiling face is next to the term “early adopter” in the Webster’s dictionary. He is a progressive individual who is learning constantly: age is no barrier. *
Third, George is an endless networker (with an army of like-minded mentors), a storyteller, an internationalist – and one is seduced (even a non-musical individual like myself) to support his music, his students, his initiatives – and I could see his universal appeal, his capacity as an unselfish ambassador of Hawaiian music and culture from his small Maui farm headquarters to distant lands, to Europe, Japan. In short, I don’t know if he is a natural entrepreneur or he learned his marketing/PR skills over the years, but he can easily teach Marketing Music 101 at the Harvard Business School.
Finally, after our all-too-short meeting, George invited me to his truck, and out of buckets in the back, he stuffed sweet potatoes and large green bok choi leaves in a bag and handed them to me. He apologized to me for giant teeth marks on some sweet potatoes; his horses devised a tasting menu that unfortunately included a new crop. This short blog piece does not do justice to his multi-talented (I did not mention his art) background, yet he would be happy if I mentioned his deep love and passion for sustainable farming, to spread the fruits of his farm to others like a Hawaiian Johnny Appleseed, an evangelist of self-grown vegetables, good food, the aina. I cannot wait until I meet him again to bring joy and peace to my heart, to re-affirm the beauty of music and aloha.
* For some people in Hawaii, there exists a divide/separation between ukulele mastery and software/computer engineering. Can a student growing up in Lahaina or Hana be a master of both? – Ah, a topic for a future blog piece.
See a review on an album by Stephen Inglis and Dennis Kamakahi on Moloka’i: The Falling Teardrops of Kalaupapa
See a review on the legacy of Richard Ho’opi’i and Hawaiian falsetto: Richard Ho’opi’i, Leo Ki’e Ki’e and Memories of Kahakuloa Village
See a review on George Kahamoku’s slack-key style and latest album review: George Kahumoku's Unexpected Grammy Nomination
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