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Eddie Kamae, ukulele extraordinaire and a Honolulu original

Acclaimed for helping revive Hawaiian culture, the musician reveals a Honolulu steeped in the old ways and far from the tourist trappings.

April 21, 2013|By Julia Flynn Siler
  • Ukulele legend Eddie Kamae plays a few songs on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.
Ukulele legend Eddie Kamae plays a few songs on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. (Marco Garcia / For The Times )

HONOLULU — 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.

He did.

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.

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.

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