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[whitespace] 'Hawaiian Son': An Excerpt

From the foreword of Santa Cruz author James Houston's new book on the life and times of Hawaiian music legend Eddie Kamae.

By James Houston


Click here for an interview with Houston about his book.

Rain beat down on the corrugated overhead. The beach was empty, and beyond the beach the famous bay was empty, no canoes, no swimmers, no surfers. The water was stippled with a million raindrops, and we sat around a breakfast table trying to talk, though we couldn't hear much in this sudden Hawaiian downpour.

I was there to meet Eddie Kamae, whose music I had known for years. I had listened to his records. When Eddie sings his voice is full, penetrating, lyrical: you hear echoes of the chant and feel the pulse of old genealogies. Offstage he is the most soft-spoken of men. He was in his late 50s then--silver hair, smooth brown face, shrewd and kindly eyes that saw right into you. He speaks in a manner the Hawaiians call nahe nahe--soft and gentle--and he was not inclined to raise his voice just because it was raining so hard half of what he said was lost in the relentless clatter.

This was the summer of 1984. Eddie had read one of my stories--or so I'd been told--and thought I might be the one to help him with a film he hoped to make. Film work was not my specialty. But I welcomed the chance to meet him. I would have paid money to shake his hand. He is the Willie Nelson, the Woody Guthrie of Hawaiian music--composer, bandleader, legendary instrumentalist.

As a young man he developed a jazz picking style that forever changed the status of the ukulele. He became its reigning virtuoso. In the early days of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, back in the 1960s, his band "the Sons of Hawai'i" had played a leading role.

We had an elegantly laid railside table at the Halekulani--Eddie and his wife, Myrna, me and my wife, Jeanne, and our mutual friend, Jeannette Paulson, founding director of the Hawai'i International Film Festival, who had chosen this spot for us to get acquainted. Off to the left Diamond Head was a shadowy blur behind the sheets of rain that pummeled the water and the hotel lawns. As we exchanged pleasantries, sipping our orange juice and kona coffee, waiting for our orders, I had to slide my chair up closer to Eddie and then lean in to hear his words.

"I want to thank you for your story," he said.

"I thank you for reading it."

"It made me cry."

I didn't know what to say.

"It's my story too," he said, touching his chest. "Your father. My father." The way he said this, the open honesty in his face, along with a reverence that came into his voice brought me to the edge of sudden and inexplicable tears.

I was moved. I was flattered. I was astounded. I had imagined--I realize now, as I think back upon that day--implicitly I had assumed that we'd led entirely different lives.

The story he'd read was about growing up in San Francisco, the son of a father from an east Texas farm town. As a kid I was ashamed of his down-home ways, his music in particular. A painting contractor by trade, he had a passion for the steel guitar and always had a country/western band going on the side. In my ears then, this was Okie music. And I was not an Okie. I was from the City by the Golden Gate. It was only after he passed away and I found myself playing upright bass in a bluegrass band that I finally came to understand his musical passions, thus where he had come from, and where I had come from too.

I titled this story "How Playing Country Music Taught Me to Love My Dad." A Honolulu literary journal had recently reprinted it, and our friend Jeannette had passed it along to Eddie, who now turned toward me again.

"You know, when I was growing up here in Honolulu, my father always loved Hawaiian music. He wanted me to play it. Nothing would have made him happier. But I was like you. I thought I was smarter than him. It sounded too simple. I liked jazz and swing and the Latin numbers." His right hand strummed against his shirt. His left hand fingered invisible chords.

"For a long time that's all I played, until certain things happened, and I saw that my father was right all along ..."

He stopped talking and gazed out into the rain, with a little reflective smile that seemed to say he was going to continue.

When he didn't I said, "So is this what your film will be about? Your father?"

"Maybe."

Again I waited. But now the papayas had arrived, the eggs, the Portuguese sausage, the croissants, the rare jam made of poha berries. After the salt and pepper had been passed around, and the ketchup and the hot sauce, Eddie said, "I had a second father. An old Hawaiian man. A musician. A composer. A sweet man. A country man. He lived a kind of life that was tied to the old time. I want to make a documentary that would honor his life and his music and what it means ..."

"Where did he come from? Where is he now?"

Eddie spent a couple of minutes on his eggs and sausage, then said, "He passed away a few years ago. He was almost a hundred. He was born in Waipi'o over on the Big Island, back in 1881. And that interests me a lot because my father was born there too. I don't know if you have seen Waipi'o. It's a special place. I want to make a film that could catch the feeling of this place ..."

"Wait a minute," I said, pulling my chair up so close we were shoulder to shoulder. "Am I hearing this right? You say he lived almost a hundred years?"

"Yes. He was my teacher, you see. But he was more than that. Somehow the island spoke through him ..."

In Hawaii when someone makes your scalp tingle and arm hairs prickle, they call it "chickenskin." As Eddie began to tell the story of the old man's life, I felt lifted off my chair by uncanny forces.

A year earlier I had spent a semester as Visiting Writer at the University of Hawai'i and had begun to understand the ongoing struggle between two views of Hawaii's spectacular terrain--as a source of economic power, and as a source of sacred and spiritual power; as a package of commodities to be bought and sold in the international marketplace, and as an ancestral habitat to be honored and revered. I had been looking for a way to write about it, maybe fiction, maybe nonfiction. Just before leaving home for this summertime return to the islands, I had made a long note to myself about a novel with a central character whose life would span a hundred years of Hawaiian history. His story would start on the Big Island, which is the most mysterious island and in its way the most compelling, since the active volcanoes are there. It is also the newest and the wildest island. I had imagined a man born in the 1880s, caught in the 1880s, caught in the turmoil of a century of profound cultural change, but with a spiritual anchor and deep grounding in the island of his birth.

Eddie's mentor was a man named Sam Li'a. While his story was not word for word my imagined scenario, it was so close to the outline for my as-yet-unborn novel that I experienced half an hour of unrelieved chickenskin. Though I had not met Eddie until that morning, I felt an overpowering sense of kinship, as if we had known each other in another life.

He had never made a film. It was the old man's story that called to him and his own deep need to make a record of it, to share it. By the end of breakfast the squall had passed. Diamond Head stood against the southern sky. I told him yes, it would be a privilege to take a look at the footage gathered so far and listen about how to shape the material, where to begin, and so forth. As I said this I already knew that some kind of path was opening up and that I would follow it as far as it went. Whether my imagined novel had been a form of premonition or mere coincidence, it seemed too strong a signal to ignore.

I didn't really need a second signal. But I got one anyway. We had all left our cars with valet parking. While we stood in the breezeway outside the lobby, waiting for the cars to come around, an attendant pulled up in a blue Datsun. I almost stepped toward it, thinking it was mine, though of course it could not be mine, since I was driving a rental and my blue Datsun was back home under the carport in Santa Cruz. I caught myself in time and watched with amazement as Eddie opened the passenger door so that Myrna could slide in. His car was the exact duplicate of the one I drove in California, right down to the tweed upholstery--a baby blue 1978 Datsun 510 with dark blue interior, the four-door sedan.

I told this to Eddie, and his eyes opened wide. "Wow! How long you had it?"

"I bought it new."

"Me too."

Then he smiled a dazzling smile of pleasure. "You sure this is not your car?" He leaned down to the open window. "Hey Myrna, look in the glove box. Check the registration."

We all laughed, and he and I shook hands with that strangely tribal recognition of anyone who shares your color and model and make.

And that was not the end of it, not by any means. That night back in our hotel room, my wife and I were asleep when out of nowhere the radio began to blare forth a Hawaiian song. We both sprang up in the darkness.

"What's that?" she cried.

"It's the radio."

"Why did you turn on the radio? It's two in the morning."

"I thought you turned it on."

"I sounds like Eddie."

"It is."

When we're in Honolulu I always keep the radios tuned to the all-Hawaiian music station. This happened to be a clock radio. Maybe the wake-up timer had mistakenly been set for 2am. Maybe it was a freak moment in the history of electronics. Whatever the explanation, Eddie's band was playing "Mauna Kea," one of their perennial hits, about the Big Island's snow-capped peak, and Eddie's voice was filling our hotel room.

Jeanne lay back down and said, "Well, that settles it."

"Settles what?"

"Anybody who can turn our radio on in the middle of the night from the other side of town is somebody you have to pay attention to."

And so we began to meet, starting the next afternoon. In the shaded front room of his Waikiki apartment we listened to tapes of Sam Li'a chanting in the ancient Hawaiian way, the quavering voice of a man in his 90s, yet hauntingly strong, as if rising right out of the valley of his birth to cross the centuries--a voice from the 1880s reaching our ears in 1980s Waikiki.

Waipi'o looms large in Hawaiian lore and legend, one of a series of deep valleys that notch the Big Island's northern shore. To reach it you drive out from Hilo along the rain-drenched Hamakua coast. You drive to the end of the pavement, where a dirt road takes you down to sea level, a road so steep that rental vehicles are forbidden to attempt it unless they have four wheel drive.

In Eddie's front room we looked at footage of drop-off cliffs that frame the valley floor, the taro ponds, the jungle curves of Waipi'o stream. We saw Hi'ilawe, a famous double waterfall that inspired one of Hawaii's most often played love songs.

For me, all this was a nostalgic flashback, since Jeanne and I had spent part of our honeymoon there some thirty years earlier. We were married in Honolulu, then hitchhiked around Molokai, Maui, and the Big Island. Waipi'o seemed a magical place to us, gorgeously tropical, yet fearful too, as if laden with the spirits of ancient lives. Farmhouses were scattered here and there, but they were all empty, abandoned. No one had lived in that valley since the great tidal wave of 1946, which rushed a mile inland and covered the trees.

Eddie was delighted to hear that I had already been affected by Sam Li'a's valley. When I told him I had a whole box of color slides from Waipi'o, his face lit up.

"You say from 1957?"

"Lot of taro then, but no people," I said. "Old farmhouses, rock walls, the empty beach ..."

"Pictures from that time are hard to find. Can you make me some prints?"

I told him it would be an honor. Once we were back home I dug out my old slide collection, printed up a dozen shots and sent them off. Eddie's letter came right away, full of thanks, commenting on one photo in particular.

"I especially like the photo with the concrete steps that lead to Mock Chew's house, with Hi'ilawe Falls in the background. That's a perfect shot. Right across the road is where Sam Li'a was born and raised. Both houses are not there anymore. The steps that lead up to Mock Chew's house are the only remaining landmarks from these houses, and I plan to film these steps, mentioning that this is all that remains and that the home of Sam Li'a was only a few yards across the road."

With this letter came another rush of chickenskin. I had photographed Mock Chew's house for the view of the falls, and also because underneath its broken down porch I had found an old poi pounder, a valued artifact among anthropologists and once a basic implement in all Hawaiian households--carved from porous lava rock and used to pound taro root. When we returned from that long ago roam around the islands I brought it with me. For all those years it had been a feature of my bookshelf in Santa Cruz. Now I had met Eddie Kamae, inviting me to work with him on a documentary film about an old man born in Waipi'o valley in 1881. Twenty-seven years ago I had taken a photograph of an abandoned house in a deserted valley at the end of the coast road on the north shore of the Big Island, while standing on or near the very spot where Eddie's mentor was born and grew up. And I had carried away with me, from right across the road, a stone implement and kept it close to my writing desk--my Waipi'o valley souvenir.

Once again my scalp tingled and my neck prickled and my arm hairs stood out, as I asked myself what kind of Hawaiian karma is going on here?

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From the February 16-23, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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