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Dennis Kamakahi: Ohana

Jamie O'Brien

Dennis Kamakahi


Label: Dancing Cat
US Release Date: 1999-01-12
UK Release Date: Available as import

There's the family he grew up with in Honolulu, particularly his father and the sessions on the porch when relatives and friends gathered each evening. (Oh, for the days before TV took hold of life). It was then that Dennis took up slack key guitar, along with trombone.

Then there's the "family" of young musicians at the Kamehameha Schools (for children of Hawaiian ancestry) who formed a group, Na Paniolo -- of the three band members, one has gone on to become bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band and another has become a professor of Hawaiian studies; Dennis is the third.

Throughout his youth, he was exposed to the music of the legends -- Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, Eddie Kamae, and others. It was only natural that he would follow in their footsteps. His professional career began with a musical "family" which included the likes of Cyril Pahinui and Danny Akaka. And then in 1973, he was invited to join the legendary Sons of Hawaii, where he established himself as a fine guitarist and songwriter.

Two decades later, he is performing, often solo and occasionally with his son David on ukulele, his own ohana.

Ohana opens with one of three duets featuring David, "Ulili E". A short bluesy run on guitar, followed by the bubbling ukulele and the song bursts into life. Throughout, father and son exchange opportunities to lead and accompany on the breaks. Perhaps the most appealing thing about their performance is the close interplay of their voices -- Dennis' baritone, rich and warm (like a trombone, he says) and David's tenor, an approach somewhat reminiscent of Gabby Pahinui and Eddie Kamae's 1962 version.

The second song they sing together is "Ka Hanu O Ka Hanakeoki", a composition by Queen Lilli'uokalani (Hawaii's last monarch), which they approach in a similar fashion. Their third track together, an instrumental, is the album's one disappointment. Opening with a rich guitar sounding like a waterfall, the two musicians create a new setting for the song from the movie, Around the World. It's pretty. It's nice. But a little too much. It doesn't quite fit the character of the other 13 tracks on the album.

Fortunately, it's followed by another superb song, one of five composed by Lilli'uokalani on the album. "Moanalua" falls into the traveling song category and tells of a journey on the Big Island. Other categories include allegory (including "Ka Hanu" in which a canoe represents a loved one) and food stories (Hawaiians appear to regard food with great importance) such as "He 'Ai No Kalani". Dennis rounds out the album with two versions of a fourth Lilli'uokalani song, " 'Ike La Ladana" or "The Queen's Jubilee", Queen Lilli'uokalani's tribute to Queen Victoria following a visit to England.

On the first, he accompanies his own vocal with a haunting, distant echo, set on a simple guitar accompaniment. He returns to the tune to finish the album, presenting a good case for why he should be regarded as one of the finest musicians currently playing, one of today's legends.

His warm voice is well-suited to both the livelier songs (such as his classic composition, "Ka 'Opae") or the lazy, laid back ones (like "Aloha Ko'olau"). Even when the words are not understood (he sings in Hawaiian), the meanings are. His expressiveness in singing and playing conjure the images and feelings of the lyrics.

Throughout the album, he returns to a C Mauna Loa tuning, but makes three forays into Taro Patch and one into drop D tunings. Each has its own distinctive sound suited to particular pieces. Whether accompanying the 10 songs or performing one of the four instrumental tracks, he creates beautiful arrangements which enhance the melodies and give a full, yet not overpowering sound.

Kamakahi and George Winston co-produced the recording, creating a natural, intimate sound. And the liner notes by Winston and Jay W. Junker are both informative and highly readable.

Guitar, ukulele, and even songs are relative newcomers to Hawaiian culture where only chant and percussion had existed earlier. But never have outside elements been so well accepted and absorbed into tradition. Dennis Kamakahi is one of the best players of slack key guitar and one of the finest singers currently performing. And his son David, appears to be keeping the tradition alive. Welcome to Ohana.

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