Dennis David Kahekilimamaoikalanikeha Kamakahi is one of Hawai`i's most prolific and popular songwriters. He is also a warm, evocative singer and a gifted guitarist firmly committed to the ki ho`alu (slack key) tradition.
Dennis was born March 31, 1953, in Honolulu, before cable TV and video games. He considers this a blessing and cites it as an important factor in his musical development. "After dinner," Dennis recalls, "our family and neighbors would come outside on our porches, play music and talk story. You didn't have TV, you had each other. The last thing you'd hear at night was music lulling you to sleep."
Dennis' grandfather, from the Moloka`i side of the family, played slack key on an old Martin guitar. "That's a sound I'll never forget," Dennis says. His father played slack key and trombone. "He was a very musical man," says Dennis. "He played with the Royal Hawaiian Band, the youngest first chair trombone they ever had." From an early age Dennis attended the band concerts. "My father would let me sit on his case," he says. "That was somewhere very near to Heaven for me." He especially liked Boat Day. "When the band struck up Aloha 'Oe there on the dock, there wasn't a single person without tears in their eyes."
After performances, band members often came to the Kamakahi home to unwind. "Then it was Hawaiian music," says Dennis. "They'd jam till late at night." There was also a big local jazz scene. "My dad jammed with jazz players too, like Trummy Young, and stars passing through, like Louie Armstrong. What a great way to grow up."
By Intermediate School, Dennis was playing trombone. "I think in a lot of ways my singing style comes from the trombone," he says. His father made sure Dennis learned how to read music and stuck with slack key, which he learned the traditional way. "You watch the kupuna (elders), then go and try to do the same thing. You come back, they correct you, and you experiment some more. After you do that a few times, you come back with something to share with whoever is teaching you. It's a great form of respect for the teacher and it builds more confidence in the student."
Dennis drew inspiration from many slack key masters, especially Gabby Pahinui, Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan and Ray Kane. "They were the grandfathers of us all," Dennis says. "The majority of us learned from those five masters."
Attending Kamehameha Schools (for children of Hawaiian ancestry) kept Dennis in touch with his roots. In his freshman year, he joined Aaron Mahi (now bandmaster of The Royal Hawaiian Band) and Kalena Silva (now a professor of Hawaiian studies) in a trio called Na Paniolo. When they began playing gigs in Waikiki, kupuna working the clubs shared much with them. "Kahauanu Lake taught us how to blend and compliment each other," Dennis recalls. "He was a great influence. And then, of course, The Sons of Hawai`I inspired me a lot."
More than any other group, The Sons of Hawai`i pointed the way to subsequent generations of slack key players. An all star ensemble, featuring Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui, Feet Rogers and Joe Marshall, The Sons combined the feeling of a back yard lu`au with the virtuosity of a concert hall. They specialized in traditional music and a free wheeling approach that left lots of room for spontaneity and pa`ani (soloing). Their repertoire, aesthetics, instrumental lineup and loose-flowing interplay have all been very influential.
In 1973, Eddie Kamae asked Dennis to join The Sons of Hawai`i to fill the slack key spot vacated by Gabby Pahinui, a big honor and challenge for a young musician. "Everybody, including me, idolized Gabby," Dennis says. "The first thing that came to mind was this is a big shoe to fill." Dennis accepted, and found the group comfortable and creative. "We'd look at each other and just know exactly what we were going to do. The music would transcend, it went to a different level. You didn't want to stop."
Dennis began to develop his song writing with The Sons. He'd been writing since junior high school, but his output increased as the band, audiences and other composers encouraged him. Among these was scholar Mary Kawena Pukui. "I would take songs to her," says Dennis. "She'd read them and say 'This is beautiful. You're writing not from today, but from some other lifetime.' I keep her words as a very special memory."
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, The Sons maintained a high profile. Many of their songs became instant classics, including the Kamakahi originals Wahine 'Ilikea, Koke'e, Pua Hone, and Ka `Opae. Dennis also began to study for the ministry. Ordained in 1977, he established Ka Leo Mana O Ke Akua Mission. He continued to perform and tour, often with fellow Sons guitarist George Kuo and like-minded players, such as Martin Pahinui and Milton Lau's Native Hawaiian Band.
In the early 1990s, Dennis accepted Dancing Cat's invitation to perform solo. "Solo to me is a growing experience," he says. It can bring a lot of risk into the music, but also a lot of freedom, and can help an artist interact person to person with an audience. "It's just you on stage and the people. You're bringing them right into the living room. Everyone gets a chance to come real close. You leave with such a great feeling and a greater appreciation for music."
In 1996, Dennis' first Dancing Cat CD, PUA'ENA - "GLOW BRIGHTLY", featured a blend of Dennis originals and songs by some of his favorite composers, such as Queen Lili'uokalani. PUA'ENA was nominated for two Na Hoku Hanohano awards, and remains a favorite with many of Dennis' fans.
Dennis' latest Dancing Cat release, 'OHANA (FAMILY), is dedicated to his father, Kenneth Franklyn Kamakahi. It features five originals, including old favorites like Pua Hone, and newer songs such as E Pupukanioe, about the famous singing land shell of Kaua`i. Four songs come from the pen of Lili'uokalani, including 'Ike Ia Ladana, which has never been recorded before. Although it shares a melody with Queen's Jubilee, 'Ike Ia Ladana probably came first. It describes Lili'u's first impressions of London and Queen Victoria.
Dennis also expresses much aloha for The Sons of Hawai`i on 'OHANA. To honor their classic sound, he asked his son, David, to join him on several tracks. A gifted `ukulele player, David Kamakahi is heavily inspired by Eddie Kamae. On 'Ulili E, Around the World and Ka Hanu O Hanakeoki, the spirit of the old Sons of Hawai`i shines brightly. "In the studio, I told David 'You be Eddie, I'll be Gabby,'" says Dennis.
As its title, 'OHANA, suggests, Dennis wants his new album to express continuity between generations. "Father to son passing on aloha for each other, for the culture, this is so important," Dennis says. Listening to these gentle, strong tracks, it is clear that in their hearts and in the music, all generations of the Kamakahi 'ohana are joined together now and forever more.
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