WHEN it comes to Hawaiian music, perhaps no other artist looms larger than the great Eddie Kamae. Credited as a major proponent of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance in the late 1960s and ’70s, he was one of the first people to treat the ukulele as a serious solo instrument.
Born into a music-loving family on August 4, 1927, Kamae started playing uke when he was 15. His first instrument was a gift from his brother Sam, who found it on a bus he was driving for Hawaii Rapid Transit.
“From that day onward, Eddie was hooked,” says author James D. Houston in his excellent biography Hawaiian Son. “He just liked the sound of it, the size of it, the feel of the strings, the hum of the wood.”
It was another brother, Joe, who became Eddie’s first teacher. Joe passed on basic chords and strums and soon his younger sibling was hungry to learn more.
When Eddie turned 18 in 1945, he was still eligible for the draft and was sent to New Caledonia in the Coral Sea, where it was his job to pack up US military supplies for shipping back to America. With plenty of spare time on his hands, Kamae practised day and night and developed an impressive repertoire of instrumental solos.
On his return to Hawaii, Eddie started attending weekend music sessions in downtown Honolulu. He received a standing ovation the first time he revealed his stunning solo tunes and it was there he met a fellow uke enthusiast named Shoi Ikemi. The pair eventually began working together, calling themselves The Ukulele Rascals and wowing the crowd with complex duets.
Eddie was to get more time to practise when he was caught trying to pass off vials of cornstarch and flour as household medicine and was sentenced to three years in prison. “I didn’t know how I was going to last three years in there,” says Eddie in Hawaiian Son. “My uke was my companion and my way to find some peace of mind. Music got me through.”
With a newfound appreciation for Hawaiian music, Eddie teamed up with slack-key guitar star Gabby Pahinui to form a band and, in 1960, the Sons Of Hawaii was born. Despite Pahinui later leaving to pursue a solo career, the group went on to record 14 critically acclaimed albums.
Eddie set up a production company called Hawaii Sons, Inc. and was among the first Hawaiian musicians to establish his own recording label. Outside of music, he and his wife Myrna produced a set of 10 culturally important documentaries that examine the history of the islands.
Without Eddie’s powerful impact, it’s fair to say the ukulele would not be where it is today. The great Ohta-San was mentored by Eddie and Jake Shimabukuro credits him as a major influence and his favourite player.
On January 7, 2017, Eddie passed away in Honolulu, surrounded by family and friends and while his best-known song, E Ku`u Morning Dew, played softly in the background. Mahalo, Mr Kamae.
By Cameron Murray
This article originally appeared in Issue 11 of KAMUKE Ukulele Magazine, which is available in the Store