The first time Danny Hamada saw a saxophone he was 12 years old.
“I was in a music store with my mom,” he said. “I looked up and saw it hanging there. I told her ‘I want that.’”
It would be a few years before the instrument of his dreams would arrive, but arrive it did, and in Kaua‘i style.
“My parents had an upholstery business,” said the septuagenarian. “A man came in who couldn’t afford to pay for upholstery so my parents agreed to trade for a saxophone. It was a barter.”
That was almost 60 years ago and Hamada hasn’t put the sax down since. When his brother Dickie founded “The Starlighters” in 1956 he invited his little brother Danny to join the band.
“This was the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. It was killing Big Band music,” recalled the Waimea native. “My brother wanted to save it.”
For the next 50 years Dickie Hamada kept The Starlighters going. When he died in 2006 brother Danny stepped into the roll of bandleader.
“It’s a promise I made my brother,” he said. “I’ll keep the band going as long as I can blow.”
The Starlighters are an orchestra of 12 musicians. Over the years the band has seen many local talents, with most of the present group having been together since 1998. The youngest members, Matt and Mike Haack, joined the band four years ago when they were just 13 years old. The oldest member of the group is Gail Farwell at 86. The band consists of a cross-section of Kaua‘i ranging from a retired fireman, a doctor, school teachers and high school students. From 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. every third Friday of the month The Starlighters bring Big Band music to Kukui Grove Shopping Center.
“We have quite a following,” said Hamada.
When the band started at Kukui Grove over 20 years ago its audience was small. But Hamada and vocalist for the band Ray Domingo have seen that number grow.
“Our audience has tripled,” said Domingo. “All the seats are full and there’s people dancing along the aisle.”
After five decades of playing dance halls, weddings and events all over the island, Hamada revels in the intimation of a Big Band revival that has people dancing together again.
“We’re close to what my brother’s goal was,” he said.
Hamada praises his musicians for their commitment.
“We’re hobbyists,” he said. “These guys do this for their love of music.”
The first song Hamada learned, Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” he learned by ear.
“I played it on the phonograph over and over and over,” he said. “Then my mom convinced me to take lessons.”
His first lesson was at a music store in Waimea. The instructor gave him the sheet music for “Pagan Love” to take home and learn. Instead of reading the music he bought the record in order to learn it by ear for the following week.
“The teacher said, ‘That’s perfect’ after I played. So I went home and told my mom, ‘I’m quitting my lessons.’”
It would be another 40 years before Hamada would commit himself to learning to read music. Today he sees the value of reading notes but that is not where the soul of the music lives.
“What you see on the sheet is a guide. What you play is from here,” he said patting his chest.
At Monday night rehearsals Hamada strives to impress this upon his musicians.
“You’re not playing for who wrote the music,” he said. “You’re playing for the guys in the back row.”
Hamada believes in the power of phrasing. The way instruments converse with each other is the same as two people talking story — how the rise and fall of a voice or an inflection tells more about the story than the words.
“Make the people feel what you feel,” he tells his musicians. “Make me cry. I want (the music) to hit me where it hurts.”
To do that though requires perseverance by the musicians and dedication to each part played. When Dickie Hamada died he left 50 years worth of charts for The Starlighters to follow.
“We have crates filled with charts,” Hamada said.
A chart is the music for each part played by an instrument in the band.
“My interpretation of a chart is that it’s how instruments talk to each other,” Hamada said. “A Big Band is not like a combo — you can’t just play a song in ‘C.’ One instrument compliments the other. The notes that are played are what make you feel what you feel.”
That is why Hamada is a task-master when it comes to fine-tuning his musicians, and it shows in their ever-growing audience.
“If we can get the people to dance we’re doing something right,” he said.
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• Pam Woolway, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or email@example.com