KEKAHA — Sitting at the edge of his couch, 90-year-old Ambrose Smith gently holds his four-string ‘ukulele.
“This is my first ‘ukulele I had,” Ambrose said while strumming the chords. “I was seven or eight years old when I started playing this. I gave this to my grandson, and one day I went to his house and he had it in the bathtub, floating and using it as a boat.”
Ambrose lets out a loud groan as he relives the event.
“I grabbed it and I brought it home again.”
Ambrose then picks up his 1972 six-string ‘ukulele — a present from his children.
“This is my baby, right here. This is the baby that makes the money,” Ambrose says with a smile. “Is there a song you would like to hear?”
I tell him to play whatever he would like.
“You’ll know this one.”
Ambrose begins to tap his right foot while strumming the chords of his ‘ukulele.
“So here’s to the golden moon, And here’s to the silver sea. And mostly here’s a toast, to you and me,” Ambrose croons as he steals a look from his wife, Yoshie, who is sitting next to him in their two-bedroom plantation home in Kekaha.
The song is “Tiny Bubbles” by Don Ho, and it is one of thousands of songs he has sung in the last eight decades.
Ambrose has been selected as a Living Treasure by the Kaua‘i Museum for Artistic Excellence in Traditional Hawaiian Music.
The Koloa-born musician still performs for the public. He can be found with his four-piece band, The Kama‘ainas, serenading audiences every Thursday at the Grove Cafe in Waimea.
Ambrose said he learned the craft from friends and family, but relies mostly on his ear when learning a new song.
His first major gig came at the ripe age of 12.
It was 1933, and the film crew of “White Heat” were filming in Waimea.
“I played with a group,” he said. “We sang that song on the Waimea Pier as (the actors) arrived on a boat. It was beautiful. I still remember that day.”
In the 1940s, Ambrose and his group started to get some notoriety, performing at venues that no longer exist, including the Barking Sands airport, the Kaua‘i Inn, Moir’s Gardens, the Seven Seas, Luau Gardens, Club Morrocco, Hale Kipa and Cox’s Bar.
When Ambrose retired from the Kekaha Sugar Company, where he worked for 45 years, he made the daily drive from Kekaha to Wailua to sing and tell stories at his uncle’s business, Smith’s Motor Boat Service.
“You get to meet all kinds of people,” Ambrose said. “They come from different states. They don’t hear this kind of music. In the mainland, it’s all hillybilly kind of music. This is something different.”
This December, Ambrose and Yoshie celebrate 70 years of marriage. They were wed the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Even though their honeymoon was canceled, Ambrose jokes that they got big fireworks instead.
They are the parents of four grown children, eight grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren “and still counting.”
The Kaua‘i Museum’s Living Treasure of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau luncheon celebration is July 9 at the Kaua‘i Beach Resort.
Since 1988, the museum honors people as “Living Treasures” for their contributions to culture, education and the welfare of the people of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau.
Tickets are $50 per person or $450 for a table of ten. Call 245-6931 or 246-2470 for more information.
• Andrea Frainier, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or afrainier@ thegardenisland.com.