Talk Story: John Kaneholani

KAPAA — John Kaneholani does it all — cooking, coaching and music. And he has stories about all of it, too: “All good fun.”

Kaneholani spoke with TGI last week while watching drills being executed by Coach Dennis Agena and 70 young basketball players at the Bernice Hundley Gym at Kapaa High School.

“The (younger) boys are going to the Maui Sparks basketball tournament the day after Thanksgiving,” Kaneholani said. “We start practicing this week so they’ll be ready to play.”

How did you get involved with basketball?

It started when we were living in the Kapaa low income housing. We were still in school — juniors or seniors. There were so much boys like Lambert Alapai, John Kaui, Delroy Shigematsu — we started with T-ball and then played basketball. We had so many boys, we started making teams to play in the county leagues.

How did you get involved in coaching?

In high school, we played for Gerald Gonsalves — he’s the father of Kapaa High School athletic director Gregg Gonsalves. We were pretty good. We didn’t win any titles, but we won a lot of games.

That’s when I became interested in coaching. I started coaching the community league and was later hired by the Kauai Community College to coach the girls’ basketball team. Some of the girls were like Kathleen Higa (current Junior Varsity girls volleyball coach for Kauai High School) and Cindy (it was Koerte at that time) Duterte who works with the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Coaching is never-ending. We always gotta get ready for next year.

Are you still the basketball coach at Kapaa High School?

Yes. I was helping to coach football at Kapaa. Jerry Joslin, he was the basketball coach at that time, was getting ready to leave so, since I was the rookie coach on the football field, they told me I gotta go up there for the basketball coach.

I thought it was a joke, but I went. I coached with Jerry Joslin. He was a terrific coach. When he left, he told me he was leaving me with a championship team. Brandon Fujita, Llewellyn Carvalho (he went on to coach at Kahuku High School) were all on the team that won the Kauai Interscholastic Federation championship.

They’re all champions. Sure enough — all champions. We had one bad year, but we’ve taken a lot of titles. A lot of the kids I coached at community are now up so hopefully, we can continue.

During the Agena basketball clinic, you were in charge of creating lunch for the players and coaches, and also spearhead the food preparation at the Kapaa High School football games as well as many other Warrior home games. How did you get involved in cooking?

I used to work a lot with food starting in high school when I worked at the Wailua Marina restaurant. I kind of went into music, and in between jobs, I was hired as a waiter at the Sheraton Hotel (currently the Courtyard by Marriott at Coconut Beach) after it was the Holiday Inn.

The Sheraton was trying to form a softball team. We made a team and went to Maui to play the Maui Sheraton. I worked there for quite a while before they hired me as an assistant manager at the Sheraton.

While at the Sheraton, I worked with a lot of good people — John Ferguson (current owner of Kalaheo Coffee and Cafe), Alan Wong, Sam Choy (I just visited with him at the Kauai County Farm Bureau Fair), and even met great chefs like John Hightower.

Conrad Nonaka — him and I were like two buddies at the Sheraton. He and I would talk about a lot of things. He was the one who taught me how to set up parties, P and L (profit and loss — I never knew anything about that. I thought if they gave you money, you spend it all), and set up the dining room. I didn’t understand all that until then — we got to meet up with those guys, again.

Conrad? He asked me to come play at Kauai Community College fundraising breakfast. That was the day after we won the song composers contest. But that was chef so we went to play. And we played for the breakfast until he told us he found someone better.

After six years with the Sheraton, I left to work with Lyle Kobashigawa when the Kukui Nut Tree restaurant opened at the Kukui Grove Center.

I left after three years because I couldn’t handle the workload. I was working three jobs — I was still at the school, working with the outreach program with Wayne Watanabe — you know, trying to be rich, but I never get rich.

How did you get set up in music?

When I was young, we would go to chuch where my mother was the piano player. We used to sing, but no instruments. But I was eager to learn and learned to play the ukulele, guitar, upright bass. It was pretty much self-taught, but I could play the piano, too.

In high school, my good friend Michael Lingaton used to sing a lot. He, my cousin Kalani Kaimina‘auao, and myself worked at both Smith’s and Waialeale boats — they were all good people. That was the birth of the Waialeale Trio — on the Wailua River.

Michael and myself, we can still play together. We played together for a long time.

“The Shores of Anini.” How did that come about?

A whole bunch of us would go camping at Anini Beach at Jack Hashimoto’s place before they opened the park for camping. Surprising, almost everybody was in the entertainment business — music directors, composers, song writers and musicians. When the park opened for camping, we continued to camp there, and Michael’s wife Melody and Alani Woodward had already written all the words to the song on paper.

In 1988, Alani entered the song in a composer’s contest. We practiced and practiced, and ended up winning with that song. We won quite a few awards with that song — I think that’s when we became “famous.”

We were hired to play at Kauai Surf (now the Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Spa in Kalapaki), MASH parties; we played for governors, the Democratic party, and even at Coco Palms.

Howard Toki, along with Ronnie Toki, Gerald Toki and Leonard Galves, were the Toki Trio and part of the bar at Coco Palms. They invited us up one night to sing … we were kind of shy at first, but eventually, the hotel hired us to play for the dinner show.

Randy Weir was the bartender at JJ’s Broiler, and eventually, we played at the Spindrifter at The Coconut Marketplace and at JJ’s Broiler.

Now, only Michael and I play. We can still play together, and we play when we have to play. We played at Sonny Waialeale’s wife’s funeral — that was something we had to do.

The ukulele band at the Hanalei Elementary School. How did that come about?

The kids today, they don’t want to play instruments. They rather listen. They have a real good music teacher at Hanalei Elementary — Jeremy Brown — he trying so hard, but the kids not interested in playing. They like listen. I would like to see the Hanalei Ukulele Band get together again.

The band started when I was hired at Hanalei School. Nick Beck said he had a lot of ukulele and he wanted the kids to learn how to play. I started meeting with them once or twice a week to teach them basics, how not to abuse the instruments, chords, and some Hawaiian songs. That time, Kenny Rapozo was starting to do something at the King Kaumuali‘i Elementary School, and Uncle Herman Paleka had his seniors — he would say, “You folks take care the young people, I going take care the old guys.”

One year, the Hanalei Ukulele Band was invited to play for the Queen Liliuokalani contest on Oahu. I took the whole band. I looked at all those white kids who was going to play for the kanaka. I just told the kids, “We’re going to play two songs about Hanalei. You have to understand the words and pronounce correctly.”

At the contest, the kids were getting ready to go onstage and I grabbed a seat, not knowing who I was sitting next to. When the kids played, he looked at me, and oh boy, that was Hokulani Cleeland. Speaking in Hawaiian, he said, “You folks are terrific. You pronounce the words well, and you taught them the right way. They had a good ending, good volume, and a strong beginning. I’m glad you folks are not entered in the competition. Otherwise, you would win.” It was all good fun. After the performance, they were giving out lucky number prizes (speaking in Hawaiian) and the kids were having so much fun trying to figure out the numbers. I told them, “Just go up with your ticket, they going tell you whether you win, or not.”

I was helping the Hanalei Ukulele Band for 12 years, and that was the start of the Kapaa Middle School Ukulele Band with Mary Lardizabal. She was working at Kapaa High School when I was hired to work there. She later moved to Kapaa Middle School and started working with a lot of the kids who were in the Hanalei School Ukulele Band.

One summer school at Kapaa High, there was a student who had Down syndrome who wanted to learn how to play the ukulele. I worked with him and asked him why he wanted to learn how to play the ukulele. “I like spooky songs,” he said. He worked really hard, every day playing his ukulele by the office before school started. He would be playing and singing his spooky songs — “whu-u-u-u” kinda like the wind.

One day, the principal Gilmore Youn came out of the office. There was this student, playing and singing. “Who is playing the ukulele?” Mr. Youn asked. I didn’t know what to do, and I pointed to the student. Mr. Youn looked at the young guy having fun. He looked at me and said, “Well, he’s playing too loud. Tell him not to play so loud.”

Ukulele, sports, cooking — got plenty of stories. But behind all that, behind any man is a good woman, and I thank my wife Leila who works so hard. She works so hard.

(John and Leila have six children — three boys and three girls, two of who live in Missouri and are Kansas City fans.) Lamar Hunt and her grandma are cousins. When one of my sons went to visit, they got to go to a football game — for free. And where they going sit? Anywhere.

We used to live at the bottom of the hill (he was speaking from the food serving area at the Bernice Hundley Gym on the Kapaa High School campus). There was a plantation hotel with nine rooms where the two white vans are parked.

Mom and dad were a part of our whole upbringing. My dad always wanted me to be a genealogist and shared a lot of stories from his side and my mom’s side of the family. (John was born to Herbert Kaneholani and Elizabeth Sara Kaheana-Saffrey, one of 10 boys and five girls).

I scared talk about names because the family is so big — ask Yukie DeSilva who she talks to when she needs to know about someone. Plenty stories. All good fun.


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