Musician Kahanu Tsukiyama was born on Oahu and moved to Kauai at the age 18 when offered a job at Wailua River on the Fern Grotto boat tour nearly 42 years ago. The Wailua resident is now 60 years young and still performing traditional Hawaiian music with the same classical guitar he started with on the river boat, for hotels, bars and other island venues.
Tell us about your beginnings on the Garden Island and about performing music on the river boat tours.
I worked there for a few years and then left, then got fired and came back and left again. Now I’m just there again after several stints at trying. This stint from about 2002 until now is probably the longest I’ve been there. There was two companies there, the Waialeale boats and the Smith’s boats. I started off with Waialeale and then went to Smith’s. They were competitive, so a lot of the musicians jumped back and forth. I remember back around ‘75, we started off at $4.25 an hour. After three years, we got one raise from Smith’s. I got four cents raise that time. In those days we never made tips.
Why did you decide to move to Kauai as a teenager?
My sisters moved here before me from Oahu, so I had a place to stay with my older sisters. I had a girlfriend at the time, she was from here too. That’s kind of how I got the job on the boat tour, because her brother used to work there. They told me to come and get a job, because I was playing music on Oahu and going to college taking up Hawaiian language. I was going to write and play Hawaiian music, but then my girlfriend’s brother from here said they needed a musician on the boats. I thought I might as well do music now. I ended up not going to college and came here and never left after that. I played at different places, worked construction, and worked hotel many years at the hotel in the maintenance department.
How did you learn to play guitar and ukulele?
I just learned from my mom, who gave me a lesson on the ukulele one day. My dad used to play slack key. He taught me, he gave me one lesson. When my mom showed me the ukulele, I was maybe 8 years old. Then my dad showed me slack key, he used to play when I was a teenager. Whenever he came out of jail, he would live with us and play. He was in and out of Oahu prison. When he would come, he would teach us a little bit. I must have been 13, because when I started playing I was about 15.
My friend he was a good slack key player and singer when we were sophomores in Catholic school. One day I was sitting in his car waiting for him in the school parking lot. There was a ukulele, and I just picked it up and started playing good. It just came all of the sudden at one moment. I just started singing a song and playing. I was probably about 15 years old.
From then on, I guess I never stopped playing. Maybe when I was 16 or 17 we started playing, because my neighbor’s mom could play and my friend too. He was playing with his mom in the church, but he played Hawaiian music already. We used to live in the low-income housing, it was four houses connected in one building. Every evening, my mom would tell me if I liked Hawaiian music, listen to that lady singing. From my house to the third house over, we could hear Auntie Maile singing Hawaiian while she washed the dishes and that was when I first heard Hawaiian music. She would sing Hawaiian falsetto. After awhile, her son and I became friends. He was a couple years older than me, but he could play. I started hanging out with him and his mom, and I learned from them. Maybe a couple of years after that is when it all came together, and I started playing the ukulele.
Do you think playing music kept you from following in the footsteps of your father?
Yeah probably, I would think so. First, sports was kind of the thing, but then music came into play because I got hurt. I went into music right about that time in high school, when I realized I couldn’t play the sports I liked anymore. I had already been through two concussions by that time. So I gave it up and started playing music.
Did you witness a resurgence of Hawaiian music at that time?
In the ’70s, there was the Hawaiian Renaissance Period they called it. That was when people started liking Hawaiian music again, and Hawaiian music started getting popular with the younger crowd. They always had certain groups, Gabby Pahinui, The Sons of Hawaii. They were always there, but the interest died off. Then Peter Moon came into it with the Sunday Manoa and the Cazimeros. Younger people started listening to Hawaiian music in the late ’60s and ’70s. I remember my brother telling me, “You’re Hawaiian, so you should know Hawaiian music.” That made sense, so that’s when I started.
Why do you think it’s important to preserve traditional Hawaiian music?
Even in traditional music, all the musicians have their own approach. Some people like falsetto singing, some people like slack key style, which is another Hawaiian-invented technique of playing the guitar. Some people like stuff with ukulele. You could do one song many different ways. One old Hawaiian song can be done by everybody in their own way. Maybe that’s the appeal. You can have a connection with your heritage. It doesn’t matter how you perform that song. You do it like the first way you heard that song when you were a kid. You can do it how someone does it nowadays. You can give one reggae beat to an old traditional song.
I like to do it the old way, because it makes me remind myself of those days when I was first learning. That song when I first picked up the ukulele and started playing is probably one of my favorites til today, “Pauoa Ka Liko Ka Lehua.” It’s a song that talks of the Lehua blossom and how in this one particular valley, Pauoa, that certain flower doesn’t bloom. It just stays as a bud. For some reason it doesn’t open up.
Why is it important as a performer to share the kauna, or multiple meanings, of each song, including “Pauoa Ka Liko Ka Lehua”?
That’s the interesting part about Hawaiian music, only the composer knows what the kauna is. When I look at the translation, the lady who wrote it for her husband, about him, asking, “Why didn’t you ever bloom and show me your full potential?” It’s a powerful song about the one flower that never bloomed. You as my first love, but you never did bloom and show me your full potential like that flower in Pauoa. That’s the song I first learned and still play. It’s one of my favorites. Whenever I play it I think about that time sitting in my friend’s car and just learning. That’s why I like to do the old songs, to bring back memories for me or anybody else. Whoever knows that song might have a memory, like your first slow dance or whoever it might have been.
How is it performing as a duo with talented local musicians like Abe Cummings?
We don’t practice, we just go and meet and jam. Every time I do a song, it might be a little different. Abe is an excellent musician, one of the best on the island. You hear me doing all the singing, but he can do his own solo gig by himself. This guy is the real thing. Abe and I have been playing for maybe 20 years. We both worked on the boat tour before. I knew him and his family before that, but when we were kids we worked there. He was a captain, and I was a musician. I was really intimidated by Abe, because he was such a higher level musician than me. He said not to worry about that and just play happy music. Today, that’s what we do, we just play happy music.
What is the appeal of ki ho alu, or slack key guitar, in your opinion?
I’ve been playing slack key since I was a kid, but I rarely ever play it for people. I only play it for myself. I never play it at the bars or the nightclub or wherever. I don’t want to commercialize myself with that. I try to keep it apart for meaning, for feeling.
Slack key is really an art. You got to hold your own, because it’s like one person playing and making it sound like two or three people. You got to play the base and the treble, and you can screw up easily.
Every time I play, I think of my father and that one lesson that he gave me. He found a guitar at the rubbish dump, it only had four strings. The action was terrible, I cut my fingers when I played on that thing.
When I play slack key, I just feel relaxed. My father used to play, and my sister and I would bite the head-stock of the guitar. Back in those days when we were kids, he would tell us to bite the head-stock, cover your ears, and close your eyes. When we did that he’d play, and the vibrations would resonate. I don’t know how he figured that out. His guitar had all these bite marks on his guitar head. He’d play an entire song, and you’d just stay there while he’s playing.
Can you relate a unique experience you’ve had while performing?
Now I play a lot for the timeshare guests. One thing that makes people feel good, and makes me feel good too, is when you meet somebody and two years later they come back. As soon as they walk into that bar or hotel where your playing, you call out their name on the microphone after not seeing them for years right in the middle of the song.
This couple, Bruce and Susan, have been married for 50 years from San Francisco, and you can see it in their eyes when you remember their name, where they’re from, or even how many years they’ve been married. They get amazed, and you make them feel special.
We always would say if you have a special song you would like to hear, let us know. Any requests, we’ll do it if we know it. One night that guy Bruce says a song I didn’t know. I told him to get me the words and I’d do it, jokingly. He came back one week later with the CD and the song he wanted. It was Alfred Apaka, I think I heard the song long ago.
Then he tells me that cut number three is another good one. When I heard number three, that was the one I liked. Two years later when he came back, I explained to all the people how I learned that song and told the whole story before playing it. That song is really a nice song, with a couple minor chords in it too. Now I play more hapa haole songs and like it a lot.
What do you plan to do with music in the future?
I like to leave something for my kids, and I like to get my kids involved, they’re 6 and 8. I started late, I had my first boy when I was 51. I might not last much longer, so I like to get them in there. I’ve been playing slack key 40 years, and I still don’t know how to play slack key.
I still try the same thing my father taught me 50 years ago, trying to learn the true meaning and look for the true feeling and soul. I’m gonna show my kids the exact thing that my dad taught me. And they’re gonna show their kids hopefully one day what their grandfather taught their father, even if they don’t know it. That’s what’s it’s all about.