Monday, October 28, 2002

Kahaluu resident Jacob Kaio, one of the best bagpipers on the West Coast and the highest ranked bagpiper in Hawaii, was invited to be an observer this past weekend at an invitation-only piping competition at Blair Castle in Scotland.

Isle man earns world
renown in bagpiping

By Genevieve A. Suzuki

Jacob Kaio doesn't fit the image of a man who plays the bagpipes.

The 6-foot-tall, 49-year-old native Hawaiian, who isn't an ounce Scottish, seems like he should be strumming an ukulele rather than puffing away on ivory pipes.

But Kaio is one of the best bagpipers on the West Coast and the highest ranked bagpiper in Hawaii.

He performed so well at this year's Pacific Northwest Highland Games in Seattle that he was invited to be an observer at the Glenfiddich Piping Championship at Blair Castle in Scotland this past weekend.

At the prestigious invitation-only event, Kaio also took several lessons from Roddy MacLeod, the principal of the Scottish National Piping Centre.

"I'm just amazed," said Kaio via telephone from Scotland.

"I never thought this would happen."

Kaio worked hard to achieve his status as a grade two solo competitor, only one step from the top.

"The reason I want to compete is you get a critique sheet," said Kaio, who uses the critiques to improve his playing.

He began entering competitions nine years ago, just one year after he started playing.

"This guy who was teaching me said I would never get anywhere because I can't read music."

After a few months, Kaio decided instead to take lessons from Scottish masters on the mainland. His new teachers told him that he was lucky he could play by ear because bagpipe music needs to be memorized.

When he's home in Kahaluu, Kaio, who has since learned to read music, practices about three hours a day in unusual places, such as graveyards.

"Well, they're not going to yell at me," he said. "I have a good audience."

He also practices often at the Pali Lookout, where he has met several bagpipers on vacation in Hawaii.

"I met an Australian who also plays. He took his pipes out of the car, and we played together," he said.

Kaio, who sees himself as an ambassador for the islands, said he would like to find more Hawaii sponsors to bring professional bagpipers from Scotland.

There are several similarities between the Hawaiian and Scottish cultures, Kaio said.

"It's like how we were banned from hula, the language. The bagpipe was banned as an instrument of war," said Kaio, a nurse who is studying education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The Scottish uniform for a bagpiper is comprised of a kilt, a white shirt, a black tie, and, for formal events, a Prince Charley jacket, according to Kaio, who is the pipe major, or leader, of the Hawaiian Thistle Pipe Band.

Kaio, believed to be the world's first pipe major of Polynesian descent, said he wore a pareo and a lei during picture-taking in Scotland and told his fellow bagpipers, "This is home. This is Hawaii."

Kaio and his band perform at various events including the Honolulu Symphony Fun Run, the Garlic Festival and luaus.

After one of his performances, Kaio said a man approached him about his kilt and asked: "Eh, braddah, how come you wear one dress?" Kaio answered, "Eh, you wear the lava lava, the malo, the pareo, what's the difference?"

Kaio first heard the bagpipes as a 13-year-old paddling down the Ala Wai Canal.

"I heard this strange sound and had to go see what it was," Kaio said. "I knew I wanted to play back then."

It wasn't until Kaio's mother-in-law invited him to her Scottish organization's meeting 26 years later that he had a chance to pick up the bagpipes.

"I said, 'Shoots, I'll go for the free food,'" he said, chuckling.

Kaio is now the vice chieftain of the Caledonian Society of Hawaii and a member of the St. Andrew's Society. He said the Scottish organizations in Hawaii have been great sources of support.

"This one lady, she's Scottish, she asked me, 'So now that you're vice chieftain, what do you expect to get out of this?' I said: 'I expect nothing. I'm trying to give back to the community. You guys gave me the bagpipes,'" Kaio said.

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