Monday, August 25, 2003

Sonny Kamahele closes out a noted career in Hawaiian music with a performance tomorrow night.

Halekulani mainstay
Kamahele to retire

A glorious era in Hawaiian music ends tomorrow when Sonny Kamahele performs for the last time as a member of the Hawaiian trio that's been a fixture at the Halekulani Hotel's open-air House Without a Key restaurant.

Sonny Kamahele

In concert: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow

Place: House Without a Key, Halekulani Hotel

Admission: Free

Call: 923-2311

"I was going to retire (sometime), but not this soon," Kamahele said Saturday afternoon as he reflected on his career.

Kamahele turns 82 Thursday, and would have celebrated a full 20 years at the hotel if he'd continued another week. But he said trio leader Alan Akaka felt the time had come to bring in some new blood.

He'll go out as he came in, playing the traditional Hawaiian and hapa-haole songs he grew up with in the decades before statehood.

"When I went to the Halekulani to try for the job, which was in 1983, Sept. 3, I said to myself that I'd play the same stuff that we always played when I was younger, and we took it from there. We played Hawaiian music and we stayed like that. We never changed the music, and we never changed (the style of) our uniforms."

Kamahele's immaculate all-white uniforms -- a traditional look for musicians during the territorial era -- became the standard at the Halekulani, and the hotel became an oasis of traditional Hawaiian and hapa-haole music even as other hotels experimented with video game rooms and karaoke. Kamahele and kindred spirits played an important part in making traditional music accessible for visitors and kamaaina.

Kamahele tried a few other jobs over the years, but whenever he had to choose between music and doing something else, the music won, providing "enough income for me."

courtesy sonny kaMahele
As a boy in the 1920s, Sonny Kamahele sang as the "mascot" of the Police Glee Club.

By any measure, Sonny Kamahele has had a tremendous career. He was born Solomon Kamahele Jr., in Honolulu on Aug. 28, 1921, and was barely 8 when he became the performing "mascot" of the Honolulu Police Glee Club. Even at that age he knew he wanted to be a professional musician like his father.

He wore a kid's-size police uniform, and recalls his work with the glee club as "good discipline training."

Kamahele and the others would go out on a tugboat to serenade arriving passenger liners. One of his most memorable youthful performances was greeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Kamahele moved to the mainland after World War II and spent almost a decade playing Hawaiian music in Hollywood; he worked with Sam Koki at the Seven Seas, played in Henry Owens' orchestra on television and appeared in movies.

He sang (falsetto and lower register), danced hula and played several instruments, including guitar, ukulele and steel guitar.

Like many other Hawaiian musicians of his generation, Kamahele acquired most of his early training by watching and listening to older musicians, but he also learned to read music "in a hurry" after Owens told him that his job with the orchestra depended on his ability to work with charts.

"That's why, when I came home (in 1956), I was able to work in different areas."

Kamahele joined Alfred Apaka's all-star backing band at Kaiser's Hawaiian Village, then went on to lead his own group at the Royal while helping to book musicians at other venues. He was part of the "Hawaii Calls" family until the show sputtered out in 1974.

Some of his best times as a musician were spent working with Benny Kalama backing Apaka and on "Hawaii Calls."

Kalama and Kamahele earned Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts in 1993 and 1996, respectively. Their final gig together was at the Halekulani and lasted until 1998, when Kalama retired; he died the following year.

"I've worked with so many musicians, and the funny thing is, they're all gone. All of the people I worked with, men and women, unbelievable, they're all gone. All of them are dead."

After he takes his final bow tomorrow night, Kamahele plans to "take it easy and just live the rest of my life," he says.

The open-air House Without a Key features Hawaiian music from 5 to 8:30 p.m. nightly, with Akaka's and Kamahele's group, the Islanders, performing Mondays and Tuesdays. Former Miss Hawaii Kanoe Miller dances hula Monday through Saturday on the beachfront stage, and former Miss Hawaii Debbie Nakanelua dances every Sunday.

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