Waylon Kekoa Kepa, above, and his brother Keaka, below, learned to play by watching relatives at family gatherings. By Craig Kojima, Star-Bulletin

Respect for the instrument
is a family tradition

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

MANY kids get their first hands-on experience with the ukulele in an elementary school classroom. For Waylon Kekoa Kepa of Waimanalo the instrument is part of his family heritage.

Waylon learned to play the traditional way - watching his father, aunts and uncles at family parties. By age 5 he was trying to do what they did. Milton Kepa, a multitalented grassroots musician, encouraged his son's interest but never pushed or nagged him to play - that, too, is the traditional way. Now 12, Waylon strums and picks, sings and writes songs. A heartfelt rendition of "Daddy I Love You," at Windward Mall earlier this month made him a finalist in the Oceanic Kiddieoke-Plus talent contest.

"I was nervous at first, then I wanted to go out fast and got bored (waiting). When the time came, I woke up fast, Waylon recalls. He had performed for school programs but it was his first public performance outside Waimanalo. He and the other finalists return to Windward Mall for the Kiddieoke-Plus finals May 11.

Kepa is obviously quite proud of his talented son but not a "stage parent." A conversation at the kitchen table encompasses of the traditions of Hawaiian backyard music, the value of learning to play - "If you learn to listen well to ukulele you learn to listen well in school," Dad says - and recent improvements in ukulele design. Most important, Dad says, is respect for the instrument and its role in linking generations together.

"You don't just give it to anybody ... you always treat the instrument with respect. It's not like a toy or a comb you just stick in your pocket.

"As a musician you can't just play anybody's. You're always most comfortable with your own. It has to fit you, the sound has to be right, it has to give you the goodness so you can play right. If it doesn't give you that it's hard to play well."

As a musician you can't just play anybody's.
It has to fit you, the sound has to be right, it has
to give you the goodness so you can play
right. If it doesn't give you that,
it's hard to play well.

Milton Kepa

Kepa says his ukulele will be passed down to the next generation. But he thinks each child should have his own instrument.

"When a kid has his own, the interest becomes more strong. He can carry it around, practice, try things out. He don't have to borrow."

Or steal. Someone in the neighborhood took Waylon's ukulele shortly before the contest. One of his uncles loaned him a family heirloom for his performance at the mall.

Waylon says he's a fan of Troy Fernandez. He mentions "Opihi Man," "Surf" and "I Like To Play The Reggae" as three of his favorite songs. Fernandez wrote the latter two. However, there's no question who most inspires his love of the instrument.

"I love the way my dad plays. It makes me so happy that he knows how and can show me."

Waylon isn't the only Kepa of his generation who wants to accomplish something with the ukulele. Younger brother Keaka plays. The Kepa sisters do, too.

"Looking at Waylon now, 10 years from now he'll be someplace doing something with his music. We all need education, but music is important, too. For us Hawaiians sharing music is part of our culture, and in Hawaii these days the ukulele is the one."

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