Spirit in Song


POSTED: Monday, October 27, 2008





        Asked to select his top recording projects, Derek Nakamoto names these albums:


Hiroshima (1990)
In particular Nakamoto cites “;Thousand Cranes,”; a composition written with June Kuramoto.


'Truly Blessed'
Teddy Pendergrass (1991)
The recording earned Nakamoto a Grammy nomination for best producer.


'The Spin'
Fernando Saunders (1993)
A co-production with the talented singer-songwriter and bassist. Nakamoto has toured with Saunders in Europe.


Keiko Matsui (1996, reissued in 2003)
Nakamoto's favorite of the 14 albums he has arranged for the jazz pianist—her breakout album, he says.


'All That Matters'
Michael Bolton (1997)
“;One song in particular, 'Why Me,' is one of my favorite songs that I arranged for him.”;


'For the Love ...'
The O'Jays (2001),
Nakamoto produced the album, which was a Grammy nominee in the category for traditional R&B vocal.



LOS ANGELES » Ever since Derek Nakamoto became the youngest official church organist in Hawaii—at the age of 9 for St. Patrick's Church in Kaimuki—he's sustained a deep and abiding spiritual side that goes beyond his Catholicism.

After graduating from Saint Louis School in 1973, Nakamoto seriously considered the priesthood but instead took his musical talents on the road with Liz Damon's Orient Express.

During that period he tried the college route, but admits he wasn't fully committed to being a performance major during his 18 months in the University of Hawaii-Manoa's music program. So, in '81, Nakamoto moved to Los Angeles, where his talents flourished.

He would end up doing a stint with the fusion jazz band Hiroshima (he co-wrote the popular “;Hawaiian Electric”; with koto player June Kuramoto) and then tour with Paul Anka under the tutelage of a man Nakamoto would consider his mentor, French composer-arranger Michel Colombier.

Like the late Colombier, Nakamoto has carved out a solid career as an arranger-producer for nearly two decades.

  Nakamoto's journey began when he started mimicking the songs he heard on television “;by picking them out on my toy piano at the age of 5.”;

He was studying piano with Irene Yano when his burgeoning talent was recognized by Walter Kau, then organist for St. Andrew's Cathedral.

But Nakamoto was still a child. Could he really learn to play a church organ?

“;At the time, I didn't know that they were two entirely different animals to play, but since I had a good ear, I adapted quickly,”; Nakamoto said. “;I thought of the church staff as a second family. With the help of Father Albert (Leunens), the church basically paid my way through Saint Louis. I just loved being in that environment and the whole community there.”;

His worldview would later expand with the help of John Keola Lake, head of the school's Hawaiian music club.

“;What he taught me was an appreciation for ethnic music. The way he taught Hawaiian culture made it engaging for me. I mean, being Japanese-Chinese, I'm obviously not of Hawaiian blood, and here I was, the club's piano player.

“;I learned how to communicate through music. Even though I don't understand the language, I got to the heart of what it was trying to convey, especially since Hawaiian music has such a strong spiritual base.”;

That base has kept Nakamoto grounded. “;I now see that this has been a calling. This kind of life is not for everybody. When I work with other singers and musicians, it's not just about seeing them do well and appeasing their egos. It's about helping them discover what they excel at. The music has to resonate with an undeniable truth.”;