Advertisement - Click to support our sponsors.

Saturday, April 8, 2000

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Janice and Eric Watanabe get into the groove with their kids,
from left, Dawn, Taylor (on drums) and Ashley.

In sync

He gave up a career
in show biz but this man
now makes beautiful
music with his family

The nightclub musician of
'The Laughing Kahunas' recruited
his children to create his dream band

By Rod Ohira


Eric Watanabe taught himself how to play the guitar at age 12. As a Waipahu High senior in 1969, he teamed with Carol Yoon to win an Aloha Week youth talent contest. Later, he played lead guitar and sang with a popular Seventies local nightclub band, "The Laughing Kahunas."

Those were good times, but playing music didn't pay enough.

So Watanabe went into real estate and built a successful business, all the while dreaming of returning to the stage with his own band.

His three children have helped make that dream a reality.

Eric Watanabe in the 1970s with "The Laughing Kahunas"
-- that's him at the bottom right of the photo.

"I'm going back to what I did before, but I'm doing it with my kids now and that's special," said the 48-year-old Watanabe, who plays casual gigs with his daughters, Dawn and Ashley, and son, Taylor.

"Before, it was personal. Now, it's just playing music with my kids, knowing that they're playing well and getting better. That we're doing this as a family is a gift from God."

Watanabe began organizing the group -- known as "NYK," which stands for "Not Yet Known" at the beginning of a performance

and "Now You Know" at the end -- 20 years ago when his wife, Janice, gave birth to their first child.

The children grew up listening to their father playing his guitar and singing "oldies," but few expected Eric Watanabe to carry out his musical plans for them with such precision.

Dawn, 20, a University of Hawaii junior majoring in education, plays keyboard, saxophone and clarinet. She was 6 when her father first sent her to piano lessons.

Watanabe planned for his first child to be the keyboard player because "that's the backbone of any group."

"I went 'cause Dad said so, but I didn't like classical piano," Dawn said. "But I learned how to read music and play chords."

She studied piano until she was 12, then her father sent her to study keyboard with Ed Weber, then Clyde Pound.

"At first, I didn't know what Dad was going to do," Dawn said. "Now, I enjoy performing.

"Since I don't play sports like my sister and brother, music is my outlet. It gives me a lot of satisfaction."

Ashley, a 17-year-old Aiea High junior, was destined to play bass guitar. She took her first lesson from Ted Garneau at age 12 and now studies with Jon Kolivas.

"Ted told me she was a natural," Eric Watanabe said of Ashley, a varsity volleyball and basketball player who also plays trombone.

Watanabe gave his infant son a toy drum set to pound on, leaving no doubt what Taylor's position in the band would be.

Until Taylor was old enough to take lessons, Watanabe and his daughters performed with a drum machine.

Taylor was 11 when he started taking drumming lessons from the legendary Harold Chang.

"Ashley and Taylor like to go down to the Musicians Building (on Kapiolani Boulevard) and play big-band music with Harold on Monday nights," Eric Watanabe said. "I'm really happy they can appreciate music.

"I wanted them to be what I wasn't and I'm happy they're good musicians who can read (music)."

Taylor, 15, is a member of Aiea High's junior varsity basketball and baseball teams. He has already ventured out on his own in music.

Taylor and four other Aiea High students have formed a group called "Hoindawall," playing ska, which is a blend of reggae, punk and other musical influences.

"Our music is loud and more upbeat," Taylor said. "I like playing music but the old music makes me fall asleep."

The Watanabe children, like their father, are good singers.

"They're the Japanese Partridge Family," City Councilman Mufi Hannemann said, referring to the 1970s television series about a pop music family.

"I was so impressed with their professionalism and got a kick from seeing the young people singing songs from Eric's time. The father's up there getting into it and you can see they're really enjoying this."

Eric's wife, the former Janice Miyama, manages the group and also manages the rental side of the family's real estate business.

Although music is a big part of family life, it's viewed as an activity, not a business.

"It's a bonding," Ashley said. "I think it keeps us close.

"The music has always been there. My dad is like a coach, teacher."

Eric and his children are musical ministers at Grace Bible Church-Pearl Side.

"In today's society, so many families are fragmented and we're very thankful that music keeps our family together," Janice Watanabe said.

Dr. Dean Sueda, who met Eric when their sons were playing youth baseball several years ago, didn't know his friend could sing until he saw NYK perform.

"He's living his second childhood and I'm happy for him," Sueda said. "Anytime you can do something you enjoy and can include your family so they enjoy it, too, it's a blessing."

NYK does casual gigs, mainly Christmas, graduation and wedding parties.

They play pop, jazz, contemporary and Christian music in addition to the oldies.

"We rehearse one day before a job, that's it," Eric Watanabe said.

They played 12 gigs last year, turning down many other jobs.

"The kids have too much going on," Janice Watanabe said.

Sometime after Taylor graduates from high school, his father would like the band to play a regular gig in Waikiki.

"I want to go back to Waikiki, play a lounge," Eric Watanabe said. "That's when it ends because the kids will all have things to do."

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2000 Honolulu Star-Bulletin