Music: Kahauanu Lake dies at 79

Mar. 7, 2011 | 3 Comments

BY JOHN BERGER / jberger@staradvertiser.com

Walter Kawai‘ae‘a was 15 years old and had been playing the ukulele for only a few months when he heard his teacher, Kahauanu Lake, playing guitar and asked his kumu why he didn’t play the instrument professionally instead of the ukulele.

Kawai‘ae‘a never forgot Lake’s reply.

“He said, ‘If I’m going to be the leader of a Hawaiian group then I’m going to play a Hawaiian instrument!’” Kawai‘ae‘a recalled early Monday morning.

“I told him, ‘But, Papa, you play that guitar so good,’ and he said ‘The hell with that damned guitar. It’s a haole-made instrument. And how’s my ukulele playing?’ and that shut me up. It was about who he was and about being Hawaiian and always personifying that. He was a prince, and they don’t make ’em like that any more.”

Kahauanu Lake, one of the greatest Hawaiian ukulele players of the 20th century, died Sunday at a Windward Oahu nursing facility. He was 79 and had been in declining health for more than a year.

Harry B. Soria Jr., creator and host of the radio show “Territorial Airwaves,” remembers Lake for “his revolutionary and daring presentations of mele for the hula, his meticulous arrangements, and his elegantly simple styling. I was fortunate enough to have had Kahauanu on my show several times and was humbled by the depth of his storytelling as he wove detailed genealogies and historical events effortlessly as I sat spellbound.”

Singer Nina Kealiiwahamana said that while mourning Lake’s passing, she is confident “his unique Hawaiian sound of music shall live on.”

Born New Year’s Day 1932, his name referenced the unusually cold weather on the day of his birth. On his mother’s side he was a Parker and traced his lineage back to the Kamehamehas. His mother’s later marriage to Edward David Kalakaua Kawananakoa gave him a connection to the Kalakaua dynasty as well. There was then a definite sense of kaona (hidden meaning) when Lake presented hula programs in Kawaiahao Church — the house of worship built by those who had tried to extinguish hula in the 19th century.

Lake learned to play ukulele by sitting across from his mother and playing mirror-fashion — holding the instrument in reverse. He developed a distinctive strumming and picking style that has inspired several generations of musicians. Lake was also one of the first Hawaiian musicians to play the larger baritone ukulele; he played a custom-made instrument that was designed to have a deep mellow tone.

“Kahauanu Lake was one of only a handful of performing and recording artists in the field of Hawaiian music who created a new sound, yet kept it very traditionally Hawaiian,” says musician/songwriter Keith Haugen. “His ukulele style maintained the ipu rhythms of old Hawaii and was loved by hula dancers.”

Lake recorded six albums as the leader of the Kahauanu Lake Trio, which included his brother, Thomas Lake Jr. (acoustic bass) and Al Machida (acoustic guitar). He also collaborated with Ka‘upena Wong and Don McDiarmid Jr. on “For Ma‘ike — Aloha Mai Ka Pu‘uwai,” an album honoring the legacy of his wife, kumu hula Ma‘ike Aiu Lake, and guided the career of his namesake group, the Kahauanu Lake Singers.

Lake was an accomplished songwriter who often wrote to honor friends and family members. One of his most popular compositions, “Pua Lililehua,” was co-written with Mary Kawena Pukui for his beloved wife.

“Most the kids now don’t know who Kahauanu Lake is but if you mention a song like ‘Pua Lililehua’ they know the song,” Kawai‘ae‘a said.

Lake’s contributions to Hawaiian music included his successful campaign while a board member of the Hawai‘i Academy of Record Arts to restrict voting in the Hawaiian language categories to people who speak the language rather than the membership at large.

He received the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, and was Ka Himeni Ana’s honoree in 1997.

Lake subsequently founded the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and Museum with the intent of creating an awards program exclusively for Hawaiian music and not restricted to recording artists. He was one of the first living inductees (following Irmgard Farden Aluli and Genoa Keawe), reluctantly accepting the honor in 2004.
Lake is survived by his hanai children Gordon (Janice) Umi Kai, Walter Kawai‘ae‘a, Luana Kawai‘ae‘a, and Michael Pili Pang, his sister Nani Chang and cousin Keola Lake.

Funeral plans are pending.

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Pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser to read the full obituary.

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  • Anonymous

    My ex-wife was in Maiki Aiu’s halau in the early 1970s. Maiki was also very strict. The ladies spent all week between classes studying the kauna for each new hula they were learning.The meaning was the point of the hula.

  • Hiilanimc

    God Bless you Uncle and our Ohana… Our aloha and thoughts are with you all from the McShane & Reis Ohana to all of you!!

  • Nohealani

    Dearest Uncle, you wrote my favorite mele Pua Lililehua, it makes me cry with joy and I am honored everytime I dance it. God bless you! Pamela Nohealani Focht