Obituary: Dennis Kamakahi, 1953-2014
BY JOHN BERGER / firstname.lastname@example.org
Fans and fellow musicians are mourning the death of Dennis Kamakahi, a true Hawaiian music icon and one of the islands’ greatest song composers. The Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning composer, recording artist and slack-key virtuoso died Monday, April 28, of lung cancer. He was 61.
Kamakahi’s death was initially announced Monday in a Facebook post by his son and protege, David Kamakahi, and subsequently confirmed by his wife, Robin. Services have not been announced.
“Hawaii has lost one of its greatest sons today,” the Facebook entry read. “Legendary musician & composer, loving husband, father, and grandfather, Dennis David Kamakahi, passed away at the Queen’s Medical Center at 4:30 p.m. After his battle with cancer, he was surrounded by family and close friends, with the background filled with the music of Gabby Pahinui and The Sons of Hawaii. We cried, we prayed, we laughed, we sang for him his many songs that he wrote and also favorites of his own.”
Kamakahi was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer in March while undergoing treatment for pneumonia.
The response from Dennis Kamakahi’s friends and colleagues in the local community was quick and effusive.
Keith Haugen, a friend since the early’ 70s, recalled him as “a great musician, singer and songwriter, but also a man who practiced what he preached. His musical legacy speaks for itself. His personal life will also live on as an example to others.”
Grammy Award-winning record producer George Kahumoku, a fellow master of slack-key, described Kamakahi as “a great friend, and Hawaii’s greatest song composer since Queen Lili’uokalani. He wrote about the simple things in life and was a great observer of nature. He wrote love songs like ‘Pua Hone’ and songs about the hihiwai (fresh water escargot) and opae (river shrimp). He wrote place songs like ‘Koke’e’ and songs about our chiefs, songs about our winds, our waterfalls, like ‘Wahine Ili Kea,’ and those dear to us. He wrote in the real old style, simple catchy tunes that we could keep beat to without feet, and his poetry was such that his words will be remembered for generations yet unborn.”
Milton Lau, founder of the Hawaiian Slack Key Festival and a promoter of Hawaiian slack-key music for more than three decades, said Kamakahi represented “all that was good about Hawaii.”
“His songs reflected his deep appreciation for his homeland and what it meant to be a Native Hawaiian. His lyrics reminds us about all of the beauty that surrounds us each and every day.”
Lau had planned to feature Kamakahi, a perennial festival favorite, in three slack-key festivals on the U.S. East Coast before the musician fell ill. “He was sorely missed on the tours. He’s irreplaceable,” he said.
Harry B. Soria Jr., Hoku Award-winning record producer and liner notes writer, also hailed Kamakahi as “irreplaceable.”
“Dennis Kamakahi was one of our premier Hawaiian storytellers, whose songs will continue to inspire future generations of Hawaii’s people (and) he was always such an uplifting personality to be around,” said Soria, host of the “Territorial Airwaves” radio show since 1979. “I will always treasure the car rides, train rides, plane rides, and meals that I was fortunate enough to share with Dennis. As a captivating weaver of words, Dennis regularly rewarded me with fascinating nuggets of Hawaii’s history. He has left us much too soon, as he no doubt had so much more to share with us.”
Kamakahi’s lifetime achievements and contributions to Hawaiian music include his work as a distinctive vocalist, an “A list” slack-key master, a composer, recording artist, record producer, teacher and mentor to younger artists. The latter include not only his son David but also slack-key guitarist Stephen Inglis. Kamakahi and Inglis won the Hoku Award for slack-key album of the year in 2012.
“I have lost a friend, mentor, kumu, musical partner and hero,” Inglis wrote in a Facebook entry on Tuesday, April 29. “Words cannot express how honored I am to have collaborated on your final recording, Uncle D.”
Kamakahi’s contributions to Hawaiian music include his two decades of work as the youngest and last member of the original Sons of Hawai’i, the albums he recorded for George Winston’s “Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters” series, and his work as the leader of Na ‘Oiwi with his son, David, Mike Kaawa and Jon Yamasato. Kamakahi also contributed as a solo artist to three Grammy Award-winning compilation albums: “Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar” in 2007, “Treasures of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar” in 2008, and “The Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar” in 2010. (When a compilation album wins a Grammy, the award goes to the producers, not the artists.)
Kamakahi has received several Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for his work as a composer, as a member of the group Amy Hanaiali’i and Slack Key Masters of Hawai’i, and for the album with Inglis. He received the Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts’ special Ki Ho’alu Award in 2005 and the Ki Ho’alu Foundation Legacy Award in 2013.
“The Rev. Dennis Kamakahi is truly a legend and icon,” Pali T.K. Ka‘aihue, president of the HARA said via email. “His mele (songs) will be forever celebrated and remembered, and even beyond his many beloved compositions, Dennis was always humble, kind, supportive and truly personified what it means to be pono (righteous).”
Dennis David Kakehilimamaoikalanikeha Kamakahi was born March 31, 1953, in Honolulu. His earliest influence was his grandfather, David Naoo Kamakahi, a native speaker at a time few Hawaiians spoke the language, who encouraged his interest in Hawaiian language and music. He began playing the ukulele at 3 and started studying slack-key guitar at 10. Kamakahi was 16 when he started playing music professionally, dropping out of Leeward Community College in 1972 to play music full time with a group named Na Leo O Nuuanu. He met Eddie Kamae, founder and leader of the Sons of Hawai’i, that same year. Two years later Kamae invited him to join the Sons. It was Kamae and Mary Kawena Pukui who introduced him to the exacting techniques and nuances involved in writing traditional Hawaiian poetry.
Kamakahi was a member of the Sons until Kamae officially disbanded the group 20 years later.
“Dennis was not only a Son of Hawai’i he was like a son in many ways. He will always be a Son of Hawaii,” said Myrna Kamae, Eddie’s wife and business partner, via email. “Amama ua noa (the prayer is finished). Amen, he is free! All of Hawaii will miss Dennis while at the same time his spirit lives on through his beautiful music and the love of his wife Robin and their children. Robin has always stayed close and helped Dennis every step of the way through their journey. David, of course, carries on as a great musician and James and Marlene fill the love that Dennis shared so freely.”
Kamakahi was one of 11 people who were recognized in 2009 when the HARA gave the Sons of Hawai’i a Lifetime Achievement Award. Three members of the Sons of Hawaii — Kamae, Gabby Pahinui and Moe Keale — have received separate Lifetime Achievement Awards for their full career achievements.
Kamakahi’s death hit home with Kale Hannahs, a Hoku Award-winner first as a member of ‘Ale‘a and then with his current group, Waipuna. The group was originally a duo — Hannahs and Matt Sproat — but became a trio with the addition of David Kamakahi. Hannahs and Sproat joined David Kamakahi in playing music for “Uncle Dennis” a few hours before he died.
“We played some of the songs that Uncle Dennis shared with us, recounted stories of David growing up, and days with the Sons of Hawaiʻi,” Hannahs said. “A few hours after we left, Uncle D. peacefully passed, surrounded by his family and Uncle Aaron Mahi listening to Gabby Pahinui.”
“Uncle Dennis Kamakahiʻs reputation as a haku mele (composer), slack-key virtuoso and storyteller was known around the world, not only by lovers of Hawaiian music, but lovers of music in general,” Hannahs continued. “Many of his compositions have are contemporary Hawaiian standards that aspiring musiciansʻ and hula dancers learn as their first songs and are performed on a regular basis around the world.
“Uncle Dennis had a way of calmly commanding the stage and engaging the audience through stories of his life experiences and then memorializing them in his songs. His desire to educate his audiences about the stories behind his mele is what endeared him as a renowned storyteller as well.”
In addition to his wife and son, David, Dennis Kamakahi is survived by a son, James, and a daughter, Marlene, and two grandchildren. The family invites friends and well-wishers to leave messages at David Kamakahi’s Facebook page.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for
more than 40 years. Contact him via email email@example.com.