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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Benny Rietveld

 

Benny Rietveld’s first experience playing music was at the age of six, in the piano department at Gem’s in Kapalama. “I liked the idea that you could press something, and it creates this…cool sound,” Rietveld remembers. He was mentored by band director Henry Miyamura at McKinley High School, and played in local jazz and rock bands before moving to San Francisco and touring with Sheila E. and Miles Davis. Today, Benny Rietveld plays bass for Carlos Santana, and still sits in with the Hawai‘i musicians he grew up with.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Oct. 18 at 4:00 pm.

 

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Transcript

 

Do you think music is more than just fun?

 

Totally; yeah. Music is powerful, music is magic. It allows us to do so many things invisibly. You can put it in the background, you can have it in the foreground, you can stop, start. You know, it’s always there, and it helps you celebrate things, it helps you mourn. It drives people to battle, you get married and you can create babies with it. It transports you, it reminds you of things in your life, just hearing something. Like, oh, my god, you know.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s an incredibly powerful force, and it can actually change people’s lives, you know. And that’s why I think musicians have a really big responsibility to just keep on point, keep being mindful, keep getting better, showing up. Because it’s a really powerful thing.

 

Benny Rietveld, who still calls Hawai‘i home, is the bassist and music director for Santana, a band he first heard when he was a young boy growing up in Honolulu. He’s been recording and touring with Santana since the 1990s, and he’s also known locally as a member of Topaz, a jazz fusion band that he and his high school friends had in the 1970s. Benny Rietveld, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Benny Rietveld has recorded three albums with the iconic Latin rock band Santana, including Supernatural which became a worldwide sensation when it was released in 1999. Rietveld was born in Holland to parents of Dutch, French, and Indonesian ancestry. They moved their family to Hawai‘i when Benny was three. He grew up in Honolulu, where he started showing musical talent at a young age.

 

I took piano lessons when I was six.

 

Why did you take piano when you were six? Now, that’s early. How did that happen?

 

Remember Gem Store on—well, I don’t know …

 

Kapalama?

 

Yeah; in Kapalama. Yeah. Well, we used to live in Kalihi, and so we’d go through there, and it was always the piano section, and I was always plinking on the piano, you know. And my mom thought, Oh, he’s musical. You know how kids, you know, they hit a hammer, and it’s like, Oh, he’s gonna be a carpenter when he grows up.

 

But were you plunking better than most kids, do you think?

 

I don’t think so. I just liked it. I liked the idea that you could press something, and it creates this cool sound. I think. That’s how I remember it. And then, so we got like a little piano, upright piano, and she gave me lessons at Palama Settlement. And I think the first teacher was named Mrs. Leong. I think. But I didn’t really like ‘em. And I was like, Oh, really? You know, really like boring music, and River keep on rolling. You know. I just didn’t get it. And then, when was ten, we still had the piano in the, you know, attracting dust. And then, the song Hey Jude came out from the Beatles, and it had that cool piano intro. I was like, wow, that’s cool. I was like, wow. And then, oh, it’s sort of like that instrument that’s in our living room. So, I was like, huh. And it was really easy for me, and it was really fun. So, I thought, well, this is great, I’m gonna keep doing this. You know.

 

Then you learned other songs.

 

And then, I learned the entire Beatles catalog, practically.

 

By yourself, or with a teacher?

 

No, no; by myself. Yeah. You know, then I was hooked. And it was like, this is fun, I don’t want to do anything else. And I was just on my way. And then, I met my cousin, the guitar player in Topaz, or calabash cousin, actually, Fred Schreuders. And he was slightly older than me, but he was already playing music. He was, you know, playing guitar, and his dad also played music. So, I was like, wow, cool. And we met, and we jammed, you know, tried to play songs together.

 

You were on the piano?

 

Yeah; and then, I branched out to drums, and then a little bit of bass. And then we started, you know, playing. Hey, let’s do a band, you know. And so, yeah, we put together a band. So, when I was about twelve, I was playing in these dances at, you know, Star of the Sea.

 

And that was kind of the beginning of that. So, you know, I met the guitar player for Topaz way back then.

 

You were just picking it up as you went.

 

Yeah; yeah. ‘Cause it was easy.

 

And you were playing for high school dances at age twelve, or middle school dances?

 

Yes; yeah. My parents were really worried. ‘Cause there were some situations where sometimes we’d play a party, and and more like a high school kids’ party. And so, there may have been some illicit drugs.

 

And it was nighttime.

 

And it was nighttime.

 

Driving.

 

Yeah. So, my parents, you know, lost a lot of hair.

 

And you gave them reason to.

 

A little bit. But, you know, I wasn’t that wild.

 

And where were you on instruments? ‘Cause right now, you’re a confirmed bassist.

 

Yeah.

 

How did you pick the bass, or did the bass pick you?

 

Well, yeah. This is the joke. Usually, the bass picks you. It’s usually because you don’t know anyone else who plays the bass. So, you’re like, oh, you play the bass. So, what happened to me was, I was playing drums in this little dance band, and our bass player left. So, we didn’t know any other musicians, but we knew one drummer. So, it was like, well, what do we do? You know, so we’ll just get him, and you play bass. So, that’s how it happened. But I kept playing guitar with Joe the Fiddler, because, you know, it worked better for chords and stuff, and I kept up on piano playing. You know, I just like always was interested in all of that stuff. But you know, I started getting kinda good on the bass, which is easy to do.  Yeah; so that was that. It just happens like that, you know.

 

What schools did you go to?

 

I lived in town mostly, and I went to McKinley High School.

 

You had a band director who is legendary.

 

Yes, legendary; Henry Miyamura. He’s like one of the big musical mentors of my life, and of Noel’s life, and of Allen Won’s life, too, the other guys from Topaz. He was … amazing. He was like that Mr. Holland guy. I mean, just deeply, deeply committed to the real essence of music performance, which goes beyond, you know, the notes and stuff, but the actual conveyance of the emotion or of the story, or of the tragedy or comedy, or whatever. And to get a bunch of high school kids, half of them who weren’t really gonna go into music anyway, or most of them, and get them to sound as good as he got those bands to sound was really a remarkable feat.

 

How do you think he did it?

 

I think he really loved music, and he loved people. He knew how important it was, you know, even if we didn’t. You know, we were kids then. He knew.

 

While Benny Rietveld was busy playing music through high school, his parents were thinking about his future. They didn’t consider music to be a suitable career path. But Benny was already doing what he loved, and it wasn’t long before his talents took him from the local venues in Hawai‘i to a larger stage.

 

Did you decide consciously, I’m going to be a musician as a livelihood?

 

I don’t think so. The only time it was a conscious thought was like as, you know, graduation from high school was imminent. Then my parents were like, So, you know, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna go to trade school? You should go to trade school, because you know, you learn a trade and make a lot of money. I guess they didn’t see me as the scholarly type, which I wasn’t.  And I said, Oh, I’m just gonna play music. I just assumed I was.

 

Were you already getting paid to play?

 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Just like, well, I don’t know. You know, I just thought I was gonna be a musician. And they went, What? No, you can’t. And they were very upset for a little while, only because, you know, they just saw their child being an intravenous drug user and being in the gutter, and you know, whatever. So yeah, I totally get why they freaked out. But then after a while, they thought, Well, he seems to be doing okay, and he’s playing, you know.

 

And you went to college right after that, here.

 

Not right after, but yeah, I did.

 

Oh; so you graduated from high school.

 

Graduated from high school. I was living on my own. I think for about a year, I was living on my own, then I got a scholarship for UH, through Mr. Miyamoto, who suggested I do that. So, he championed me as far as getting a scholarship.

 

And didn’t graduate.

 

No.

 

Because?

 

‘Cause I was also playing music, and then I got a road touring gig with The Crusaders. It was very short. But with all my other gigs in Hawai‘i, and then going off to the mainland for a little bit, just like I lost the whole momentum.

 

How did you make the transition from having lived almost all of your life in Hawai‘i, to the mainland, to the continent?

 

With scarves and heavy sweaters. Basically, that’s how I made the transition. I went to San Francisco first.

 

And that was, I’m going to go try my luck in the San Francisco Bay Area?

 

Well, because I had a friend there already. And he said, You gotta come here, there’s a lot of good music there. And there was, at the time. Lots of great musicians there.

 

You played with some biggies, fairly early on.

 

No. I mean, I don’t know. Pete Escovedo, you know, I learned a lot from him. Ray Obiedo, you know, he used to play with Herbie Hancock and really good songwriter. And a lot of really great local San Francisco Bay Area musicians.

 

When was the first time you played with someone that you went, Whoa, I’m with so-and-so, I’m intimidated?

 

Well, sort of like Sheila E, because her producer was Prince. So, he’d be around, and I’m like, Whoa, you know, ooh. You know. That was my sort of introduction to the high end pop world.

 

And you went on tour with Sheila E, didn’t you?

 

Yes, yes; for about two years.

 

How did you get along with Prince?

 

He was like kind of a mysterious background guy. So, he didn’t talk much to us, but he seemed okay, you know. But he kinda kept more to Sheila and, you know, just sort of like that.

 

Now, did that tour lead to anything?

 

Then I was playing around the Bay Area for a while, and then, I guess Miles Davis was looking for a bass player, and he kinda wanted that sort of Prince-influenced sound. Then we rehearsed, and I met Miles, and it was crazy. And I think I was too much in shock to be actually intimidated, tell you the truth. It was only until I think a year later, I was on the stage, and I was like, Holy crap, that’s Miles Davis. You know, and then I had that moment. But I think, you know, your body blesses you with the gift of shock, so you’re just, you know, immune.

 

And how was it? You know, you have to feel each other in music, you have to work together. How did that go?

 

It went fabulously. You know, he would, you know, give direction while we’re playing, and sometimes before the shows we’d talk about let’s do this part a little faster, or let’s do this kinda rhythm and, you know. And we would keep trying, and so really, back then it was like a laboratory, you know. Because we would do the same song, and it would just evolve. It was like a petri dish. I mean, the songs would evolve so that if you hear the same song two years apart, they’re almost radically different. You know, the tempo is like way slower or faster, and this part is really loud, you know. It was really, really interesting, and it just demanded that you focus a hundred percent on him and the music all the time. You know. That was the big deal.

 

You had to be really mindful.

 

Yeah; like mindful to an incredible degree, because if you weren’t, then then he’d know, you know, and then those eyes would, you know, turn. You know, zzzz, laser, laser. So yeah, you really had to have presence of mind.

 

So, you had a real sense of what he wanted, who he wanted—

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

–how he wanted.

 

Yeah, yeah. And yet, there was that … still, the challenge was to inject yourself in that, within that framework, you know.

 

And he expected you to.

 

Yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah. And so, that was really intimidating, ‘cause I felt like I wasn’t really mature enough as a musician to inject a lot of myself. I don’t know, maybe I did. I don’t know.  That was another coming of age thing, because I had to, I think, almost completely relearn music. You know, really music and bass playing, and the ethos of what it means to be a bass player and what it means to be a musician.

 

Why?

 

Well, because I hadn’t learned all these really basic fundamental things well enough, you know.

 

So, you were good enough to get in the band.

 

Yeah.

 

And once you were there, you had to up your game.

 

Yeah; yeah, yeah. It was like raw talent is one thing, but to really like hone it is another thing.

 

After two and a half years playing with Miles Davis, Benny Rietveld moved on. Two months later, he met Carlos Santana.

 

Coincidentally, I did a recording session with Carlos Santana.

 

You sound so casual when you say that.

 

Well, no. I mean, because it just happened, you know. It was somebody else’s session, and we met. And that was another intimidating moment, ‘cause it was Carlos Santana, and I grew up looking at that album cover, you know, and all that stuff, listening to all those albums over and over again. And he said, Yeah, you know, I might need another bass player, and you know. Luckily, we lived both in the Bay Area, so I called him and I said, Yeah, I would love to play. Are you kidding? You know. So that’s how that happened.

 

Aren’t you the musical director as well now?

 

Yes. I don’t know, I’m not really the musical director so much as like traffic cop. You know, ‘cause I consider Carlos actually is the musical director, ‘cause he’s very hands-on and he has an uncanny ability to know what he wants. It’s more about during the show itself, when he calls an audible, which he does every time, then I just help direct traffic. Okay, we’re going here now, instead of, you know, how we rehearsed it.

 

How much of the year do you go on tours?

 

With Santana, it’s roughly four to five months out of the year. But it’s broken up. You do get burnt out, you know, no matter what you do. And it’s always gotta be really, really high level, energy, fun. And the minute it’s a little bit below that, then we’re not doing it.

 

Do you ever get sick of being asked to play a song you love, but you’ve heard it and you’ve sung it … Black Magic Woman, so many times before?

 

No; love it. It’s great. I don’t care about all the other times I’ve played it. It’s like, oh, wow, this is the first time I’m playing it. You know. That’s special, and we have to convey that to people every time. That’s the hard part. That’s the higher level stuff. Not playing the music; the notes are like whatever, you know. That’s like hammering a nail; okay? But it’s how to get into that thing, and it sounds so, fluffy and goofy, you know. But that is, to me, the higher level of music.

 

Did working with Santana when you started require a different sensibility than working with Miles Davis? Did you have to shift in any way?

 

Only superficially, actually, with the style of music, the genre, you know. Because it’s more rock-oriented, Latin, which we hardly ever did in Miles’ thing. But in essence, it was actually very similar, because they both demanded passion and fire, and presence of mind, like all the time. And not being afraid, you know. I think that’s another thing. You cannot have any fear.

 

Is there a way to describe how they work musically, and how you work with them musically?

 

With both of those guys, it was about trying to … articulate the in-articulable.  That’s the weird part about music, is that like underneath the hood, underneath all the technique and theory, and all the numbers, which are all useful, underneath it all, I like to say the last thing that music is about is music. You know.  It’s really about feeling and life. And it sounds so, you know … fluffy. You know, like, Oh, it’s feelings. You know. But all the major guys hardly ever talk about nuts and bolts of music, you know. The jazz guys, a little bit more, because it’s more their realm, you know. But all those guys share the predilection for using aphorisms to describe music. It should sound like, you know, red wine streaming through. You know, something like that. And sometimes, it just sounds so bonkers, you know, to the uninitiated. But then, you realize it’s just a personal lexicon and a cosmology. And actually, now that I’ve known Carlos for a while, it makes complete sense, you know. Now when he says something, you know, like really poetic, I’m actually kinda knowing what it means in dry, boring music terms. Sometimes Miles would say—an actual musical thing would be like, Give that part a little lift. Instead of, you know, doong, doong, doong, doong; maybe like doong, ka-doong, ka-doong, ka-doong, doong, ka-doong. You know, all these little things between. I think everyone knows that deep down inside, it’s really silly to talk about music, because it’s the most abstract of all art forms, you know. But we try, anyway. We have to, sometimes. You know, we’re trying to convey what we want, you know.

 

Although Benny Rietveld lives in L.A. when he isn’t touring with Santana, he likes to come to the place he calls home: Hawai‘i. In 2014, he and some of his former bandmates from Topaz reunited for a show.

 

What brings you back to perform with your old high school buddies?

 

Love of music, and love of them. You know. We’ve kept in contact all this time.

 

And tell me what the names are. Who’s your gang?

 

The gang is Noel Okimoto on drums, Allen Won on the saxophones, Fred Schreuders on guitar, and Carl Wakeland on keyboards.

 

That’s a pretty amazing group from McKinley High School, isn’t it?

 

Yeah. Well, me and Allen, and Noel are from McKinley. Carl is from Mililani. Fred ended up graduating from Kaiser High School. We got kind of popular because we were this bunch of high school kids that could play this kind of difficult and technical music known at the time as fusion. And we loved jazz and all that. So, there weren’t many eighteen-year-olds playing that at the time in Hawai‘i. So you know, we got a kind of rep, and we were the little darlings there for a while, and we even played at La Mancha for two weeks. We disbanded ‘cause we all had stuff, and we were doing our lives. And Noel stayed here, so he’d play. And his late dad, unfortunately, George Okimoto, would go to his gigs all the time. And George actually managed us back then, because he was the manager of Easy Music Center, you know, by McCully. And so he was like, You know, you kids really got something. And he got us equipment to use, you know, cool new gear. So he was like our manager, and really championed us. Cut to couple of years ago. We’re at Gordon Biersch, I’m visiting, and I see Noel, and like you know, listening to him, Byron Yasui and all these great local guys. And there was Noel’s dad, George Okimoto, and he goes, Eh, hurry up, you know, get a reunion. And it was like, actually very bittersweet because he actually made a joke. He was like, Eh, hurry up, before I die.  And what I got from that was like, he wasn’t really joking around. He was like, you know, everyone is about to move on here, and you guys should do something, ‘cause it was really special. So, we did a show last year. It was really, really fun. So, this year again, earlier in the year, we recorded a CD. But you know, we all have these other crazy lives, and we’re not gonna like, Yeah, let’s have a band and tour together. That’s not gonna happen.

 

Did you ever conceive, did you ever think in your young life, that you would be in your fifties, and it’s a tour, it’s concerts and crowds, and music, and vans?

 

I had no idea. Who really knows what their thing is, you know.

 

And how long do you see that going on?

 

Playing music, being involved in music for me will go on until either I die, or I find suddenly that I don’t like it. You know. I don’t really see the latter happening.

 

Benny Rietveld has not stopped having fun playing music since figuring out how to play Hey Jude on the piano at age ten. Along with his raw talent, his dedication to his craft, his ability to work with people, his fearlessness and his determination took him to a world stage. Mahalo to Benny Rietveld, a proud graduate of McKinley High School in Honolulu, and longtime bassist for Santana. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawai‘i.org.

 

[END]

 

A CHEF’S LIFE
A Road Trip for Rice

 

Vivian travels to Columbia, South Carolina, to meet with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and learns about Carolina heirloom rice growing in fields on the Savannah River. Glenn explains Anson Mills’ efforts to save heirloom grains and discusses the importance of ingredient biodiversity. Glenn’s passion inspires Vivian to host a “rice dinner” at Chef & the Farmer, where each course centers on this grain. Scarlett, Vivian’s mom, schools her daughter on how to make the chicken and rice she grew up eating.

 

A CHEF’S LIFE
Love Me Some Candied Yams

 

Vivian introduces us to Rob and Amy Hill, proprietors of one of the largest sweet potato farms in the country and two of the restaurant’s best customers. Vivian and her mom, Scarlett, make her grandmother’s candied yams and Vivian later re-imagines these for the restaurant with texture, sorghum and pecans. Mother Earth Brewery and Chef and the Farmer team up for a beer dinner featuring first of the season Sweet Potatoes.

 

A CHEF’S LIFE
Muscadine Time

 

Ben, Vivian and the twins pick muscadine grapes at a small local vineyard while learning the history of this native grape. Vivian visits Mike and Gator, her grape suppliers, and makes homemade wine. Back at the restaurant, Vivian makes a pizza with mulled muscadines.

 

HIKI NŌ
Episode #818

 

TOP STORY
Students from Kaua‘i High School in Lihu‘e introduce a new story genre to HIKI NŌ: the Personal Essay. In her essay “The Fact of You,” Kaua‘i High School student Haven Luper-Jasso explores the nature of truth. It opens with her thoughts on the matter: “The word FACT can be defined as a true piece of information. And in our day and age where information and messages are bombarding us from every angle every second of the day, that’s all we really want in life: truth.”

 

She goes on to explore not just the nature of factual truth, but also the truth within one’s own self: “Your life is the greatest masterpiece you will ever produce…Let it be genuine, true to who you are. Because that is who you were created to be. And that is a fact I can guarantee with a hundred percent certainty.”

 

ALSO FEATURED:

 

–Students from Waipahu High School on O‘ahu explore the mysterious origins of their studentbody-wide cheering tradition known as the Arthur Awards.

 

–Students from Ewa Makai Middle School on O‘ahu uncover the caring person behind the tough façade of their vice principal.

 

–Students from Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kaua‘i tell the story of Team Unify, a non-profit organization that helps students without disabilities bond with students who have disabilities.

 

–Students from Sacred Hearts Academy on O‘ahu introduce us to two local fashion designers who give younger, up-and-coming designers hands-on experience in the fashion business.

 

–Ka‘ala Elementary School on O‘ahu makes its HIKI NŌ debut with a video primer on aquaponics. (Ka‘ala Elementary School is only the second elementary school to produce for HIKI NŌ. The first was Kainalu Elementary School in windward O‘ahu.)

 

This program encores Saturday, April 8, at 12:00 pm. You can also view HIKI NŌ episodes on our website, www.pbshawaii.org/hikino.

 

A CHEF’S LIFE
The World is Your Oyster

 

A Chef’s Life is a documentary and cooking series that takes viewers inside the life of Chef Vivian Howard, who, with her husband Ben Knight, returned home to open a fine dining restaurant in small-town Eastern North Carolina. Each episode follows Vivian out of the kitchen and into cornfields, strawberry patches and hog farms as she hunts down the ingredients that inspire her menus. Using a chef’s modern sensibilities, Vivian explores Southern cuisine, past and present – one ingredient at a time. A celebration of true farm-to-table food, the series combines the action and drama of a high-pressure business with the joys and stresses of family life.

 

The World is Your Oyster
Chef Vivian goes to Cedar Island to explore the new culture of farm-raised oysters in the Southeast. She and Ben share plans of opening an oyster bar across the street from The Chef & the Farmer in hopes it will be a place that adds character and variety to the town’s “dining scene.” Vivian and her dad orchestrate their family’s first-ever oyster roast.

 

Changing Season:
On the Masumoto Family Farm

 

Review a transitional year in the life of farmer, slow food advocate and sansei David “Mas” Masumoto, and his relationship with his daughter Nikiko, who returns to the family farm with the intention of stepping into her father’s work boots.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Sam Kamaka Jr. and Fred Kamaka Sr.

 

Meet second-generation owners of Kamaka Hawaii, Sam and Fred Kamaka. Now celebrating 100 years in business, Kamaka Hawaii has been the ‘ukulele crafter of choice for artists around the world.

 

From a young age, Sam and Fred, now 94 and 92 years old, walked the halls of their father’s ‘ukulele factory. However, that the brothers would inherit the family business was far from certain. After witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor, then being drafted to serve during World War II, the two brothers pursued their own education and career paths, taking them far from Hawai‘i and the ‘ukulele factory.

 

Life changed directions overnight for Sam, joined later by his brother, and the two have dutifully worked to perfect their craft and “take care of the customer,” as their father used to say. Now, having passed the torch to their own sons, the brothers reflect on their journey.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, May 3, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, May 7, at 4:00 pm.

 

Sam Kamaka Jr. and Fred Kamaka Sr. Audio

 

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Transcript

 

SAM:   [UKULELE] My dog has fleas.

 

FRED:  The sound is still there.

 

SAM:   [CHUCKLE]

 

FRED:  The dog with fleas.

 

Four simple strings playing a ditty we all grew up with. Many players and fans of the ukulele find happiness through this small instrument. Two brothers, whose name is synonymous with quality ukulele have also found happiness by continuing their father’s legacy, and staying close to each other and their families. Samuel Kamaka, Jr. and Frederick Kamaka, Sr., coming up on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro once said: There’s something about the ukulele that just makes you smile; it brings out the child in all of us. You can still see the child in two brothers in their nineties, Sam Kamaka and Fred Kamaka. They took over the ukulele business from their father, Samuel Kamaka, Sr. They remember a childhood of family and fun, and always, the music of the ukulele.

 

Sam, what’s your earliest memory of life? Where were you, what were you doing?

 

SAM:   My earliest … memory of life was playing on the streets in Kaimuki with our neighbor boys on Elizabeth Avenue. My families lived there early in the 20s, and they used to have kalua pig in those days, and the area had parties.

 

FRED:  Most of us lived together with musicians and family members. It’s only about two square blocks, and we all played together, and so, we grew up to know all our cousins.

 

How did it happen that musicians were living at the same place a family of ukulele makers were living? How did that happen?

 

FRED:  I don’t know, but when we were born, this is where we lived.

 

And then, I noticed you moved in 1929, which was the time when the Depression hit. You moved from Kaimuki. How come?

 

FRED:  I think Papa was interested in—he was always interested in floriculture and other things, because he grew up on Maui, and he wanted to get somewhere away from the crowdedness of the Kaimuki.

 

SAM:   Kaimuki.

 

SAM:   So, we bought the land in Kaneohe. It was two and … two acres, at least.

 

And you’re still there; right?

 

SAM:   We’re still there.

 

FRED:  Right.

 

And the street name is Halekou.

 

SAM:   Halekou.

 

And it was created from Halekou bushes.

 

SAM:   Yeah.

 

How interesting.

 

SAM:   We had a dairy down below, and I remember going there to milk cows in the morning just to learn something.

 

Did you like that as much as Kaimuki as little kids? More chores.

 

SAM:   It was different.

 

FRED:  Yeah. There was a big difference, of course. We have to say, we had a couple horses. And in the afternoons, see, with the dairies, the cattle were grazing at the base of the pali. It was all graze. And as kids, at about, what, four o’clock in the afternoon, we have to round up the cattle, get ‘em moving.

 

SAM:   They all came home. Over their—

 

FRED:  They all knew where they were supposed to go.

 

SAM:   –special trail. Had a special trail, and they all come back.

 

FRED:  You got just ‘em started, and they get to a certain fencepost, and all the ones for this dairy would—they all knew exactly which dairy they belonged to. Whether it was to Texeira Dairies, the Moniz Dairy, or the Souza’s Dairy.

 

Amazing how many dairies there used to be.

 

FRED:  Oh, yeah. It was all agriculture on that side of the island. It’s all changed. It’s all wall-to-wall houses now.

 

Sam Kamaka and Fred Kamaka watched as their father, Samuel Kamaka, Sr., grew flowers, and grew a business making ukulele. Whether he was tinkering with the sound of his ukulele, or growing beautiful Bird of Paradise flowers, Sam, Sr. was an innovator and a perfectionist. He developed an ukulele with a larger, rounder body, which became his iconic Kamaka Pineapple ukulele. He found ways to keep his business alive during the Depression, and he introduced his sons, Sam and Fred, to the family business.

 

FRED:  So, my father, he did a lot of things. And we wished he would stick to one thing, but you know, he kept us going for different things. On the weekends, we had to go with him to Waianae, or we had to stay in Kaneohe to get this thing fixed up.

 

SAM:   Every morning, our front yard was filled with the Bird of Paradise, the orange ones. And our station wagon going in to school would be loaded with flowers, and he’d have to deliver it at Fort Street. And another place was the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, he would take the flowers.

 

I heard that your dad had you start working in the factory at a very young age; elementary school age.

 

FRED:  Well, the thing about it is, when we moved to Kaneohe, Sam was in school, and my mother was teaching at Liholiho School on Maunaloa and 9th Avenue. It was called Cummings School at the time, and then became Liholiho later on. And Sam was attending school. When we moved to Kaneohe, I was only four years of age, and they weren’t going to leave me at home to burn the house down, a brand new house. So, I had to go with my father to work. And I got interested because the factory was being run like the Industrial Revolution, with a central shaft with belts going to this. And I got interested in wanting to do that. But my father would never let me touch, because you could really damage your hands or—

 

SAM:   You could lose a finger.

 

FRED:  –cut off fingers, like Sam said. And I had one of the workmen, he said, But you don’t tell your father, and he showed me how to do it. And he told me, if you put it on, if it grabs, don’t hold onto the sticks. You let it go immediately, because it’ll pull you into the machine. But I learned to do it. And then, my father finally found me putting it on, and he said, Well, make sure you do it safely.

 

What about you, Sam? What did you like to do in the factory?

 

SAM:   You know, I didn’t do too much. I was up front, or upstairs rolling strings, being safe.

 

Oh, so you weren’t engaged, really, at all in the factory at an early age.

 

SAM:   No, no; not that much.

 

And your mother passed away at a young age; thirty-six.

 

FRED:  Our mother, besides being a schoolteacher, was a kumu, hula teacher. She died from cancer. She died actually, three days after my birthday. My birthday’s on the 16th of September, and she died the 19th of September, 1936.

 

SAM:   Before she left, I remember her calling me into her bedroom, and telling me to keep the ukulele factory.

 

Another vivid memory both Sam Kamaka and Fred Kamaka witnessed, the bombing of Pearl Harbor; Fred as a student at the Kamehameha Schools, and Sam as a worker at Honolulu Harbor. Before Sam and Fred started working fulltime in the family business, they pursued careers outside of the ukulele factory. Sam, at the behest of his father, went to school in the Pacific Northwest to study entomology. Fred attended college with the idea of joining the FBI. And while their pasts had nothing to do with the ukulele, their father certainly continued to influence their lives.

 

You both had serious lives away from the factory when you went to school.

 

SAM:   Uh-huh.

 

I mean, you did become an entomologist; you studied for it at a high level.

 

SAM:   My dad sent me off to Washington State to study.

 

Bugs.

 

SAM:   Because around us, we had so many families with animals.

 

And you were on your way to a doctorate.

 

SAM:   Yes. That was with the study of the insecticide; it’s the translocation through its sap called phosphoramide.

 

And meanwhile, your brother was interested in a very different kind of instrument—guns.

 

FRED:  Right. Well, when we grew up, see, my father actually, he had guns because he had served in the National Guard. And because I got really interested in it, I joined the rifle team in high school at St. Louis at first, and then at Kamehameha. I remember once the war started, he told my brother and I; he said, If the government ever calls you to serve, I want you to go. I don’t want you reneging, so to speak. And he was proud of us when we got drafted, that we went in the service. He said, Do for your country.

 

And for you, Fred, it became a career.

 

FRED:  Yeah.

 

Before your ukulele career.

 

FRED:  Yeah; he was happy that when he died, I was a first lieutenant, by then.

 

And you became a lieutenant colonel. And meanwhile, you were going to become a scientist because of your early training getting rid of the bugs in the greenhouse in Kaneohe.

 

SAM:   Right. When I was drafted, I sent to Guadalcanal because of my operating skills at the pier. So, we did only two years, but we had to clean with local boys. I can’t remember all of them, but we cleaned out the forest and everything. Went on to this big tanker and they all disappeared out in the ocean someplace.

 

In so many family businesses in Hawaii, the children are encouraged to pursue higher education and professions that their parents could never have for themselves, resulting in mom and pop businesses reaching a dead-end. For Sam Kamaka and Fred Kamaka, there was no question they would uphold the Kamaka family business, if they were needed.

 

Your father’s impact on you is really clear in your growing up days.

 

FRED:    Yeah. He was a good businessman. And when he died, the business, you know, there was money available in the only two banks in Honolulu to run the business, and he was able to do that.

 

SAM:   Yeah; you were still in Korea then.

 

FRED:  Yeah. He had the factory. It was still there, but he had released his workers six months, because a he didn’t know whether we would take it over. But he had kept the business as Kamaka & Sons. And we stayed Kamaka & Sons until ’68, when we turned it to Kamaka Hawaii.

 

So, Sam was the first to come back and take the reins.

 

SAM:   In ’53, I was called home because my dad was dying from cancer. And the night he passed away … on his bed, he asked me to call Father Benito. And right away, I knew what was going to happen. So, Father Benito knew what was going to happen too, so Father Benito brought in a communion. As soon the communion touched my dad’s lips, he closed his eyes and passed away. Then from then on, it was my job … to restore the ukulele factory.

 

And you hadn’t had the hands-on with him.

 

SAM:   No.

 

You were off doing other things. And so, how did you find out the intricacies and the ins and outs?

 

SAM:   Well, the first thing I did was, go down to the Ala Moana area and checked with two ukulele makers. They were two gentlemen that were making ukuleles. One was Ah Tau Kam and another one. And a lot of it was being done by hand, and then they referred me to the Kumalae boys. And I checked their equipment. They went, You want to make ukuleles? They kinda semi-retired their business. And then, I met this fellow, George Gilmore. He was a guitar maker. I learned a lot from him, and reviewing my dad’s old ukuleles. That was the beginning of what I had to do.

 

Excavation and research.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, at what point did Fred come back into the picture?

 

SAM:   When he came back, he was an officer at the …

 

FRED:  [INDISTINCT]

 

SAM:   You were at that base in Waikiki.

 

DeRussy?

 

SAM:   Yeah, Fort DeRussy.

 

You had twenty years in. Were you planning on retiring?

 

FRED:  Right; I had twenty years and traveled all over, saw Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam. And I knew I would always come home, and Sam knew that I would eventually. So, when I did come home, we just had turned the company into Kamaka, Incorporated. The first couple years was tough, because we had we had quit making ukuleles in Japan, and this meant that we had to re-do how we did things. And we renovated in the first year. It was during the renovation of the back to make it more workable. After the Olympics in Japan, they went crazy for Hawaiian things. For instance, like now, they have more hula halaus in Japan than they have in Hawaii. And they were crazy for the instruments. But now, of course, they’re all making instruments around the world. But our product was the one name that they remembered from all the years. Our name is similar to a Japanese name, Kamaka versus Tanaka. So, the relationship is there; they always remember us. And some people have come into the shop and said, Are you Japanese? I said, No, we’re Hawaiian.

 

FRED:  It was a simple instrument. From the beginning, it became the most popular instrument to be made and played in Hawaii. The hotbed of ukulele making and playing has always been, from the beginning, Hawaii. This machine, computerized, will take five of these, come up with the neck I showed in the front; five in one hour. Now, once this is done, you put the body together; next station. We’ll go up there now. Come in.

 

FRED:  Now, this is the hardest part for me when I grew up. Right here. We take the tape off, put a light coat of Danish oil. We put the bridge on, label. Okay.

 

That’s Fred Kamaka conducting the Kamaka Hawaii factory tour in September of 2016, just after his ninety-second birthday. While his older brother Sam doesn’t visit the shop as much as he used to, Fred continues to tell the story of Kamaka Ukulele. When the brothers were still both working at the shop, they would ride together to and from work at the Kamaka Ukulele factory. From their childhood growing up in Kaimuki and Kaneohe, through their time upholding the standards that their father established, Sam and Fred have stayed close and supported one another, both as brothers and as business partners.

 

You know, let’s talk about your relationship. You’re about three years apart?

 

SAM:   Two.

 

FRED:  Little over two years.

 

SAM:   Two years; yeah.

 

You know, when boys, any children are about two years apart, they tend to knock heads; right? Or they can be close, but there’s also a lot of friction. In your case?

 

FRED:  No, we … well, of course, as little kids, we probably …

 

FRED:  You know, we played sports together.

 

SAM:   Yeah

 

FRED:  No; but we kinda backed each other up when things got rough. I remember he coming to my rescue for quite a number of times when I got into trouble.

 

What kind of trouble?

 

FRED:  Well, you know …

 

SAM:   He wasn’t a real good surfer, and a swimmer. And I loved it, ‘cause I built surfboards at the shop.

 

FRED:  Well, see, I got teased a lot. I got teased a lot because of my middle name, Ku. And if you take Portuguese meaning of Ku, means cu-zing.

 

Yes.

 

And yet, Ku is such a proud Hawaiian name.

 

FRED:  It is, you know.

 

God of war.

 

FRED:  God of war, plus the overall god, Ku.

 

But you’re right. It was a Portuguese word for the rear end.

 

FRED:  Right. So, uh, but that’s not the way they treated my name. And I would get into fights.   Don’t tease me.

 

And Big Brother would come calling?

 

FRED:  Oh, he would have to come and rescue me. Yeah.

 

Have you ever had an argument? I mean, you must have had arguments. I mean, I know, you saved him as his big brother, but …

 

SAM:   I can’t remember an argument.

 

Is that right?

 

SAM:   Yeah.

 

‘Cause you’re so close in age.

 

SAM:   Yeah.

 

FRED:  No, we …

 

Maybe that’s the secret of life; don’t argue.

 

SAM:   Yeah.

 

FRED:  Now, it’s the old things; don’t make waves.  I remember that terminology. Oh, we’ve had some differences of opinion, but you know, when you ride together in, and you ride home together, you know, you better take care of each other.

 

Your family seems like it’s just been accomplished for a long time.

 

SAM:   Yes.

 

You know, basically working on its business, on its craft, on its happiness.

 

SAM:   Uh-huh.

 

It just seems like, I mean, for an outsider, maybe it’s too good to be true. Could it have been this happy and this blessed?

 

SAM:   We inherited something.

 

FRED:  We’ve been lucky.

 

SAM:   Yeah.

 

FRED: And … we thank the Lord above for keeping us here this long, ‘cause we’ve been able to see what has happened with the company, and what has happened with our family. And we’re very grateful for the one opportunity that we’ve been here this long. We never thought we would actually get here, because our parents died when they were so young. And here we are, thirty years longer than my father. And we’re still here. We’re very grateful to the Lord above uh, the benefit we’ve had.

 

SAM:   It’s amazing; I didn’t expect to be here at ninety-four, ‘cause my parents all went in their fifties, you know. And here I am. So, the ukulele must be a blessing.

 

At the time of this conversation in August of 2016, Kamaka Hawaii was celebrating its 100th year in business, and Sam and Fred were living simple, happy lives. Their sons and grandsons have brought 21st century technology into making Kamaka ukulele, and dedication to excellence and the strong ties of family are still key ingredients in the cheerful tones of every ukulele they make. Mahalo piha to Samuel Kamaka, Jr. and Frederick Kamaka, Sr. of Kaneohe, Oahu for sharing their story with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

When I grow too old to dream, I’ll have you to remember. When I grow too old to dream, your love will live in my heart. So kiss me my sweet, and don’t ever go. So when I grow too old to dream, your love will live in my heart.

 

Wow. Thank you.

 

FRED:  You were supposed to sing in German.

 

[END]

 


A CHEF’S LIFE
Tomatoes… You Say Heirloom, I Say Old Timey

 

A Chef’s Life is a documentary and cooking series that takes viewers inside the life of Chef Vivian Howard, who, with her husband Ben Knight, returned home to open a fine dining restaurant in small-town Eastern North Carolina. Each episode follows Vivian out of the kitchen and into cornfields, strawberry patches and hog farms as she hunts down the ingredients that inspire her menus. Using a chef’s modern sensibilities, Vivian explores Southern cuisine, past and present – one ingredient at a time. A celebration of true farm-to-table food, the series combines the action and drama of a high-pressure business with the joys and stresses of family life.

 

Tomatoes… You Say Heirloom, I Say Old Timey
Mary Vaughn shows Chef Vivian the old-timey way to can tomatoes. Vivian prepares for a Southern Foodways Alliance luncheon at the restaurant where food enthusiasts from around the country are coming to study BBQ, and Vivian plans to serve them the “ultimate tomato sandwich.”

 

A CHEF’S LIFE
Cracklin’ Kitchen

 

A Chef’s Life is a documentary and cooking series that takes viewers inside the life of Chef Vivian Howard, who, with her husband Ben Knight, returned home to open a fine dining restaurant in small-town Eastern North Carolina. Each episode follows Vivian out of the kitchen and into cornfields, strawberry patches and hog farms as she hunts down the ingredients that inspire her menus. Using a chef’s modern sensibilities, Vivian explores Southern cuisine, past and present – one ingredient at a time. A celebration of true farm-to-table food, the series combines the action and drama of a high-pressure business with the joys and stresses of family life.

 

Cracklin’ Kitchen
Vivian goes about christening the restaurant’s new “whole animal, no waste” program with two pigs from Warren Brothers’ farm. She uses everything – including the skin – and, on her father’s recommendation, demonstrates how to make sweet potatoes with cracklins.

 

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