Let's Make Happy Aloha Music Time
Photos by Ben Simmons
"These days I seem to be meeting more and more Japanese people who appreciate the music of the Islands," says Seiji Omotani, 'uke player for E Komo Mai, one of Japan's busiest Hawaiian music bands.
“Aia i Kona kai ‘opua i ka la‘i …” Hearing the sublime recorded voice of Ledward Ka‘apana floating out over one of Daikanyama’s broad, bustling avenues is a surprise, and it creates a nice frisson of metaphor as well, because Hawaiian music has been in the air in Japan (off and on) for almost exactly a dozen decades now, give or take thirty days.
Masami Saito, the proprietor of Aloha Station in Roppongi, performs her favorite tune, "Waikiki Sweet Memory."
The notable gap, of course, corresponded with the war; steel guitar and banjo (though not ‘ukulele) were outlawed in 1944, along with all “enemy” music, including “Aloha ‘Oe” and sixty other Hawaiian songs. Courageous Japanese continued to play the contraband tunes in secret, and by the early 1950s Hawaiian music was once again blossoming in Japan. Since then its popularity has ebbed and flowed, waxed and waned … and now, thanks to the astonishing enthusiasm for hula and the ‘ukulele, the Hawaiian music movement in Japan is not just thriving, it’s exploding.
“Hawaiian music is alive and well in Japan,” Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning singer-songwriter-musician Weldon Kekauoha mused between sets for a recent sold-out group concert in Tokyo. During the past year alone, Kekauoha played more than forty dates in Japan on seventeen different trips. “Listeners in Japan have a deep respect for Hawaiian culture and a genuine love for all things Hawaiian: hula, music, language, lei-making and on and on,” he said. “There are Hawaiian cafes all over Japan, and they serve as little oases for Hawaiian music devotees.”
Japanese musician Seiji Omotani is the leader of E Komo Mai, one of Japan’s busiest Hawaiian music bands. “These days I seem to be meeting more and more Japanese people who appreciate the music of the Islands,” he says. “Of course, thanks to the hula craze, these days everyone wants to learn to play ‘hula songs’ on the ‘ukulele.” Omotani came to Hawaiian music in the mid-’70s via Chicken Skin Music, Ry Cooder’s seminal collaboration with Gabby Pahinui. Thirty years later, Omotani is a fixture in Tokyo’s Hawaiian music scene, performing with his four-piece, two-‘uke band; giving lessons at Toy’s Music School, which also serves as his cozy GHQ; and recording CDs, including a Disney compilation coincidentally titled E Komo Mai and featuring the ‘ukulele-playing Stitch of Lilo & Stitch (who is something of a cult figure in Japan) on the cover.
Happy, high-spirited, transporting, spontaneous, easygoing, upbeat, relaxing, fun: These are some of the adjectives that Japanese aficionados use to describe the appeal of Hawaiian music. Yoko Matsuda, a Tokyo-based writer and editor who also teaches ‘ukulele, has given this a great deal of thought. “For many Japanese,” she explains, “Hawai‘i is a heavenly place. Especially if you’re living in a big city like Tokyo, where summer is humid, winter is windy and cold, your room is small and dark, the sky is narrow and you always have to be concerned about people around you, Hawai‘i represents everything you don’t have.” (That deeply inculcated concern about disturbing one’s neighbors is no doubt what inspired one of Japan’s most distinguished instrument makers, Shinji Takahashi, to invent a silent ‘ukulele for people who are forced to practice in densely populated areas.)
Thousands of Japanese share Matsuda’s feelings. In Tokyo, every week brings at least one major live performance, and there are often multiple events on the same night. Most concerts include an element of hula, since Hawaiian dance is mega-huge in Japan these days. Tickets can be pricey, but crowds are invariably large and responsive, and events usually conclude with the entire sold-out audience joining hands and singing “Hawai‘i Aloha” (which everyone seems to know, as if by osmosis) in joyful unison.
“Hawaiian music makes you feel as if you’re still in Hawai‘i, enjoying the fragrant air and beautiful landscapes,” Matsuda says. “The cheerful sound of ‘ukuleles makes you chuckle, and the peaceful, easy sound of slack key guitars heals your hectic lifestyle. Hawaiian music is like a rocking chair in my living room—even though there isn’t enough space for a real one! To me the music seems to be saying, ‘Take it easy,’ ‘Hang loose’ and ‘You can do it your own way.’ Simply put, Hawaiian music is a connection to all the things we love about Hawai‘i.”
Japanese audiences welcome visiting performers of all Hawaiian genres, and the door swings both ways. One of Japan’s most sensational contributions to the world music scene is the Sweet Hollywaiians, a dazzlingly virtuosic group of retro-costumed former street musicians from Osaka who play a nostalgic combination of old-time Hawaiian (“My Girl from the South Sea Isles”), swing and ragtime; the group is enormously popular in Japan and recently returned from a tour of Europe. The flamboyant ‘ukulele-playing singer-songwriter Iwao often performs abroad and is a regular on the Hawaiian music festival circuit. Then there are national treasures such as Agnes Kimura, who has been singing, recording and playing slack key guitar for more than thirty years, and Yoshio Owa, the legendary ‘ukulele player who’s often called the best in Japan.
As for the visiting talent, you could assemble a Kate Greenaway-style alphabet (A=Amy Hanaiali‘i, B=Keola Beamer, C=John Cruz, etc.) and still have a hundred stellar names left over. Truly, it would probably be easier to list the Hawai‘i-based musicians who don’t perform in Japan at least occasionally.
“Japan is one of our favorite places to tour,” says internationally acclaimed slack key master Keola Beamer, who has been performing all over Japan twice a year for more than ten years. “There’s such a beautifully vibrant Hawaiian music scene, and I think Japanese appreciate the way the music brings peace and aloha into their lives.”
At Islands Cafe in the Jiyugaoka district, musician Akira Doi and his wife, hula dancer Ritsuko Doi offer lessons in lei-making, hula and 'ukulele for students young and old.
One long-standing watering hole (or oasis) is Aloha Station, an intimate Hawaiian music nightspot tucked away in a cinematic back alley in the pulsating Roppongi district. Aloha Station is one of those enchanting places that feels mysteriously like home (only with a more interesting menu) the moment you walk in. Evidently the space, with its walls adorned with Hawaiian quilts and luminous antique instru-ments, elicited the same reaction from the late George Na‘ope; on Na‘ope’s frequent visits to Japan, the revered hula master always stayed in Roppongi and spent his leisure time at Aloha Station exclusively.
The nightclub’s proprietor, Masami Sato, has been enamored of Hawaiian music for forty years, and she has been expressing that fondness on the stage of Aloha Station for the past fourteen, often performing her favorite song, Peter Moon’s “Waikiki Sweet Memory,” or a jazzy version of one of the Hawaiian standards that remind her, she says, of Hawaii Calls. Sato’s goal is to expose the guests at her club to “genuine Hawaiian culture”; hence the quilts on the wall and the loco-moco on the menu. “Many young people think that all Hawaiian music is slow and old-fashioned,” she says. “I want to show them that it comes in many surprising and enjoyable forms.”
Way across town in Jiyugaoka, Akira Doi is on a similar mission. Doi’s tiny Islands Cafe, with its lei-draped walls and laid-back North Shore aura, is an expression of his love for all things Hawaiian; you can almost smell the plumeria and feel the tradewinds. “I wanted to create a healing place,” says Doi, whose career trajectory includes stints as a student at UC Berkeley, a hippie in Hilo, a salaryman at Sony and now a full-time dispenser of Hawaiian food, drink, ambience, music and general nurturing. Islands Cafe’s front door is painted daffodil yellow, and it seems even more captivating when you learn that the sunny, mood-elevating color is a tribute to a yellow wall in the Punalu‘u Bakery.
Although the space only holds between twenty-six and thirty-two people, depending on the event, Doi regularly hosts informal open-mike jams where anyone can come and play, sing and dance. (Regulars joke that the accommodations aren’t so much SRO as DRO: dancing room only.) “Sure, the space is small, but no worries,” Doi says. “Everyone always manages to squeeze in and have a great time, kani ka pila style.” And during the somewhat quieter afternoons, Islands Cafe offers one of the hottest commodities in Tokyo today: ‘ukulele lessons.
Japan's contemporary 'ukulele craze is fueled, in part, by people's desire to learn "hula songs," says Seiji Omotani. But the relationship between the popularity of 'ukulele and hula is a two-way street. "If you don't study hula," says Masami Sato, "you don't understand the tempo." Here a dancer performs at Mahana, a Hawai'i-themed restaurant in the Ebisu district.
You know that a musical instrument has hit the big time in Japan when Hello Kitty takes it up. Not only does Her Royal Cuteness play, she even has her own limited-edition signature ‘uke (pink, of course), one of which was listed recently on eBay for $799; coincidentally, for the same price you could have walked away instead with an exquisite koa Kamaka ‘ukulele, circa 1920. Stitch, of course, plays like the musically gifted Elvis disciple he is, and one of the Pokémon characters, Pikachu, has recently gotten into the four-stringed act as well.
Yoko Matsuda, whose writing credits include the CD-liner notes for a Japanese compilation of Hawaiian music, has been playing ‘ukulele for ten years and teaching it since 2009. “My ‘ukulele students tend to start taking classes because they fell in love with Hawai‘i and bought an ‘ukulele or because it seems easier than guitar or because they want be healed,” she says. “Healing”—that is, becoming healthy, contented and whole—is a major preoccupation and buzzword in Japan, and is often used to explain the appeal of hula, lomilomi, surfing and, of course, Hawaiian music.
Students are also inspired by attending concerts; by watching online videos of masters such as Jake Shimabukuro, the Ohtas (père et fils), Bill Tapia and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole; and by listening to recordings or to the radio. Hawaiian deejays Vance K (a Hilo native who also fronts the group Kawaihae), Konishiki (the former sumo star, who is an accomplished singer and musician) and veteran Honolulu radio personality Kamasami Kong (who now shuttles between Hawai‘i and Japan) are dedicated to playing a varied rotation of tropical tunes on their Japanese radio broadcasts, doing their bit to keep Hawaiian music in the air—including plenty of ‘ukulele action to satisfy the growing demand.
During the first part of the twenty-first century, the ‘ukulele—one of Hawai‘i’s happiest inventions, dating back to the 1880s—has emerged as a spectacularly versatile instrument whose range extends far beyond the familiar plinka-plink of such campy classics as “Ukulele Lady” (sung, most memorably, by Kermit the Frog) or Tiny Tim’s beyond-falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Japanese groups like Happy ★ Hoppy play effervescent J-pop behind a lead ‘ukulele, while the amateur orchestra known as Ukulele Afternoon, three hundred members strong, gathers every Sunday in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to strum songs like “Twist & Shout” and “Tequila.” (Ventures-style surf guitar is another Japanese obsession.)
Now that thousands of Japanese have succumbed to ‘ukulele mania, the people who took up the instrument long before it was cool are looking like visionary pioneers. One high-profile early adopter is Kazuyuki Sekiguchi (best known as the bass player for the phenomenally successful J-pop group Southern All Stars), whose picturesque shop, PoePoe, in the Yutenji district of Tokyo, attracts ‘uke buyers, film crews and students seeking instruction in ‘ukulele and slack key guitar. Sekiguchi now fronts the ‘ukulele-driven Sekiguchi Band, which performs at music festivals all over the world; he first started playing in 1991 after meeting the legendary ‘ukulele player and teacher Ohta-San (Herb Ohta Sr.), a protégé of Eddie Kamae who was later mentored by—speaking of pioneers—Harry Haida.
Ten years ago Sekiguchi founded the Japanese Ukulele Picnic, which draws thirty-thousand-plus participants every year, and in 2009 he and Konishiki collaborated on bringing the annual picnic concept to Hawai‘i, with great success. Asked to explain his personal attraction to the music of the Islands, Sekiguchi nails the essential truth in a few simple words: “It’s all about feeling free and easy,” says the Japanese rock star.
If anyone could be called the face (or the avatar) of the ‘ukulele renaissance, it’s the staggeringly proficient Jake Shimabukuro, an O‘ahu native who has been playing since the age of 4. Shimabukuro is an ‘ukulele demigod in Japan—a status cemented by his wildly successful 2010 I Love Ukulele Tour (fourteen cities, sixteen concerts)—and the admiration is fully reciprocated. “Performing in Japan is such a thrill for me,” Shimabukuro says. “It reassures me that music is not just the universal language, but the language of the universe. Music connects us all in a magical way that words fail to do.” Shimabukuro’s contemplative bent shines through in his dreamily reflective performances of the Beatles’ “In My Life” and “Here, There and Everywhere,” but he can also play blazing-fast licks that make “Flight of the Bumblebee” sound like a languid lullaby.
Shimabukuro often says that if everyone played the ‘ukulele, the world would be a better place, and that utopian vision might be on the way to becoming harmonious reality. The ‘ukulele boom is reverberating far beyond Japan and Hawai‘i, as the relatively easy-to-play “mini-guitar” gains followers in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Gone are the days when ‘ukuleles were considered a novelty, and it’s hard to believe that people once made jokes like this: What do you call a man who can play the ‘ukulele but doesn’t? A gentleman. These days, a more logical punch line might be: A man who doesn’t have an ‘ukulele.
|For Kazuyuki Sekiguchi, Hawaiian music "is all about feeling free and easy." Maybe that's why in a place as hectic and regimented as Tokyo, he's become a veritable Island music evangelist. The former bass player for the wildly successful J-pop group Southern All Stars now owns PoePoe, an 'ukulele shop in the Yutenji district. Sekiguchi also founded the 'Ukulele Picnic, an annual jamboree that draws more than thirty-thousand participants looking for ease and freedom.|
There is one prize, or title, that no Hawaiian music aficionado would hesitate to bestow on the city of Tokyo and the country of Japan: the place outside the Islands where Hawaiian music is most widely embraced, most sincerely practiced and most exuberantly enjoyed. Somewhere on the wall of one of the dozens of ‘ukulele schools in Tokyo, there must surely be a hand-lettered plaque, adorned with tropical motifs, that reads: HAWAIIAN MUSIC MAKES US HAPPY. Indeed it does, like when you’re walking along a busy Tokyo street and you suddenly hear “Aia i Kona ka ‘opua i ka la‘i / ‘A‘ohe lua e like ai me ‘oe / Malihini makou ia ‘oe i Kona / I ke kono a ke aloha no makou” floating out across the avenue and lighting up the night. For just a moment—a sweet, mellow, chicken-skin moment—the teeming metropolis of Tokyo feels like a little oasis of Island-style freedom and ease.