Kid Rock

Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dogs is the hardest-working band in keiki showbiz
Story by Kamal Kapadia. Photos by Elyse Butler.

When the preschool-age fans of Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dog Band need their snacks, you don’t want to be caught empty-handed.

So when the band arrives two hours before a scheduled University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa performance and finds the restaurant at its courtyard venue is inexplicably closed, a sinking feeling sets in. To make matters worse, the bathrooms are locked, and it’s not even clear if there’s an electrical outlet to plug the sound equipment into.

Wayne Watkins, the youthful great-grandfather who leads the band, urgently explains the situation to someone on his cell phone while band members Girish Varma and Jason “Doc” Pfahl are texting like mad. Whoever Uncle Wayne is talking to doesn’t seem to be much help, and when he hangs up he wonders out loud if the band should cancel the show. He and the two Howling Dogs go back and forth for a while before Girish, quietly strumming a mandolin, declares, “I’d like to play some music.” Jason concurs. “We are on the schedule,” he says. “We are supposed to be here tonight.” Uncle Wayne purses his lips and thinks for a moment. Then, in his musical Southern drawl, he says, “Let’s set up!”

Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dog Band might be the only musical act in Hawai‘i that formed in preschool. Wayne Watkins (center) met bandmates Girish Varma (left) and Jason Pfahl (right) when he headed the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Children’s Center.

As Hawai‘i’s busiest children’s band, Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dogs are no strangers to setbacks. It goes with the territory when you play a hundred shows a year, mainly at places that don’t usually host live bands. Preschools and libraries are the main venues, though the band also keeps a full schedule of private parties, fundraisers and community events. The signature gigs are the Family Pau Hanas, free monthly shows on Maui and O‘ahu, like tonight’s UH performance.

The band has released four albums filled with its high-energy, highly danceable brand of “family folk” music. The latest, Hana Rain, just came out. Marketing their music, however, isn’t exactly Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dogs’ strong suit. It’s not uncommon for the band to forget to bring CDs and t-shirts to sell at concerts. The store section of its Facebook page has some songs available for free download but nothing you can actually buy. The band has been known to play for mango jam and banana bread in lieu of cash. “We’re not very good at business,” Uncle Wayne laughs. “I mean, we pay our taxes. But our goal is to play music.”

With the clock ticking toward the UH show’s 5 p.m. start, the band launches into troubleshooting mode. Uncle Wayne sends out social media alerts warning parents that, contrary to what’s been advertised, the restaurant is closed, so they’d better bring their own food and drink. Girish and Jason find unlocked restrooms nearby and, with the help of a very long extension cord and some gaffer’s tape, secure an electrical connection.

The regulars arrive early and claim tables in the courtyard. Among them are the McOuats, a family of three dressed in matching black Uncle Wayne t-shirts, printed with a cartoon canine howling at a full moon beneath a coconut tree. The youngest McOuat, four-year-old Kaimana, has been attending Howling Dogs concerts since he was just one year old, and he’s a superfan. He insists on listening only to Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dogs while riding in the car, and he knows all of the lyrics by heart. Emulating Girish, who plays a mean fiddle, Kaimana took up the violin at age three—“totally unprompted by me,” his mom insists.

The band kicks off the show with a few jaunty numbers inspired by nursery rhymes. Kaimana grabs his ‘ukulele—he plays that, too—and positions himself between Girish and Uncle Wayne, strumming along as the band sings, “Hey, Mr. Dumpty! Whatcha doin’ on that wall?” Like many Uncle Wayne fans, he freely joins the band on stage to lend a hand. Sometimes you’ll see a half-dozen preschoolers up there, jamming on tiny ‘ukulele, crooning into toy microphones, hopping with excitement or just staring up at Girish in open-mouthed admiration.

A typical performance draws about a hundred people, though at gigs like the Hawai‘i Book & Music Festival, the band plays for a crowd of five hundred. At private parties they’ve entertained as few as four families. Tonight’s core audience is made up of three- and four-year-olds, but babies in arms abound, older kids roam about and moms, dads, aunties, uncles and grandparents chat, dance, snack and herd their young. On the dance floor, the toddlers rock and spin, sometimes weaving and stumbling among the musicians. The band loves this intimate engagement with its audience, and it delights in venues like this without an elevated stage. “We prefer to set up on the same level as the children,” Uncle Wayne says. “We don’t like stages.”

Wayne Watkins grew up in Florida listening to his mother sing in the church choir and his father belt out off-key renditions of “Blue Tail Fly” in the car. He got a guitar at 13, taught himself to play and soon began writing his own songs. When he became a preschool teacher he naturally played music in the classroom. “My circle times were always very lively,” he says. “Sometimes we went on and on until we had exhausted ourselves dancing.”

His early playing had what he calls a “muddy-water Americana feel.” After moving to Hawai‘i in 1993, his music took on a more “bouncy island flavor” as he was influenced by local rhythms and themes. He worked as a preschool teacher and administrator, and he performed solo at shopping centers and schools on Maui for years before an automobile accident knocked him out of work and off the stage for a while. When he recovered he took a job as director of UH Mānoa’s Children’s Center, the preschool for the children of UH students, faculty and staff. He worked there for ten years, until retiring in 2015.

The band performs widely and frequently throughout Hawai‘i, playing some hundred shows a year at libraries, preschools, elementary schools, private parties and community events such as the Hawai‘i Book & Music Festival.

It was at the Children’s Center where Uncle Wayne met both of his Howling Dogs, making theirs perhaps the only band in Hawai‘i that formed in a preschool. Jason came first. In 2009 he enrolled his children there after moving from Montana to Honolulu for his wife to attend law school. Like Uncle Wayne, he’s a self-taught musician, and the two hit it off. They found a bass player in 2010 and officially launched the band. But the bass player didn’t last long, nor did the banjo player, another bass player or the guitarist who followed. In 2011 a new teacher joined the preschool and introduced her husband, Girish, to the mix. The Howling Dogs’ lineup has been the same ever since.

Girish is the cool cat of the band. He plays a variety of string instruments, including violin, banjo, bass, upright bass, mandolin, ‘ukulele and Hawaiian hollow-neck slide guitar. A Los Angeles native, he’s the band’s only formally trained musician, having started violin lessons at the age of four and gone on to study music composition at UCLA. It’s not unusual for children to sit right in front of him while he plays, eating up everything he does. During one Halloween performance, a fan came dressed as a little Girish, complete with fake beard and an ‘ukulele that he played with a drumstick as a violin. Girish was deeply flattered. “The kind of feedback you get performing for these children—it doesn’t happen with adults that way,” he says.

Free monthly performances on Maui and O‘ahu, known as Family Pau Hanas, are the band’s signature gigs. Above, a Family Pau Hana at UH Mānoa. “We prefer to set up on the same level as the children,” says Watkins. “We don’t like stages.”

Jason, known to fans as Doc Pfahl, is the cajón-pounding percussionist, sound engineer and resident goofball, known for his homemade instruments, comic antics and funny noises—boos, burps, yee-haws, etc. During the song “Kangaroo,” in the pause between a tranquil “Waltzing Matilda” melody and the raucous chorus, he inevitably falls asleep. The song stalls, Jason snores and the suspense builds until the children scream in unison, “WAKE UP!” Startled back into consciousness, he re-counts the beat—“One! Two! Three! Four!”—the band roars “JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!” and the kids hop around like frenetic kangaroos. “Kangaroo” is a crowd-pleaser.

The Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dogs repertoire tends to be high-spirited and upbeat, with simple, repetitive lyrics. Titles include “I Got a Dog,” “I Got a Cat,”“Friends, Friends, Friends” and “I Love Pizza.” But the band also embraces themes of sadness, strife and even death. Part of Uncle Wayne’s educational philosophy involves giving children and their families a chance to process uncomfortable and difficult emotions in a safe space. The band draws heavily from the American folk tradition, which is filled with such songs, including “Watermelon on My Grave,” which they perform tonight: “Plant a watermelon on my grave, and let the juice [sluuurp] slip through. That’s all I ask of you, sweet mama, that’s all I ask of you.” Such songs are part of the history of children’s music, Uncle Wayne notes. “And it’s a way for kids and parents together to confront sad things. Because stuff happens.”

About an hour into the show, Uncle Wayne makes an announcement: “It’s time for the MOOO-TOOOR-CYCLE RACES!” “The Motorcycle Song” is another crowd-pleaser, and children and adults alike gather at the starting line in front of the stage. Proper attire is required, and item by item Uncle Wayne directs racers to put on their motorcycle pants, boots, jackets, helmets, gloves, helmets and glasses—all imaginary, of course. Then he directs them to mount their imaginary motorcycles and start their engines. “On your mark! Get set! GO!” he cries, unleashing a wild horde of children and adults running laps around the courtyard as the band sings, “Ride your motorcycle ’round the yard. Ride around and around and around! Ride around and around and around!”

After three exhausting rounds of motorcycle races, it’s time to wind down. Uncle Wayne summons the children to the band’s feet for story time. A volunteer takes a chair and turns the pages of Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, a sing-along about an imperturbable blue cat who walks along, singing his song and soiling his four shoes. Uncle Wayne sings the story, and the children join in the chorus. Slower numbers like this give parents an opening to refuel the little ones on organic fruit pouches and animal crackers, or drag them to the bathroom. But some kids resist removal from the immediate vicinity of the band. Like the two girls and the boy, all dressed in pink, who hold hands and sway to another slow number. There’s no breaking up that little arrangement.

At the end of the two-hour show, the band members look as fresh as plumerias, which is amazing considering this is their third show of the day. Girish lives in Honolulu, but Jason and Uncle Wayne fly in from Maui. When the band performs on O‘ahu, it needs to book at least six shows in three days to break even on travel costs. It used to be a struggle to fill the O‘ahu schedule, but as the band’s reputation has grown in the past few years, it’s gotten a lot easier. “A lot of the preschools expect to have us back,” Uncle Wayne says. He filled the 2018 schedule in record time. “All I did was send out emails to people we played for the year before, and within two weeks they went ahead and booked all the days.”

During “The Motorycle Song,” one of the band’s more energetic numbers, children and adults race around the venue in an imaginary motorcycle race. Here, racers at the starting line rev their imaginary engines.

Each year, the band also leads a music workshop and performs at the Hawai‘i Early Childhood Conference. The 2018 workshop, titled “Number Counting Blues,” focused on how music can help children learn to love math. “Number Counting Blues” is also the title of a popular Howling Dogs song that helps children with counting. Uncle Wayne has conducted a music workshop at this conference for the past twenty-five years. Still, despite his expertise, he keeps it simple when pressed on the connections between his music and his theoretical approaches to early childhood education. “Playing music is playing,” he says. “It’s playing. You don’t work music, you play music.”

Later I probe some fans for their thoughts on the relationship between learning and play with regard to Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dogs. They keep it simple, too. A seven-year-old boy says only, “I kinda like that it has a lot of loud in it.” A six-year-old girl tells me: “I like the motor-cycle race. And I like the noises that Uncle Pfahl makes. And I like dancing with my sister.” It is a three-year-old boy, however, who puts it best. When I ask what he likes about Uncle Wayne and the Howling Dogs, he says nothing. He just picks at his nose, grins, then peels out on his imaginary motorcycle, leaving me in his imaginary dust. HH