Legendary Hawaiian musician Eddie Kamae dies at age 89

Photo courtesy Hawaiian Legacy Foundation

Hawaii has lost another important figure in Hawaiian music, a man who helped herald the 20th century Hawaiian Renaissance. Eddie Kamae passed away Saturday morning at age 89.

Kamae helped compose classics like “E Ku’u Morning Dew” and formed the Sons of Hawaii with Gabby Pahinui. He’s called the greatest ukulele player of all time, a teacher, in one way or another, to all ukulele players who came after him, and those are the words of other greats.

A statement from the Kamaes’ Hawaiian Legacy Foundation on his death read: “Eddie Kamae passed peacefully this morning with his wife Myrna by his side, a smile on his face and ‘E Ku’u Morning Dew’ playing in the background. His legacy will continue through the Hawaiian Legacy Foundation.”

Kamae’s voice and strumming reached straight to the heart, a reflection of his love for the islands, its people and music, and roots in the ukulele.

Foundation spokeswoman Carol Cox said “from the time he started this, he wanted to do this for the children, for future generations. He didn’t want the old ways lost, the old ways of speaking language, the old poetry that was in the music in the late 19th century. He wanted it preserved and he used to go into classrooms and talk to the children himself and play for them.

“He had a gift. From the moment he picked up that ukulele that his brother found on a public bus and brought home, he taught himself that music,” she said.

Kamae’s professional career began in 1948 as part of The Ukulele Rascals duo with Shoi Ikemi. He would later play Spanish music, show tunes, and the classics as a soloist at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

He developed an instantly recognizable and flowing, melodic style of playing the ukulele, using chord voicings and plucking techniques that expanded the possibilities of sound from the stringed instrument.

“Well, everything I know about playing the ukulele, you know, Eddie Kamae was the person that taught me everything,” said friend and musician Herb Ohta Sr.

“All of us ukulele players, not just ukulele players, but all of us musicians that play Hawaiian music, we all learned from him, so he was like a kumu to all of us,” said Herb’s son, Herb Ohta Jr.

sons-of-hawaii-album-cover

In 1959, Kamae met Gabby Pahinui and formed The Sons of Hawaii. Their 1971 album “The Folk Music of Hawaii” was a crucial part of the overall rediscovery of the Native Hawaiian culture, reviving interest in the elegant music of the monarchy era.

Together with Joe Marshall and David “Feets” Rogers, Kamae and Pahinui brought to life an amazing repertoire of authentic Hawaiian music that might otherwise have been lost to the ages, including songs that were written by Queen Lili‘uokalani during her incarceration in Iolani Palace after the U.S. Marines overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

Kamae found them in the Bishop Museum archives, arranged the scores and began playing them.

Other noted musicians who played in the Sons of Hawaii over the years included Moe Keale, Dennis Kamakahi and Mike Ka’awa. All together, Kamae and the several iterations of the band recorded 14 albums.

At age 82, Farrington High School gave Eddie Kamae an honorary degree. He had been drafted into the Army and upon return was told he was one credit shy, he had to go to summer school.

“I stood up picked up my books and I walked out of my classroom and I said I don’t need a piece of paper,” he said, “I’m gonna find my way in this world.”

Eddie Kamae with Jake Shimabukuro at the 2003 Hoku Awards (Photo courtesy Jay Junker)
Eddie Kamae with Jake Shimabukuro at the 2003 Hoku Awards (Photo courtesy Jay Junker)

“He was my greatest inspiration and I wouldn’t be playing, I wouldn’t be playing the way that way I do today if it weren’t for Eddie Kamae,” said ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. “He truly was the first ukulele virtuoso.”

The aforementioned “E Ku’u Morning Dew,” with music by Kamae and lyrics by Larry Kimura, has become a cherished standard in Hawaiian music.

In 1988, Kamae and his wife Myrna began producing documentaries on Hawaiian music and culture, and eight years later, the couple launched The Hawaiian Legacy Series with Pacific Islanders in Communication, producing two documentaries, “Keepers of the Flame: The Cultural Legacy of Three Hawaiian Women” and “Lahaina: Waves of Change.”

Other noted documentaries the Kamaes produced include “Words Earth & Aloha: The Sources of Hawaiian Music” and “Li’a: The Legacy of a Hawaiian Man.”

Kamae himself was the recipient of nearly 50 awards, honors, and tributes including the Master of Traditional Arts award from the National Endowment for the Arts; the lifetime achievement award from the Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Hawaii “for a lifetime of achievements in preserving Hawaiian language and culture through music and film.”

Kamae was recognized in 1979 as a Living Treasure of Hawaii by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, and in 2007, he was inducted into the Hawaiian Music hall of Fame.

“He was not only a great Hawaiian man, but a wonderful human being as well,” Ohta Jr. said.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Shimabukuro, “but I feel fortunate that I did get to see him a few weeks ago, and one of the things, that last thing he told me, he grabbed my hand and he said ‘hey, you know the most important thing, don’t ever forget the most important thing is your wife.”

Edward Leilani Kamae is survived by his wife Myrna Kamae, his brother Alfred Kamae, hanai daughters Jo Kamae Byrne and Kathy Mederios and numerous nieces and nephews.

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