Monday, February 16, 2015

Mark Yamanaka and Friends – Abundance of Music and Aloha

“It’s on the yellow CD!”

“It’s on the green CD!”

Yellow or green, both CDs by Mark Yamanaka are power-packed with the songs that he shared with the EKK audience on Monday, February 16. The yellow CD, titled Lei Pua Kenikeni won him four Na Hoku Hanohano awards in 2011 and made music lovers everywhere take notice of this young man with the soaring falsetto voice. But he was not a flash in the pan, because he came back stronger than ever in 2014 and walked off with five Na Hoku Hanohano awards for his green Lei Maile CD.

Life has not been the same for him ever since, as he is very much in demand as a performer. Bert Naihe, with his own unique vocals, backs him with the guitar and the silent partner on the bass is Eddie Atkins, who comes from a long line of Ka`apana family musicians.

Both Mark and Bert had the 70-plus `ukulele players galloping for nearly an hour at the start of the evening as they taught the group several ways to do the galloping strum, so-called because it sounds like a horse galloping. This strum was used a lot by Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawai`i and Johnny Lum Ho. It can be played tight or loose. Mark and Bert both sang the fast-paced songs — Rain Li’i Li’i, Kekaha Jeep, Kehaulani, Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai — that were perfect for this style of strumming, and all members of the `uke group, both new and veteran, were keeping up with the slow, medium and fast paces as if they had been playing for years. Amazing how fast everyone learns with good teachers. Mark warned them not to tighten up with worry about the chords or the tempo . . .just relax! I wondered if the folks know just how lucky they are to get these wiki `ukulele lessons each week.

Complete with a topknot hairdo and full round oriental face, one would think Mark was a visiting sumo wrestler, but he is of Japanese/Chinese origin on his grandmother’s side and his grandad is pure Filipino. Stir the pot with an abundance of Hawaiian music growing up with his grandparents and extended family in Hilo, and this Honolulu-born young man found out early that his dream to be the first Japanese NBA player was not going to happen.

He learned to play the `ukulele at age 13, which was not so exciting — until he hooked up with some boys at Keokaha who sang a lot of Hawaiian songs. This influenced his love for the `ukulele and singing. After “the change” at age 16, his voice got higher rather than lower and he discovered that he could belt out the high octaves. Also, being taken under the wings of Hula Master Johnny Lum Ho while still in high school, Mark found the path to Hawaiian music was the one that beckoned and encouraged. Once he decided it was okay for this non-Hawaiian to embrace Hawaiian music, he began to soar. His first trip to Kaua`i in 1999 was to accompany Johnnie Lum Ho with his guitar at EKK; he’s come a long way since.

Wanting to share their favorite songs, they opened with the beautiful Kalapana which brings to mind the hot beds of Hawai`i Island, where residents are currently having issues with Mother Nature in that they are losing their homes to the onslaught of hot lava flows that destroy anything in its path. He asked that everyone keep the residents of that area in their thoughts and prayers. The audience was audibly gasping with surprise and thrill as this group’s voices soared.

Bert and Mark harmonized with Maui Under Moonlight, a song with English lyrics about Maui that’s on the green CD. Bert, easy going with a quick smile and a very animated way of playing his guitar, shared his own special version of Noho Pai Pai, or Rocking Chair Hulawhich he recorded on his own CD. When you watch him sing, you wish you could throw a backyard party just to have him come and sing. Acknowledging their friends from KKCR Radio, huge supporters of Hawaiian music, they sang Lei Pua Kenikeni with a special call out to Aunty Maria who just returned from her world travels.

Mark wrote a song for his daughter when she was four years old; Kaleo o Nalani translates to Voice of the Heaven and the lyrics clearly showed his pride of being her proud Papa. Now she is nine years old.  Mark remarks “Boy! Has my feelings changed about her. Now I have Part II coming up – dark and angry – as he dramatically strummed chords that illustrate the dark side of his little darling.

Kehaulani, a very animated song about the beautiful secret flower gardens in Manoa where Queen Liliu`okalani grew her flowers, gave them a chance to demonstrate the loose gallop style of strumming, which in this case, Mark described as, “the horse ran loose.” This song is on Bert’s You’re The One CD.

“I want to dedicate the next song to Aunty Carol; it’s a very hard song to sing.” He asked for the audience to give their best rooster crows; you can tell that everyone in the audience had done their research because the room rocked with crows of every style. And yes, it was hard to sing because of the very high octave chicken-like sounds that punctuated the lively melody and lyrics. Composed by Johnny Lum Ho, Ka Leo O Ka Moa reflects Johnny’s nightly life style of playing music, partying, watching the moon rise, partying, playing music, and watching the sun rise until the chickens crow and tell him it’s time to go home to sleep. Anyone with a lifestyle like that would very well keep time by the crowing of the chicken between midnight and dawn. Jokingly, he said in a very high-pitched voice, “Thank you very much! I really appreciate it!”

When he was asked to perform at a memorial service for the late Daniel Inouye, the two songs requested by his wife Irene were Kaimana Hila and Danny Boy.  He knew the first but not the second, but not wanting to pass up the opportunity to sing at such an auspicious occasion, he said he could sing both songs and he did. He sang Danny Boy for us, a great song for his voice in the lower register; it’s recorded on his green CD.

Bert Naihe shifted gears and sang the lead falsetto on the classic song Sweet Memory/Makalapua; Mark sang the Makalapua translation by Johnny Lum Ho . It was a mellow and riveting performance by the two; hard to believe those exquisite sounds were coming out of them. Another one of the most beautiful renditions of the evening wasPohakuloa. Mark was inspired by one of the sweetest voices in Las Vegas, Gary Haleamau, formerly from Hawai’i.

To show the audience how great the give-away Kamoa ‘ukulele sounded, the group played and sang a tongue-twister song that was far away the fastest song of the evening.  Surprising that even the ‘ukulele could keep up with the song whatever it was called . . . but it ran away from me.

After the intermission, six CD’s were given away to those who signed in with the attendance forms. The big prize of the evening was, of course, the Kamoa `ukulele.  John Cranston of Lihu`e was the lucky and happy winner. That’s a plus one for the EKK ‘ukulele circle and the ‘Ukulele Class at Lihu’e Neighborhood center.

Kanaka Wai Wai by Johnny Almeida slowed the pace again to mellow which was good because it gave the audience a chance to catch their breath between the tongue-twisters which seem to be very much the style of this group. They rendered yet another extraordinarily fast song Ka Mea Hana ‘Apiki in a very high falsetto.  This song about the humorus antics of a mongoose was written by Kuana Torres Kahele for his godson Jorden, Mark’s son.

Mark joked that folks ask him how he manages to sing so high.  They often joke that he has to tighten his belt or wear tight underwear.  Whatever he does, it works for him because he can really hit the rafters. The great thing is that his falsetto is rich and rounded and not tight and squeaky. In addition to Hawaiian music, Mark loves mainstream music and sings it every chance he gets. He sang Love Will Keep Us Alive, a song by the Eagles.

A hula number was requested so they obliged with E Ku`u Sweet Lei Polina’ole attributed to Emma DeFries. At the E Pili Kakou hula gathering at Kaua`i Beach Resort this past weekend, Frank Kawaikapu`okalani Hewett taught a new hula mele that he had composed and said that it was inspired by E Ku`u Sweet Lei Polina`ole and that he was sitting right there with Emma DeFries as she was composing the mele. Kainani Viado took to the stage and gave her graceful hula version of this song. Mark said, “The beauty of music and hula is that it doesn’t have to be rehearsed when it comes from the heart.”

By this time Mark was very relaxed and having a lot of fun with the audience, throwing out some spontaneous humor here and there. He acknowledged the great help he has received from his friends Kupaoa and how much he loves their music, listening to their CD while driving along the Saddle Road. It seems to be a mutual admiration society because Lihau said they love to listen to Mark’s CD as they drive along the Kaua`i Highway to Koke`e. On this trip, Mark is planning to get into the studio with Lihau and Kellen to do some recording so can’t wait to hear what is in store for us next. Big Cheers!

The audience was thrilled when Mark called up Kellen and Lihau Paik to sing with him. They picked a song that Mark knew which was Bumbye, the title track song for one of their CDs. They knew that Mark knew that song because of a family video on Mark’s Facebook page; Kellen told everyone to watch the family video on the Bumbye song. It’s like a Muppets version of the song with real-life muppets.  (Hey Mark, your daughter is pretty cool in there! Give her a break!) What exquisite harmony. The crowd was screaming for a hana hou.

Mark joked, “We really appreciate the hana hou because we don’t get that at our Japanese and Filipino parties.” They obliged with the song Sweet Apapane or Hawaiian Honey Creeper which sings around Mark’s home in  Pi`ihonua overlooking Hilo. The soaring voices of all three in this song sounded like a trio of songbirds. Exquisite!

The title tract of the green CD, Lei Maile, is about the special moments and people in their lives. This hakumele was composed by Lihau for Mark. This song won the 2014 Single of the Year on his Album of the Year and Hawaiian Album of the Year for this Male Vocalist of the Year which tied with Kamaka Kukona.

Packing it all into the too-short time on stage, Mark was cutting loose and singing and yodeling faster and faster while Bert sang in his animated Western twang and Eddie was ripping on his bass; they had the audience bouncing all over the place with their super fast tongue-twisting version of Hawaiian Cowboy. Screams and whistles from a most appreciative audience as they were skipping and clapping out the door.

Another great night of such abundance . . . so much music and so much aloha.

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If you have a disability and need assistance please email Carol Yotsuda at for Monday events.

(s) Carol Kouchi Yotsuda, — “Celebrating 38 years of bringing ARTS to the people and people to the ARTS”
E Kanikapila Kakou 2015 Hawaiian Music Program is funded in part by the Hawai`i Tourism Authority, the County of Kaua`i Office of Economic Development, and the Garden Island Arts Council supporters with support from the Kaua`i Beach Resort.
Garden Island Arts Council programs are supported in part by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts through appropriations from the Hawai’i State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.