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Mark Yamanaka and Friends Deliver Big Time!

Mark Yamanaka is no stranger to EKK. His first EKK gig was in 1999 just out of high school as a guitarist for Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho back when EKK was a modest little circle of music fans in the Saint Michael’s Church Parish Hall. Time moved on and so did Mark. He returned in 2014 as Na Hoku Hanohano Male Vocalist of the year and has been back by popular demand in EKK 2018 and 2019.

This 39-year-old artist of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino ethnicity struggled for years with his desire, gift and ability to sing Hawaiian music because he was not born Hawaiian. With the encouragement of his local singing buddies from Keokaha and his mentor, Hula Master Johnny Lum Ho of Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, who took him under his wing and did the most to encourage him to start on his musical career, Mark finally got serious about performing and has become a sought-after performer ever since.

In the 20 years since he first came to EKK he has recorded several successful solo albums and one with Kupaoa, won awards at Na Hoku Hanohano, travels extensively to Japan and performed many times on Kaua’i with his close friends Kellen and Lihau Paik ofKupaoa.

Since his 2018 stint, he has completed his new CD titled Lei Lehua; his earlier two CDs —Lei Pua Kenikeni (2010) which garnered him four awards in the 2011 Na Hoku Hanohano and Lei Maile CD (2013) which he dedicated to his grandmother Doris Guerrero who introduced him to falsetto singing. In 2014 Mark was nominated for 10 of 32 categories at the Hoku awards and tied for Male Vocalist of the Year along with Kamaka Kukona. He recorded with Kupaoa for their Christmas Album of the Year CD titled A Gift of the Heart(2015).

Tonight “and Friends” who accompanied Mark were Sean Naleimaile on bass and Bert Naihe on guitar, both excellent performers who have been to EKK before. Sean brought “Project Kuleana” artists in March 2017 and have accompanied both Napua Greig and Kekuhi Kanahele to EKK. Bert has been to EKK with Mark several times. Thankful for the many beautiful leis, Mark said he reciprocated by each of them bringing a pair of coqui frogs from Hawai’i Island.

Their music packs a punch as all three vocalists harmonize beautifully and sing with such gusto. He started the first half of the program with the song Lei Pua Kenikeni, a falsetto melody from his CD of the same name. It’s always surprising and exhilarating to hear that pure, clean falsetto voice coming out of his swarthy physique. Bert and Sean really pull their weight in every song. Of course he has to mention going to Hamura Saimin for lunch and said they ended up doing dishes because they don’t take debit cards . . . like in Hilo.

He shared a song written in 2015 and recorded on Lei Lehua, his newest album which was born on Kauai in November 2018. This new CD has 6 or 7 new original music on it among which is Grandma’s Love, written especially for his wonderful grandma when he could not find any song special enough for her memorial. After his samurai grandfather passed away, his grandma was the special person that held it all together for the family. Mark sent it out to Linda Paik of Anini.

From such a sweet sentimental moment, Bert stepped it up with a lively western-twang rendition of Rain Li’ili’i by Dennis Kamakahi. A song about the last Queen of Kaua’i, Rain Li’ili’i is not often sung, probably because it’s such a fast song, but this was right down Bert’s track. The beat was so catchy that you could see bodies swaying side to side in their seats. Bert’s got the body movements, the guitar strums, the sassy smile, and you expect a yodel out of him anytime. My volunteers standing at the back of the ballroom were full-on boogeying.

Mark introduced his father-in-law from San Jose. Ken Pereira looks younger than Mark which prompted Mark to cut off his butt-length pony tail and iconic top knot which had for many years been a part of his look. He just wanted to make sure his father-in-law looked older than him. He dedicated Dennis Kamakahi’s famous Kaua’i song, Koke’e, to Ken Pereira. With a zesty intro to the song, their robust version of the song made the audience happy; it’s hard not to get caught up in the happiness and excitement of their singing.

Slowing down the pace a bit, Sean paid tribute to his great great grandmother Emily Taylor who wrote Ku’u Lei Awapuhi when she was acting in the Hollywood film Bird of Paradise. Easily one of the most beautiful songs in the Hawaiian music repertoire, Sean calls out, “As for you, Aunty Carol!” (How special is that!)

Moving on to the balmy sounds of early Hawai’i, Mark sang a hapa-haole song composed in 2012 titled Maui Under Moonlight, which won the Single of the Year award in Na Hoku Hanohano 2014. It’s a steel-guitar kind of song.

Audience participation time. Mark likes to involve the audience and he wanted to try ahana hou from his last visit. Del Shannon’s Runaway is one of the songs that fixated him on falsetto; this was the kind of nostalgic music that his family used to sing a lot. Mark challenged the audience to join in on the chorus and they came in loud and clear with “…wa wa wa wa wondering . . .” Ladies went first because yesterday was “Girls Day”. He advised the guys to sit up straight, pick up your BVD’s and sing in falsetto. Bad move! The guys “overshot” the falsetto note. LOL! He decided the women were the clear winners in reaching the high notes and the volume.

Kaleonalani won the 2011 “Song of the Year” award at the Na Hoku’s. Shawn Ishimoto played the guitar track on the CD. One of Mark’s favorite songs to perform was written in 2004 for his baby girl when she was four years old. Kaleonalani translates to “Voice of the Heaven”. Mark rolls his eyes when he talks about his now whopping teen-age Nalani. Mark gives an audible sigh as he acknowledges his baby girl is growing up and he is no longer the one she runs to. “I’m about ready to rewrite the song!” says Mark and proceeded to strum some dark Johnny Cash sounds on his guitar.

He called on his guitarist Bert Naihe to sing a song about Queen Liliu’okalani. I expected a slow mele but he sang a very lively song complete with super-fast guitar strumming that felt like galloping horses. The song Kehaulani was not about cowboys and horses but a traditional mele about the Queen Liliu’okalani’s secret flower garden in Manoa. Huge applause.

Morning Drive is a new song that was composed by Mark with the help of his wife Leilani Pereira Yamanaka who daily has to drive 52 miles one way to Pahala on the opposite side of the island from their home where she teaches math at Ka’u High School. She wanted to shine a light on this morning commute because we don’t often see the beauty on the journey. To help her focus at the positive side of this daily hour-long trek to work, he composed Morning Drive about enjoying the beauty along the way – the smoke rising from the Halema’uma’u Crater, the slopes of Maunaloa, the nene geese flying by, the beautiful red and yellow Lehua blossoms along the volcano and the wild peacocks along the roadside. He kept singing “Volocano” on purpose because that is the way his Filipino grandfather pronounced “Volcano.”

Keeping with the upbeat tempo, Sean sang an old style Hawaiian song
I Ka Po a Me Ke Ao (Night and Day) by Lena Salis & Vicky Silva, full of kaona about flirting with the eyes. It’s funny to watch Sean sing because he keeps his different beats with different parts of his body – his head tilts from side to side, he keeps some beats with his shoulders going up and down; then he moves down to his hips swishing around the island, and then he rocks his body from side to side; there is a motion for every kind of beat. Pretty unique.

To introduce the Kamoa ‘Ukulele which was to be given away after the intermission, Mark sang a fast Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai in falsetto, the seaweed song by Auntie Edith Kanaka’ole. So easy! So easy! So easy! To be so talented.

After the intermission, Don from Port Townsend in Seattle was the lucky winner of the beautiful instrument. Not even fifteen minutes before the drawing, Don was at the Garden Island Arts Council table offering to donate one of his hand-crafted wooden bowls to sell for GIAC. Karma. What goes around comes around.

Mark opened the second half with a lively song perfect for Kaua’i. Ka Leo O Ka Moa (Voice of the Chicken) by Johnny Lum Ho celebrates the fowl population running rampant on this island. Mark pointed out that chicken dialect, like local Pidgin English, varied from one section of the island to the other. When I was playing back the video of the singing by Mark and friends, it was dusk and every day at dusk all the chickens in the valley are squabbling incessantly outside my window, maybe trying to decide who was going to roost with who on which branch of the mango tree. It’s insane noise, but tonight it was worse because they were listening to the song from my house and that amplified everything. If Kaua’i is the “chicken capital of the world”, Niumalu holds the record for the highest density chicken population. No joke!

Mark talked about his cousin’s college project which was a video postcard of Paradise, a delightful song titled This is Paradise, a perfect song for Hawai’i Tourism; all of the images are there. It sounded like a track for Hawai’i Five-O or Magnum PI without all the guns and crimes.

For a change in pace, Mark called on Lihau Hannahs Paik to come up and dance a hula to her recently composed falsetto song Manowaiopuna. She shared her thrilling experience on the helicopter to view the elusive waterfall deep in Hanapepe valley and encouraged others to see this unforgettable sight.

After Mark saw the Disney/Pixar movie “Koko” he wanted to write a kachi kachi style song for his wife because she is of Mexican descent. He sequestered himself to the Rainbow Falls so he could focus on composing the song and ended up with My Senorita, complete with kachi kachi style music and even fake trumpet sounds with his lips. He really should get a cadre of seven horns blasting that sound out when he records the song. Her grandfather, a fluent Spanish speaker, helped him with the lyrics. Ole!

One day he played hooky from work and drove to the south end of the island with his wife and spent a whole day at the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach where hundreds of little yellow sulphur butterflies hang out seasonally. The result was the song He Aloha No Punalu’u, a beautiful song on his Lei Lehua CD, well worth playing hooky for a day.

Sean sang one of my favorite Dennis Kamakahi songs, Lei Kupukupu on his Pua’ena CD about the lei makers on the uplands. We are so fortunate that many of the artists who come to EKK keep on singing his musical treasures for the world would be much less colorful without his musical legacy.

A special treat for the evening was Mattie Del Rosario’s very funny comic hula dressed in his palaka shorts and wielding his unwieldy golf clubs; he danced to Pa’ani Kolepa, a song composed in the style of Mark’s musical mentor, Johnny Lum Ho, who loves the sport of golf.

Texas Yodel by request was Mark’s final song. For his hana hou, Mark brought the evening to a close with a powerful hymn, Ke Akua Mana E/How Great Thou Art. It was truly spiritual; a number of folks ran to the CD table to see if they could get a CD with that song on it. No luck! It’s one of those songs that you need to hear in person. Still wanting the evening to go on, the audience joined in for Hawai’i Aloha. As they streamed out of the ballroom, folks were beaming from the shared experience of music, dance and aloha.


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Funding for E Kanikapila Kakou 2019 Hawaiian Music Program is made possible by Hawai’i Tourism through the Community Enrichment Program, with support from the County of Kaua’i Office of Economic Development, the Garden Island Arts Council supporters and 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.

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