Steel Trappings

Alan Akaka

My Start in Music: A True Story

September 2, 2016 • Alan AkakaEducation and Training, Entertainment

Ed. Note: The following is Alan Akaka's story about how he got started in music and how his initial challenges made him even more determined to succeed. Part of his story includes exerpts from a 2009 interview with Alan that was conducted by Hawaiian Wave, a Japanese publication.

Alan Akaka & The Islanders currently appear weekly at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort and Spa.


Growing up, I truly wanted to learn to play music and was excited to join my elementary school violin program. It was a new offering and a few of us fifth graders were accepted into the program. I was excited and confident after all I taught myself to play the 'ukulele.

Over the course of a few weeks I grappled to understand music note reading thus transferring written notes to my instrument was a major struggle. I was truly a lost cause. Well, a lost cause for reading music and playing the violin.

Then that day came when the ax fell when the instructor released me from violin class — the program that I thought would make me a musician. Her last words to me before I walked out the door that struck my inner core, a statement I will never ever forget and words that helped shape my future. She said, "You will never make it in music".

In retrospect, I was not ready for music then. However, I never gave up my dream for music.

What did I learn from this experience?

  1. Never give up your dreams.
  2. When you are ready the teacher will appear.

These are excerpts from an interview with a Japanese publication Hawaiian Wave back in March 2009:

HW: Why/How were you into Music?

Alan:As I was growing up I was surrounded by music. My father was the minister of music at the Kawaiaha'o Church. My uncles, aunties, and cousins would play and sing at our family parties. There was music at the Hawaiian luaus my family went to. Because I grew up in a music environment music came naturally to me. When I was eight I would practice on my father's ukulele by myself in the bedroom learning to play Hawaiian songs. I also taught myself to play the wood bass, guitar, and steel guitar. Since I was in band I also learned to read music and learned music theory, which helped me in my career as a musician.

HW: How has the steel guitar attracted you?

Alan:At luaus and parties that had Hawaiian bands entertaining the audience I didn't particularly listen to the steel guitar although I remember noticing that it looked and sounded different from the other instruments. But when I was 14 my older brother started learning to play the slack key guitar and at that moment I wanted to play a Hawaiian instrument as well so I grabbed the barrel of my clarinet and started sliding it across the strings. I guess hearing the steel guitar for many years did impact my thoughts and actions. My father asked me if I knew what I was playing which I didn't so he told me what it was and then encouraged me to continue. That was the beginning of my career with the steel guitar.

HW: What's the beauty of a steel guitar?

Alan:The sound of the steel guitar is unique from any other instrument. When I listen to recordings I cannot help but notice the lilting sounds of the steel. In fact many of the visitors at my gigs in Waikiki told me that they identify the steel guitar with Hawaiian music and feel that Hawaiian music is not as "Hawaiian" without it. An artist can do things on the steel that most other instruments cannot such as glissandos (slides) from note to note and chord to chord. And with the vibrato an artist can add intensity or calmness to the music.

HW: Memories at Halekulani?

Alan:I played at the Halekulani for 23 years starting back in 1983. I had many good years there and wonderful memories. I met and made friends from all over the world. What I hold closest to my heart are the moments I could affect the audience with the stories and music of Hawaii. Many approached me to say thank you for sharing the story of a song. My greatest memories are of the artists I played with such as Sonny Kamahele and Benny Kalama. Two veterans of the Hawaii Calls radio show that aired for 40 years. I learned a lot from both of them and they groomed me to be a musician and entertainer.

HW: Memories with Auntie Genoa at the Marriott?

Alan:Auntie Genoa was such a kind and gentle woman who was respected by many many people in and out of the music industry. She wore a smile when singing and could bring tears to the audience. She possessed a great deal of mana or spiritual energy. She knew many songs and even in her twilight years she would do a song that I had not heard for many years. She was an amazing woman.

A story I like to share with the audience from time to time is about the time our group went to Washington D.C. when she was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts. At the airport I didn't have my reading glasses so I had trouble reading a magazine. So Auntie Genoa took the magazine from me and without using eyeglasses began reading the article to me. I was stunned and amazed that her eyesight was so good.

HW: Memories with music legends?

Alan:I met so many legends in my early career and had a chance to perform with them. Many years ago I used to ride to Waikiki with famed Hawaii Calls bandleader and arranger Benny Kalama. Going to Waikiki Benny shared many interesting stories of musicians, singers, and composers. I learned about Hawaiian music and music arranging while traveling in the car.

From the stage Sonny Kamahele liked to romance women who were sitting by themselves. He would sing love songs while staring at them. If he forgot the words to a song he would continue anyway adding his own lyrics. Benny and I would always joke about that.

I remember that musician songwriter Mel Peterson ("Show Me How To Do the Hula," "Rainbows Over Paradise," "E Naughty Naughty Mai Nei") could find the key to any song we played without anyone telling him what it was. And he had a fantastic memory for Hapa Haole songs.

Auntie Irmgard Farden Aluli ("Pua Mana," "Boy From Laupahoehoe," "E Maliu Mai") was the sweetest person you could ever meet. She was always filled with laughter and happiness.

Because I was proficient in playing the bass, ukulele and a little bit of guitar I was able to play with and learn by watching so many steel guitarists including Billy Hew Len, Buddy Hew Len, Mel Masao Abe, Harold Hakuole and Merle Kekuku.

HW: Memories with Japanese musicians who you played with?

Alan:I can remember many of the great Hawaiian artists from Japan that I knew and played with including Bucky Shirakata, George Matsushita, Wada Isao, Sasakan, Minami Kaoru, Etoh Kaori, Agnes Kimura, Takagi Boo, Nagashima san, Uchida san, Shiraishi Makoto, Lion Kobayashi, Mahina Stars, Coney Islanders, Aloha Hawaiians, Na Leo Hawaiians, and many more.

HW: Is it true that less people want to play a steel guitar in Hawaii same as Japan?

Alan:Yes it is true that fewer people play the steel guitar. You don't hear it often in new recordings. This is too bad since the steel guitar is the only modern day stringed instrument invented in Hawaii. The steel is still popular in Country Music and my friend who is an artist and teacher of the steel guitar done in the cultural music of India has popularized the steel guitar there. There are more steel guitarists there then in Japan and Hawaii. But they play Indian music and not Hawaiian.

HW: How popular is a steel guitar in Hawaii now?

Alan:The steel guitar lost its popularity in Hawaii and Hawaiian music back in the 1970s when a new style of Hawaiian music was emerging. The big names were the Sunday Manoa and Gabby Pahinui. The steel guitar was not featured much in their recordings. As the years went on new bands formed such as the Peter Moon Band, Olomana, and the Makaha Sons that did not use the steel guitar regularly or at all. Because of this the younger generation is not familiar with the steel.

to find in Waikiki and part of the reason is economics. Hotels and restaurants hire 1 or two musicians only so that most likely leaves out the steel guitar since it is not an accompaniment instrument like the guitar and ukulele.

HW: Regarding Alan Akaka & The Islanders?

Alan:I did not perform regularly with my Islanders group since my departure from the Halekulani's House Without A Key in November 2005. During the interim I performed weekly with Auntie Genoa and the Keawe Ohana and gigged from time to time with other musicians.

Over the years the Islanders membership was comprised of Hawaii's finest including Sonny Kamahele, Benny Kalama, Barney Isaacs, Harold Hakuole, Gary Aiko, Merle Kekuku, Cy Aiu, Jake Kaleikini, Kaipo Asing, Adam Asing, Walter Mookini, Helene Woodward, and Scott Furushima.


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