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Ukulele legend and Honolulu original Eddie Kamae dies at 89

Ukulele legend and Honolulu original Eddie Kamae dies at 89
Ukulele legend Eddie Kamae plays a few songs on Waikiki Beach in 2013. (Marco Garcia / For The Times)

Eddie Kamae, one of the most influential Hawaiian musicians of the last half-century and a filmmaker who painstakingly documented the culture and history of the islands, has died at his home in Honolulu. He was 89.

Kamae, who died Saturday, had long been the face of The Sons of Hawaii, a popular recording group and a pioneering force in traditional island music.

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Dressed in blue overalls and in red-and-white palaka shirts meant to evoke the working-class roots of the music they performed, The Sons of Hawaii offered listeners traditional Hawaiian songs at a time when many island musicians were serenading crowds with predictable tropical ballads and material from Hollywood soundtracks.

For as distinguished a musician as he became, Kamae came into the profession nearly by accident.

Eddie Kamae, left, and Hawaiian songwriter Sam Lia in a documentary film about Lia's life.
Eddie Kamae, left, and Hawaiian songwriter Sam Lia in a documentary film about Lia's life. (Waimea Ocean Film Festival)

An older brother — one of 10 siblings in the family — brought Kamae a ukulele after finding the instrument left behind on the back of the bus he drove in Honolulu.

Alone, he'd strum the ukulele and pluck the strings, trying to imitate the sounds of jazz, pop and Latin-infused music, perfecting a style that the Ukulele Hall of Fame said revolutionized the method of playing the instrument.

"I just loved what I heard and that sort of set my course," Kamae explained to the Honolulu Advertiser in 2010.

Kamae said he found many of the traditional island songs to be overly simple tunes, built largely on hula chants. Jazz and Latin music seemed more challenging.

And with a group called The Ukulele Rascals, he found an audience for his musical fusion tastes.

But when his father died in the mid-1950s, Kamae followed his wish that he dig deeper into the music of Hawaii's past.

"One day, after he passed away, I decided, 'Well, that's all he asked me to do.' So I found my way into Hawaiian music."

He looked up older musicians and sought their advice . He prowled the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and dug through the archives of nearly-forgotten songs.

Reborn a traditionalist, he teamed up with three others to form The Sons of Hawaii. The group — which came together in the early 1960s and recorded albums and entertained crowds for 50 years — is credited with igniting the so-called Hawaiian Renaissance, a period of renewed interest in island music and cultural awareness.

Kamae and his wife, Myrna, also filmed a set of 10 documentaries known as the "Hawaiian Legacy Series," films that examined the history of the islands. Together they formed the Hawaiian Legacy Foundation, which seeks to promote and preserve Hawaiian heritage.

In 2001, he was enshrined in the Ukulele Hall of Fame. "There is perhaps no person who deserves more credit for the popularity of the ukulele in modern Hawaiian music than Eddie Kamae," his induction reads.

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