Dennis Kamakahi – ‘Ohana (Family)

Dennis Kamakahi’s second album for Dancing Cat displays his great talents as a composer and Slack Key guitarist. Also featuring Hawaiian classics, peerless interpretations of the songs of Queen Lili’uokalani, and pure duets with his son, David, on ‘ukulele, ‘Ohana is evocative of a bygone era and reveals the beautiful romanticism of Dennis’s music. 


  1. ‘Ülili E (vocal duet with David Kamakahi) – 4:18 

  2. Aloha Ko’olau (vocal) – 4:25 

  3. No Ke Aha (instrumental) – 5:30 

  4. He ‘Ai No Kalani (vocal) – 4:36 

  5. E Püpükanioe (vocal) – 4:43 

  6. Ka ‘Öpae (vocal) – 5:18 

  7. Around the World (instrumental duet with David Kamakahi) – 3:32 

  8. Moanalua (vocal) – 5:52 

  9. He’eia (vocal duet with David Kamakahi) – 8:30 

  10. ‘Ohana Slack Key (instrumental) – 5:11 

  11. Pua Hone (vocal) – 3:16 

  12. Ka Hanu O Ka Hanakeoki (vocal duet with David Kamakahi)– 4:13 

  13. ‘Ike Ia Ladana (Queen’s Jubilee) (vocal) – 6:17 

  14. ‘Ike Ia Ladana (Queen’s Jubilee) (instrumental) – 4:01 


This album is dedicated to my father Kenneth Franklyn Kamakahi (1930 –1998)  

Kï hö’alu (Hawaiian Slack Key), like traditional music the world over, is firmly rooted in the family. Most of the leading Slack Key players received their first inspiration, encouragement and opportunity to play from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or siblings. Dennis Kamakahi firmly believes Slack Key comes naturally to him because of his ‘ohana (family). His grandfather, from the Moloka’i side of the family, played Slack Key on an old Martin guitar. “That’s a sound I’ll never forget,” Dennis says. 

Dennis’ father, a member of the Royal Hawaiian Band, played Slack Key and trombone. “He was a very musical man,” says Dennis. “He loved Hawaiian music, but he was also into the big band sound. He was an excellent trombonist.” From a young age, Dennis attended as many of the band’s concerts as he could. Dennis especially liked Boat Day: “When the band struck up Aloha ‘Oe there on the dock, I tell you, there wasn’t a single person without tears in their eyes.” 

Dennis was born in 1953. When he was very young, his family lived where the state capitol building now stands. Dennis recalls, “After dinner our family and neighbors would come outside on our porches, play music, and talk story.  You didn’t have TV, you had each other. The last thing you’d hear at night was music lulling you to sleep.” Dennis considers this time a blessing and cites it as one of the important factors in his musical development. 

Later the family moved to Kaimukï and Dennis’ father joined the National Guard band. By then Dennis was playing trombone too. According to Dennis, “Kids want to play drums, but my dad convinced me to take up the trombone instead. I think in a lot of ways my singing style comes from the trombone, from the sliding and the tone.”  Dennis’ father also made sure he learned how to read music and that he stuck with Slack Key, which he started getting serious about around age eleven. He learned kï hö’alu in the traditional way, watching the küpuna (elders). Outside his ‘ohana, Dennis drew inspiration from many other musicians, including Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth. In Hawai’i’s multi–cultural environment, Dennis absorbed other traditions as well, such as American folk music. 

Attending Kamehameha Schools (for children of Hawaiian ancestry) kept Dennis in touch with his roots. In his freshman year, he joined Aaron Mahi (now bandmaster of The Royal Hawaiian Band) and Kalena Silva (now a professor of Hawaiian studies) in a trio called Nä Paniolo. When Nä Paniolo joined the ‘ohana of professional Hawaiian musicians and began playing gigs in Waikïkï, they learned from the küpuna working the clubs. 

More than any other group, The Sons of Hawaii pointed the way to subsequent generations of Slack Key players. An all star ensemble, featuring Eddie Kamae, Gabby Pahinui, Feet Rogers and Joe Marshall, The Sons combined the feeling of a backyard lü’au with the virtuosity of a concert hall. They specialized in traditional music and a free wheeling approach that left lots of room for spontaneity and pä’ani (soloing). Their repertoire, aesthetics, instrumental lineup and loose flowing interplay have all been very influential. 

In 1972, Dennis met Eddie Kamae, the leader of The Sons and one of the greatest virtuosos ever of the ‘ukulele. At that time, Dennis was studying music composition and orchestration at Leeward Community College, and playing with a loose collective of young musicians, including Cyril Pahinui, Danny Akaka, Brian Hussey and Bruce Spencer, who called themselves Nä Leo O Nu’uanu. In 1973, Eddie Kamae asked Dennis to join The Sons. He was looking for a Slack Key player who would be true to both the group’s style and spirit. This was a big honor and a big challenge for a young musician. As a member of The Sons, Dennis began to develop his songwriting. 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, The Sons maintained a high profile and high musical standards. Their albums of that era, like their earlier recordings, became local classics. Many of their songs became standards, including the Kamakahi originals, Wahine ‘IlikeaKöke’ePua HoneKa ‘Öpae and others. 

In the 1990s, Dennis has performed most often with other players who share a love for the classic songs and style of The Sons of Hawaii, including fellow Sons guitarist George Kuo and bassist (and Gabby’s son) Martin Pahinui. At many of his gigs he is now joined by his own son, David, on ‘ukulele. “I never pushed him into music,” says Dennis, “but he kept playing in his room and with his friends. That’s the best way to learn because you all start on the same level and when one picks up something new you all discover it together.” Dennis loves to give David opportunities to develop his playing, just as his father and grandfather did for him. “Every time we play I notice he’s gotten so much better,” his father says proudly. David’s main influence and inspiration has been Eddie Kamae. 

In the mid–1990s, Dennis started playing solo after joining the Dancing Cat ‘ohana. “Solo to me is a growing experience,” he says. “It can bring a lot of risk into the music but a lot of freedom as well. It can also be a magical way to interact person to person with an audience, especially in a live setting.” In 1996, Dennis issued his first Dancing Cat CD, Pua’ena • “Glow Brightly” (Dancing Cat 38036). This warmly romantic, nahenahe album featured a blend of original pieces by Dennis, Hawaiian classics, and songs by Queen Lili’uokalani, one of his favorite composer. 

As its title, ‘Ohana, suggests, Dennis wants this album to express the continuity between generations. “Father to son, father to son, father to son, passing on the feeling, the aloha for each other, for music, this is so important,” he says. 

On Pronouncing Hawaiian: 
A is sounded as in ‘ah’ 
E is sounded either ‘ay’ as in ‘bay,’ or ‘eh’ as in ‘men’  
I is sounded like ‘ee’ as in ‘see’ 
O is sounded as in ‘go’ 
U is sounded ‘oo’ as in ‘too’ 
All syllables are pronounced separately, and most words are pronounced by sounding all the vowels. For example, ka’a is pronounced ‘kah–ah.’ 


  • ‘Ülili E (vocal) 
    Dennis: 6 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning (C–G–E–G–A–E) 
    David Kamakahi: ‘ukulele in Standard Tuning (G–C–E–A) playing in C 

    This traditional Hawaiian standard describes a tattler bird running along the shore of a calm, deserted beach. The father–son performance honors the classic Gabby Pahinui and Eddie Kamae duets in The Sons of Hawaii, whose version can be heard on their classic album Gabby Pahinui with The Sons of Hawaii (Hula 503). “Their version...oh man! That was responsible for getting me into wanting to play Hawiian music full time,” says Dennis. “It is so radical: the solos, fills, timing, the ending. One of my biggest thrills has been playing it with Eddie. We do that ending and we look at each other and just crack up. And now getting to play it with my son makes it even more special. In the studio I told David ‘You be Eddie, I’ll be Gabby.’” 

    Dennis plays this song in his favorite tuning, C Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa describes a Slack Key tuning in which the two thinnest strings are tuned a fifth interval apart. This allows the musician to play runs on the first and second string that, in several other tunings, are often played on the first and thicker third strings, producing the characteristic sweet sound of Mauna Loa Tunings. 

  • Aloha Ko’olau (vocal) 
    Dennis: 12 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning tuned down low, four half steps to Ab 

    Not to be confused with the Auntie Alice Namakelua mele pana (place song) of the same name, this original composition by Dennis describes the beautiful valleys on the windward side of the island of Moloka’i. “It’s for my grandfather and his love for the island. He was born in Honouli Wai and raised in Hälawa, so our family has a lot of ties there.” Like his grandfather, Dennis feels a strong connection to the Friendly Isle. “I go back there to find peace,” he says. “It doesn’t change. Time has a different meaning there.” 

  • No Ke Aha (instrumental) 
    Dennis:  6 string in G Major “Taro Patch” Tuning (D–G–D–G–B–D) tuned down two half steps to F 

    A favorite flirting song by Maddy Lam and Mary Kawena Pukui, No Ke Aha asks why did you whistle at me, wave at me and wink at me. It goes on to say that it’s too late since the bird so eagerly sought has already been caught. “The first time I heard it was on Sonny Chillingworth’s Waimea Cowboy (Lehua 2003),” says Dennis. “Sonny is another guy I really love: his playing, his voice, his personality. He was great.” Dennis plays this song in his second favorite tuning, G Major, which is the most popular tuning in Hawai’i. 

  • He ‘Ai No Kalani (vocal) 
    Dennis:  6 string in G Major Tuning, tuned down two half steps to F 

    This mele, which lovingly describes different foods enjoyed at a gathering, was written by Queen Lili’uokalani. “She’s one of the most prolific writers in the poetic style,” he says. “The famous songs are justifiably well known, but there’s so many others she wrote that are also great. I enjoy discovering music of hers that hasn’t been recorded, also reading about the contexts in which she wrote her songs.” Dennis learned He ‘Ai No Kalani from Eddie Kamae and performed it with The Sons of Hawaii on his first album with them, Eddie Kamae Presents the Sons of Hawaii (Hawaii Sons 1001).  The song was also included in a beautiful ‘ukulele medley on an out of print classic album that Eddie produced for National Geographic. 

  • E Püpükanioe (vocal) 
    Dennis: Taylor 12 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning, tuned to low, down four half steps to Ab 

    The püpükanioe is a land shell (Partulina physa) that the küpuna say can sing. Dennis notes, “I wrote that when Eddie was making the movie Listen to the Forest. Uncle William and Uncle Joseph, the two brothers in the film, were talking about their father, who was a hunter on Kaua’i for years. He was still hunting when he was a hundred. When they’d go out with him they used to listen to the singing shells and that got me interested.” Dennis remembers hearing the püpükanioe up in Köke’e on Kaua’i and in the forest on the third or fourth bend in the road to Häna on Maui. “There’s a great scientific debate about whether it’s the land shell or the crickets you hear,” says Dennis, “but if you’re from Hawai’i, you know it’s the shell.” 

  • Ka ‘Öpae (vocal) 
    Dennis:  6 string in G Major Tuning, tuned down three half steps to E 

    Dennis composed this good humored tale of clean living in the early 1970s. He first recorded it with the Sons of Hawaii in a rollicking country style on Eddie Kamae Presents the Sons of Hawaii (Hawii Sons 1001). This time around it has acquired a strong South African beat. 

    “An ‘öpae is a shrimp,” Dennis says, “But the song is about a time in Moloka’i when my small cousins and I were walking along the stream.  We heard laughing and giggling up ahead, so I went through the brush to see what it was. Well, there in the stream were all these nude hippie women. The kids asked what it was and I said ‘Nothing for you to worry about, just some ‘öpae.’ That’s the great thing about kids. They’re so innocent. They accept whatever you say!” 

  • Around the World (instrumental) 
    Dennis:  6 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning 
    David:  ‘ukulele in Standard Tuning playing in C 

    This appropriately buoyant melody from the 1956 film, Around the World in 80 Days, was composed by Hollywood veteran Victor Young. The song perfectly supported the colorful and light hearted action in the movie and spun off into three top 40 recordings by Bing Crosby, Mantovani and the composer himself.  The catchy main theme ties perfectly to the waltz tempo, which was also a favorite of Monarchy composers in Hawai’i. “We slowed it down,” he says. “The lullaby tempo really highlights David’s technique. What came out was a beautiful exchange, real sweet.” 

  • Moanalua (vocal) 
    Dennis:  12 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning, tuned down two half steps to Bb 

    Moanalua is one of many Hawaiian traveling songs created as a kind of musical home video. According to Eddie Kamae, who researched the song, Queen Lili’uokalani wrote it in 1864. The destination in the song is the area called Moanalua. The route passes through Kalihi, Kapälama and several other westside neighborhoods in Honolulu. 

    Although the lyrics of Moanalua have usually been performed a melody by David Nape, this is the first time that Lili’uokalani’s melody has been recorded. In traditional mele hula (chant or song with choreography based on the text) style, Dennis sings each verse twice. The instrumental breaks between the verses are pure Slack Key. “I learned it through Eddie Kamae,” Dennis says. “He’s the person who first made me want to do the Queen’s songs.” 

  • He’eia (vocal) 
    Dennis:  6 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning, tuned down two half steps to Bb 
    David:  ‘ukulele in Standard Tuning playing in the key of C, and tuned down two half steps therefore sounding in the key of Bb 

    He’eia takes place at a well known surfing spot. Popularly attributed to J. Kalahiki, the melody is adapted from a chant which honors King David Kaläkaua, praising his abilities as a surfer. As with many Hawaiian songs about the sea, the kaona (hidden meaning) here reportedly alludes to another more pleasurable activity. 

    In typical Slack Key fashion, both players get plenty of room for pä’ani (instrumental solos).  “I picked it for the counterpoint of guitar and ‘ukulele,” Dennis says. “It really brings you back to the old style with all the interplay.” Versions in Slack Key have also been recorded by The Sons of Hawaii, Gabby Pahinui and others. 

  • ‘Ohana Slack Key (instrumental) 
    Dennis: 6 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning, tuned down two half steps to Bb 

    Dennis created this instrumental spontaneously in the studio. It started out as one song, then turned into a new one. The nice rolling pattern gives ‘Ohana Slack Key a nice 19th Century feel. “I love the Romantic Era in classical music and in Hawaiian music,” Dennis says. 

  • Pua Hone (vocal) 
    Dennis:  6 string in Dropped D Tuning (D–A–D–G–B–E), played in the key of D, and capoed up one fret to sound in the key of Eb 

    One of Dennis’ best known and frequently performed songs, Pua Hone was written as a musical proposal to his then–girlfriend, Robin. It came from a trip The Sons of Hawaii took to perform at a lü’au at the federal prison on McNeil Island. “It was the first time they’d tried anything like that and the warden was really tough. He said if there was any trouble at all this would be the last time. But there was no trouble at all. There was so much aloha, not only from the Hawaiian prisoners but from everyone. When we left they were all waving goodbye and, I tell you, there’s nothing like hearing a steel door slam. It really makes you stop and think. That’s when I knew I was ready to settle down.” Dennis often tells this story in concert and loves to watch the newly weds react: “A lot of them start to cry a little and then I say that I guess I’m just a prisoner of love. Then they laugh.” 

    Dennis first recorded Pua Hone on The Sons of Hawaii (Hawaii Sons 3003). It quickly became a local standard. 

  • Ka Hanu O Ka Hanakeoki (vocal) 
    Dennis:  6 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning, tuned down two half steps to Bb 
    David:  ‘ukulele in Standard Tuning tuned down two half steps 

    Another composition by Lili’uokalani, Ka Hanu O Ka Hanakeoki tells the story of a canoe whose name can be translated as “working George”. “She must have seen it at Kïpahulu on Maui,” Dennis says. “In the song the canoe serves as a symbol for a loved one.” Father and son perform Ka Hanu O Ka Hanakeoki in a style reminiscent of the classic playing of Eddie Kamae and Gabby Pahinui. 

  • ‘Ike Ia Ladana (Queen’s Jubilee) (vocal) 
    Dennis:  6 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning, tuned low, down four half steps to Ab 

    Composed while she was still a princess, ‘Ike Ia Ladana is one of Lili’uokalani’s most beautiful and memorable melodies. She wrote it, as Ladana (London) suggests, about a trip to England with her sister–in–law, Queen Kapi’olani, to visit Buckingham Palace. “It talks about how great Queen Victoria is and how she opened her heart to the Hawaiians,” notes Dennis. 

    The music was used for two sets of lyrics. “It’s the same melody as Queen’s Jubilee, but by reading the words you can see it probably came earlier. As far as I know, this is the first time this set of lyrics has been recorded,” he says. “I want to put an unreleased song by the Queen on each album. That’s a real honor to be able to share her music this way.” (On Pua’ena, Dennis included the first ever recording of ‘Apapane). 

  • ‘Ike Ia Ladana (Queen’s Jubilee) (instrumental) 
    Dennis:  6 string in C Mauna Loa Tuning, tuned low, down four half steps to Ab 

    Fellow Slack Key guitarist, and Dennis’s sometimes duet partner, George Kuo has said that one can make the guitar cry in this tuning. This very beautiful arrangement ends with Dennis’s striking and weeping guitar, some of the best evidence of that ever heard. 


    Liner notes by Jay W. Junker and George Winston. 


  • C “MAUNA LOA” TUNING (C–G–E–G–A–E) for ‘Ülili EAloha Ko’olauE PüpükanioeAround the WorldMoanaluaHe’eia, ‘Ohana Slack KeyKa Hanu O Ka Hanakeoki and ‘Ike Ia Ladana

  • G MAJOR “TARO PATCH” TUNING (D–G–D–G–B–D) for No Ke AhaHe ‘Ai No Kalani and Ka ‘Öpae

  • DROPPED D TUNING (D–A–D–G–B–E) for Pua Hone


    Produced by George Winston and Dennis Kamakahi 
    Engineered by Howard Johnston 
    Additional engineering by Justin Lieberman, Mark Slagle, Dave Millington and Porter Miller 
    Mastered by Bernie Grundman at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Los Angeles, CA 

    Special thanks to: 

    The hard working staff of Dancing Cat Records and Different Fur Studio, Jay Junker, Hella Kihm, Ozzie Kotani, Eugene (Gino) Lancette of Expressions Studio of Photography, Navarre Hawaii, The Windham Hill Group and BMG Music. 

    Thanks to: 
    The Daughters of Hawaii, the Staff of Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, the Staff of Hulihe’e Palace, Judy Barrett, Keoni Born, Bob and Maria Hickling, Nancy Lorenz, Ed and Kalena, the ( AMH Wolfpack for all your support, Chris Kamaka of Kamaka Hawaii Inc., Gary Chung of White Harvest Guitars, Eddie and Myrna Kamae, Saichi and Evalina Kawahara of Kapalakiko Productions, Diane YM Wong, Keith and Carmen Haugen, Patrick Landeza and Pu’unaue Productions, Milton Lau and Ka Hoku Productions, George Kuo, Martin Pahinui, Cyril Pahinui, Bla Pahinui, Ledward Ka’apana, Dennis Pavao, Mike Kaawa, Gary Haleamau, Brother Noland, and George Kahumoku for all the fond memories of concerts played.