Eddie Kamae Songbook: A Musical Journey


By Myrna Kamae

In an obituary published by the New York Times in 2017, writer Nate Chinen called Eddie Kamae “one of the most important musicians of the second half of the 20th century.” Kamae’s career spanned five decades and was marked by innovation and preservation. Now, five years after his passing, a songbook featuring a collection of 34 songs that were meaningful to his journey as a musician, filmmaker and Hawaiian son is available and free online at eddiekamaesongbook.org.

My husband, Eddie Kamae, devoted his life to music.

As a young man he played songs on an ʻukulele his brother found abandoned on a bus. By the 1940s, he was recognized as an ʻukulele virtuoso who developed a jazz picking style that forever changed the status of the ʻukulele. Later, the Sons of Hawaiʻi, the legendary band he formed with Gabby Pahinui in the 1950s, played a pioneering role in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance.

By the 1970s, Eddie was known for his instrumental genius and a vigorous singing style that carried the spirit of an ancient vocal tradition of old Hawaiʻi into the 21st century. Through Sons of Hawaiʻi, we produced many albums of traditional Hawaiian music.

Eddie wanted to know the source of Hawaiian music, saying that “all cultures evolve and change, but it is important to identify the heart and soul of a culture – that part is irreplaceable.”

He found answers in songs by composers who not only wrote in Hawaiian, they thought in Hawaiian. He began searching and was guided to Bishop Museum to the original copies of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s work. Some of these songs, too, are in the songbook.

His teacher Mary Kawena Pukui told him, “Eddie, the answer is not only in the museums and archives; it is out there in the valleys and the countryside.” So he went to the countryside to listen and learn and, along the way, collected many of the songs in this songbook.

He also began writing his own songs, including E Kuʻu Morning Dew with Larry Kimura. I joined him once in a while. The songs we wrote together include Ke Ala A Ka Jeep with Mary Kawena Pukui, Maka Ua, E Hoʻomau, and Nānā Mai.

During the 1980s, while continuing to perform, arrange and lead the Sons of Hawaiʻi band, he began a second career in documentary filmmaking. From 1988 to 2010, through the Hawaiian Legacy Foundation, we made 10 award-winning documentaries that were celebrated nationally and are still available on the foundation website, in schools and shown on PBS Hawaiʻi.

Eddie’s personal journey is measured by the many teachers he met along the way. From Mary Kawena Pukui and Pilahi Paki to ʻIolani Luahine, Sam Liʻa Kalainaina and “Papa” Henry Auwae. Dancers and singers, storytellers, healers and elders guided him in his long quest to find the sources of a rich tradition.

Eddie kept strumming and humming until he could do no more. Despite his death in 2017, the Hawaiian Legacy Foundation that we started decades ago is continuing his work. At the top of our list was producing The Eddie Kamae Songbook. Years in the making, the entire multimedia songbook is online and free at www.eddiekamaesongbook.org.

Photo: Aunty Myrna Kamae, widow of the legendary Eddie Kamae, with Maenette Ah Nee-Benham.
Aunty Myrna Kamae, widow of the legendary Eddie Kamae, with Maenette Ah Nee-Benham. Ah Nee-Benham, who is the chancellor at UH West Oʻahu, was the person who suggested that Aunty Myrna put together the songbook. – Photo: Carol M. Fox

The seed for this project was planted when U.H. West Oʻahu Chancellor Maenette K.P. Ah Nee-Benham found out that I was reviewing some of Eddie’s songs to share with musicians. Maenette suggested a songbook and a curriculum to go with it.

The majority of the work was done by Hui Hana, the core project team comprised of archivist and Program Director Kapena Shim, Language and Curriculum Specialist Lilinoe Andrews and me. We divided the work and then huddled together every week for two years to ensure, as Maenette promised Eddie days before his death, that his work would be available to students in Hawaiʻi’s classrooms

It is a collection of 34 songs that were meaningful to Eddie’s journey as a musician, filmmaker, and Hawaiian son. Each presented as a pūʻolo (bundle) with lyrics/translation, song story, educational questions, music sheets, video/audio clips, a bibliography, and print resources from the Kamae archive. It is an interdisciplinary curriculum and valuable foundation for the music, stories, and aloha to live on. I hope it will evolve into a significant resource for current and future musicians of Hawaiʻi and the world, in schools and homes, and serve as a guide for the casual music fan.

The Eddie Kamae Songbook is part of an ongoing endeavor to continue our work so that his music, spirit and aloha will live on. Honolulu Magazine’s Don Wallace called it “significant, resourceful and deep.” Billy V. of Hawaiʻi News Now said it “speaks to the legacy of a wonderful man who is still educating and entertaining us all.”

“Continue, Eddie, continue! Continue on until it is finished.” – Mary Kawena Pukui

Hawaiian Legacy Foundation’s partners in the songbook include U.H. West Oʻahu, ʻUluʻulu: The Henry Kuʻualoha Giugni Moving Image Archive and Alakaʻina Foundation.