Faces of the Diaspora Series: Music in His Koko

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Music runs through the veins of Carlton Dee Kaʻala Carmack.

Born in Honolulu, the 76-year-old San Francisco resident fondly recalls his mother’s family’s affinity for music. His maternal grandmother taught him to play the ʻukulele. He later taught himself to play the piano and would accompany his ʻohana as they sang together in three- and four-part harmonies.

“Having Hawaiian music in my life was just having a family gathering; we made music together,” laughed Carmack.

Music also brought Carmack and his wife, the former Rosalie Alfonso (Tohono Oʻodham-Papago), together. And their musical talent was passed to the next generation. Carmack treasures singing alongside his daughter, Anina, now a Honolulu resident, and his son, Aaron, a composer and DJ in Los Angeles who goes by the name of “Mr. Carmack.”

“It’s very, very emotional for me,” he said.

Although born on Oʻahu and partly raised on the island, his family traveled extensively because of his dad’s military career.

His father, an Army soldier from Colorado, was stationed in Honolulu during WWII and was assigned to Fort Shafter where his Hawaiian mother worked as a secretary. His parents fell in love, got married, and had three sons.

The family later moved to Kansas, then Panama and Maryland before returning to Hawaiʻi. Carmack briefly attended Kamehameha Schools but before he could graduate, his father was reassigned to Japan, where Carmack finished high school.

No matter where he found himself, “my roots remained in Hawaiʻi,” Carmack said.

After graduating from high school in 1965, he returned to Hawaiʻi and enrolled at UH Mānoa. He started working at the House of Music at Ala Moana, where he unknowingly met local legends like Aunty Maddy Lam, with whom he enjoyed playing piano.

“At first I had no idea who she was,” he said. “I found out later.”

Carmack was only home a year before being drafted. He joined the Navy and was sent to bootcamp. On a military placement test, Carmack scored off the charts on “language ability” and was sent to the Defense Language Institute to learn Portuguese.

He was assigned to a naval ship off the coast of Africa to eavesdrop on radio communications in Angola and Mozambique, but before he was deployed, the ship was disabled by a torpedo.

Carmack was reassigned to Washington, D.C., and sent back to language school – this time to learn Haitian Creole (a French dialect). He completed his military service in Puerto Rico – where he also learned Spanish.

In 1970, Carmack was discharged and returned home, resuming his job at the House of Music and playing in piano bars. Then a friend invited him to audition for the musical, Cabaret, and Carmack secured a role, getting a taste for musical theatre.

In 1971, he was cast in Famous are the Flowers, a play by noted Hawaiian writer John Dominis Holt. The Hawaiian Renaissance was just taking hold at the time. Performed at UH Mānoa’s Kennedy Theatre, it was the “hot ticket” show that year with just six sold-out performances and standing ovations every night.

“The play outlined the history of Hawaiʻi, and all the pain,” Carmack said. “It built this sense of pride in me. The beautiful music and the history behind it were mind-blowing, earth-shaking. Singing Queen Liliʻuokalani’s music on stage changed my life.”

Carmack decided to return to college and enrolled at Indiana University in 1972 where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music and romance languages, a master’s degree in voice and choral instruction, and a K-12 teaching certificate.

Traveling back and forth between home and the continent, Carmack realized he could only be his authentic self in Hawaiʻi. “An aspect of being in the diaspora is denying part of who you are,” he reflected.

He returned to Honolulu in December 1977, but a month later moved to San Francisco. “I wanted an urban experience before settling down,” Carmack said. He chose San Francisco because he had two friends living there.

Carmack was soon hired to teach music at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Then in Spring 1979, he was asked to be the musical director for an original musical being presented by the Asian American Theatre Company.

At his first meeting with the show’s choreographer, Sachiko Nakamura, he met her assistant, a young dancer named Rosalie, and it was love at first sight. Unbeknownst to Carmack, Rosalie also worked at SFSU in the College of Ethnic Studies. Two years later they were married.

Around the same time, Carmack formed the “Hoʻopaupilikia Hawaiian Band” with Hawaiʻi expats, Clarence Pratt, Sonny Palabrica, Saichi Kawahara and another friend, Duke Santos. They played in bars and at private parties.

In 1986, Carmack decided to pursue a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. He secured a fellowship at U.C. Santa Barbara, but it was still a tough decision – he and Rosalie were now parents and would be separated by a five-hour drive.

Carmack hoped his research would lift the stature of Hawaiian music in academia. “I wanted to get away from the inherently racist idea that all music is striving to be Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. Charles E. King should be held up side-by-side with [French composer Maurice] Ravel. People need to understand that there are so many facets to Hawaiian music,” he said.

In the end, however, he was dissatisfied with his dissertation and chose not to submit it. “Iʻm ABD (All But Dissertation),” Carmack sighed with regret.

Upon his return to San Francisco, Carmack taught at two Bay Area elementary schools, at the Japanese Cultural Center, and was also a private music instructor. He also did a stint as an artist-in-residence at Stanford University and received another fellowship to the East-West Center at UH Mānoa. And ever the performer, for 15 years Carmack played music at Ric’s, a popular San Francisco restaurant in the 90s owned by fellow Hawaiian transplant, Richard Oku.

In 2013, Carmack accepted a position as a music instructor at Windward Community College in Kāneʻohe. For five years he traveled back and forth between Hawaiʻi and San Francisco because Rosalie was still working at SFSU.

Although he loved teaching in Hawaiʻi, separation from Rosalie and several serious health scares brought him back to San Francisco.

“Obviously, I didn’t pass because there are things I still have to do,” Carmack quipped. Now fully retired, both he and Rosalie are contemplating their future – which might even include moving to Hawaiʻi to be closer to their daughter and two grandchildren.