Walter Kawai’ae’a was 15 years old and had been playing the ukulele for only a few months when he heard his teacher, Kahauanu Lake, playing guitar. He asked Lake why he didn’t play guitar professionally instead of ukulele.
Kawai’ae’a never forgot Lake’s reply.
"He said, ‘If I’m going to be the leader of a Hawaiian group, then I’m going to play a Hawaiian instrument!’" Kawai’ae’a recalled yesterday.
"I told him, ‘But, Papa, you play that guitar so good,’ and he said, ‘The hell with that damned guitar. It’s a haole-made instrument. And how’s my ukulele playing?’ and that shut me up," Kawai’ae’a said. "It was about who he was and about being Hawaiian and always personifying that. He was a prince, and they don’t make ’em like that anymore."
Kahauanu Lake, one of the greatest Hawaiian ukulele players of the 20th century, died Sunday at a Windward Oahu nursing facility. He was 79 and had been in declining health for more than a year.
Harry B. Soria Jr., creator and host of "Territorial Airwaves," remembers Lake for "his revolutionary and daring presentations of mele for the hula, his meticulous arrangements and his elegantly simple styling."
"I was fortunate enough to have had Kahauanu on my show several times and was humbled by the depth of his storytelling as he wove detailed genealogies and historical events effortlessly as I sat spellbound," Soria said.
Nina Kealiiwahamana said she "mourns the passing of Kahauanu Lake," adding, "His unique Hawaiian sound of music shall live on."
Lake’s first name refers to the unusually cold weather on the day of his birth, New Year’s Day 1932.
On his mother’s side, he was a Parker and traced his lineage back to the Kamehamehas. His mother’s later marriage to Edward David Kalakaua Kawananakoa gave him a connection to the Kalakaua dynasty, as well.
There was then a definite sense of kaona (hidden meaning) when Lake presented hula programs in Kawaiaha’o Church, built by those who had tried to extinguish hula in the 19th century.
Lake learned to play ukulele by sitting across from his mother playing mirror-fashion — holding the instrument in reverse — and developed a distinctive strumming and picking style that has inspired several generations of musicians. Lake was also one of the first Hawaiian musicians to play the larger baritone ukulele; he played a custom-made instrument that was designed to have a deep, mellow tone.
"Kahauanu Lake was one of only a handful of performing and recording artists in the field of Hawaiian music who created a new sound yet kept it very traditionally Hawaiian," said musician and songwriter Keith Haugen. "His ukulele style maintained the ipu rhythms of old Hawaii and was loved by hula dancers."
Lake recorded six albums as the leader of the Kahauanu Lake Trio with his brother, Thomas Lake Jr. (bass), and Al Machida (guitar). He also collaborated with Ka’upena Wong and Don McDiarmid Jr. on "For Ma’iki — Aloha Mai ka Pu’uwai," an album honoring the legacy of his wife, kumu hula Ma’iki Aiu Lake, and guided the career of his namesake group, the Kahauanu Lake Singers.
Lake was an accomplished songwriter who often wrote to honor friends and relatives. One of his most popular compositions, "Pua Lililehua," was co-written with Mary Kawena Pukui for his beloved wife.
"Most of the kids now don’t know who Kahauanu Lake is, but if you mention a song like ‘Pua Lililehua,’ they know the song," Kawai’ae’a said.
Lake’s contributions to Hawaiian music included his successful campaign while a board member of the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts to restrict voting in the Hawaiian-language categories to people who speak the language rather than the HARA membership at large.
He received the HARA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and was Ka Himeni Ana’s honoree in 1997.
Lake subsequently founded the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame and Museum with the intent of creating an awards program exclusively for Hawaiian music and not restricted to recording artists. He was one of the first living inductees — following Irmgard Farden Aluli and Genoa Keawe — reluctantly accepting the honor in 2004.
Lake is survived by hanai children Gordon (Janice) Umi Kai, Walter Kawai’ae’a, Luana Kawai’ae’a and Michael Pili Pang; sister Nani Chang; and cousin Keola Lake.
Funeral plans are pending.