On the Scene: Noel Okimoto has enjoyed a long musical career in Hawaii
Noel Okimoto will retire from the Royal Hawaiian Band in December after almost 31 years as the leader of the percussion section.
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Noel Okimoto was 11 when he played his first gig as a professionally paid musician. By the time Okimoto graduated from McKinley (class of ’76) he was well into a career that has continued uninterrupted for 50 years. In 2003, after playing as a studio musician on countless projects by other artists, Okimoto made his official debut as a recording artist in his own right; his album, “Ohana,” earned him his first Na Hoku Hanohano Award. He earned his second Hoku as a member of the Pacific Harp Project in 2016.
Okimoto, 61, will retire from the Royal Hawaiian Band in December after almost 31 years as the leader of the percussion section. His final public performance will be at 2 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand.
What do you and Bandmaster Clarke Bright have planned for your final performance?
There is something in our library, “Now You Know Noel,” that was performed by the Honolulu Symphony Pops in 2005 when I was a guest artist and Matt Catingub was the director of the Pops. Matt wrote (orchestral) arrangements for my tunes from my recording, and then he wrote “Now You Know Noel” as something new for the Pops. The way the song got into the band’s repertoire is that the bandmaster previous to Clarke — Michael Nakasone — heard it at the Pops concert, and loved it. He managed to get arrangements sent over, and one of our arrangers in the Royal Hawaiian Band transcribed it for the band.
Going back to the beginning, how did you become a professional musician at the age of 11?
My dad was a professional musician, he played the drums. At the end of the fifth-grade year at Kapalama School there was a talent show and for some odd reason I signed up for it and said I played drums. My dad was in the hospital so I had to ask my mom to ask him if I could use his drums. He didn’t know I played, but I’d been listening to him practice, and when he wasn’t home I would jump on the drums and mimic what he did. He let me use his drums in the show, and when he came home from the hospital he had me show him what I had played. I did, and he started teaching me. At the end of the summer he had me go to the gigs with him. He was playing with the Ebb Tides, and after about a month he left to form his own band and Larry Fukunaga, the leader of the Ebb Tides, hired me to replace my dad. I joined the Musicians’ Union and started gigging every weekend.
And is it true that you’ve never had a non-musical day job?
That’s true. Thirty-one years with the Royal Hawaiian Band, and before that, the freelance thing. I’m very fortunate in that respect.
What brought you into the Royal Hawaiian Band?
In 1988 — I was already playing with them part-time — I had a chance to audition, and I got the (full-time) job. The percussion section leader was Bruce Hamada Sr. I got in September of ’88, and Bruce Sr., retired in December of ’88, and shortly after that I became the percussion section leader.
You’re retiring from the band but not from music. What’s next?
I’m the new drummer with the Honolulu Jazz Quartet and I’m also a member of the Pacific Harp Project. They have a drummer so I play the vibraphone — and any chance I get to play that instrument, I relish that. I got into the vibraphone a long time ago, and in the last 10 years or so I’ve become more committed to it and wanting to play, so it’s a great opportunity for me.