Masters of Hawaiian Music: Moe Keale

by Carl Lindquist


This article comes from the liner notes of the CD "Sons of Hawaii: The Folk Music of Hawaii" (originally released in 1971, reissued in 1998). A fabulous CD! Order from The Hawaiian Music Island.

"Toloa ame ka pu’uwai hamama o kanaka o Niihau"….

"The men of Niihau grow very tall, and their hearts are very big"…

Wilfred Nalani "Moe" Keale is a man of Niihau. In him one finds that gentleness common to those who have lived there. He has added much more than his ukulele and his voice to the Sons of Hawaii.

"Knowing Moe is more than just knowing the man. It’s like being able to see the past and the present at the same time."

Moe’s father, born on Niihau, answered the wanderlust of a young man, migrating to Honolulu in the early 1920s. There he met and married Lydia Manukina of Kauai, fathering three sons and three daughters, instilling in each that tangible, yet somehow indefinable spirit unique to his birthplace.

The Keale home in Palolo was as traditionally Hawaiian as the pressures of Honolulu would allow. Though conducted informally, musical training was part of the family’s daily life, and many of the songs sung were those handed down through generation after generation of Niihauans.

Moe was only five when he first began to play the ukulele. "I was no prodigy or anything like that, but I loved to sing, and playing the uke in my family just seemed like a natural thing to do."

His next summer, when he was six, Moe first visited Niihau, a journey he repeated each year during all of his childhood. "I’ll never forget that first year. We talked Hawaiian around the house so I wasn’t too shook up about that part. What really threw me was how happy everybody was, and how they went out of their way to help each other. Right then I figured that heaven must be something like Niihau."

To a boy with natural musical talent, these summers on Niihau were wellsprings of discovery and learning. Living outdoors most of the time, he learned firsthand that much Hawaiian music celebrates the goodness of the land; that it chronicles old ways and gives direction to those yet to come; that it may indeed be that one tenuous thread binding all Hawaiians to one another.

In addition to music he learned to surf and hunt, and when the summer days were gone, it was a reluctant lad that returned each year to Honolulu. "A couple of times I thought about running away, but everybody knows everybody else, and I knew my father would give me a good licking."

Summer passed to summer, and though he had a growing interest in football and girls, Moe continued to sharpen his musical talents. Following high school graduation in 1958, he and "three other guys from the beach" formed a group called the "Four K’s," playing their first engagement at the old Waikiki Tavern. "It was mostly just good fun. Since we got paid, I guess we were professionals, but just between us, the music was pretty amateur."

Moe continued to spend his days surfing and working the beach, and when the Waikiki Tavern job was over, he and the group moved to the Tropicana Club in Kailua, Kona. "This time, the music was more professional, but the pay was more amateur. We got room and board and twenty-five bucks a week."

When that job ended Moe was "back on the beach" at Waikiki, making the rounds of clubs like the Hofbrau and Honey’s with a walk-on group that played "for all the beer we could drink." It was a time for coeds and surfing, music and Primo, and as always, summers on Niihau. "I remember being there one time when the waves came up. Everybody went down and camped on the beach, and when a surfer would catch a wave, everybody would sing his family song."

And then, like a press agent’s dream come true, there came "discovery" and a chance to perform in the big time, New York City. Only the dream was a little distorted. "I wasn’t playing or singing or anything like that. This agent hired me and two other guys from down the beach to do high dives. We never did it before, but we got a four month contract at $150 a week, so we figured why not."

Featuring the John Piilani Watkins hula troupe, the show was called "Paradise Island" and its producer was bandleader/impressario Guy Lombardo. Seven nights a week the show’s M.C. would announce the "climax of our performance" at which point Moe and his companions would launch themselves from the top of a simulated waterfall that rose ninety feet in the air. "It was pretty bad. At low tide there was only twelve feet of water, and when the fog came in, you couldn’t see nothing, you just jump."

But because it provided the money and the leisure time to "see the East Coast and have some fun," the danger and dicomfort were immaterial; the boys returned to the show the following year.

Moe returned home to become a full-time beach boy, and in the summer of 1963 went once again to his beloved Niihau. "Over there nobody steals you know. If you need help, people just come, you no need ask."

In late 1963 Moe met Patti Andrada, a diminutive dancer who had been with the John Watkins troupe in New York. The following year, 1964, they were both with the famed Puka Puka Otea Tahitian Show at Queen’s Surf, and in 1965 Patti became Mrs. Moe Keale.

Moe went on to play at major clubs throughout Honolulu, including solo stints at Trader Vic’s and at the Prince Kuhio restaurant. "It was kind of like a piano bar with no more piano."

In 1967 he went back to the mainland with an ill-fated Polynesian revue which folded before its return to the Islands. During that year he made his most recent visit to Niihau. "Things never change much over there. When everything else is crazy, it’s nice to remember that one place is the same."

A short time later Moe met Eddie Kamae, and it was through his friendship that the two began playing together, ultimately leading to Moe’s inclusion as a permanent member of the Sons of Hawaii. His quick sense of humor, his distinctive vocal style, his mastery of the ukulele, and most important of all, his warm Hawaiian heart, have made Moe Keale an inseparable part of the group."

"When I think back, I never thought I would have the chance to play with somebody like the Sons of Hawaii. When we play the old music, I remember all the Niihau people, like maybe now I can help pay back all they gave to me."

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