Masters of Hawaiian Music:
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 puuwai hamama o kanaka o Niihau"
"The men of Niihau grow very tall, and their hearts are
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. Its
like being able to see the past and the present at the same time."
Moes 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 familys 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.
"Ill never forget that first year. We talked Hawaiian
around the house so I wasnt 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
Ks," 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 Honeys
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 agents 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
wasnt 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 shows 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 couldnt see nothing, you
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 Queens Surf, and in 1965 Patti became Mrs. Moe
Moe went on to play at major clubs throughout Honolulu, including
solo stints at Trader Vics 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, its
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 Moes 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."