In the 49 years that Jerome Koko has been a professional musician, he’s been to a lot of places. None of them is closer to his heart than the part of O‘ahu that he calls home.
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A lot of people call it the West Side, others refer to it as Wai‘anae because the Wai‘anae mountain range separates it from the rest of O‘ahu. There are actually several distinct districts—Nanakuli, which is closest to the rest of O‘ahu, then the area that local residents know as Wai‘anae. After that comes Makaha, and eventually Ka‘ena State Park—the end of the road.
With only one road in and out of the west side it is the most isolated area on O‘ahu. This is where Jerome, his younger brother, John, and their friends, Louis “Moon” Kauakahi and Sam Gray were born and raised.
Jerome remembers Nanakuli as a place “where you could leave the doors open.”
“Back in those days, everything was just simple. Everybody had their own life, and if you lived on a [Hawaiian] homestead, you know everybody. It was really mellow. It was nice to be out on the West Side.” Like many Hawaiians in the 1950s Jerome’s family didn’t speak Hawaiian. He was introduced to it in the 4th grade by a teacher who also taught ‘ukulele (he later studied Hawaiian at Leeward Community College).
Music became an important part of his life. He and Moon and “two other guys” formed a group when they were in the 10th grade. They won a talent contest.
Jerome didn’t spend much time at the beach until he and Moon started paddling for the Makaha Canoe Club, but it was at the beach that he met Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole.
“There was this big Hawaiian playing his ‘ukulele on the beach. He told me they’d just moved from Palolo (in Honolulu), and that he and his brother played music. I told him we had a band of our own. The next day, we went over to his house and met the whole family.”
Jerome discovered that Israel’s uncle was Moe Keale—a member of the Sons of Hawai‘i, one of the groups that Jerome and Moon were patterning their own music after. Israel and his older brother, nicknamed Skippy, were going in similar musical directions.
They decided to start playing music together. They named their new group, and the Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau was born.