It is amazing what music can do. When I play music around the island, people request all kinds of songs. Just the other day, I was sitting at Ala Moana food court plucking my ‘ukulele, when an older couple comes up to me and asks, “You know ‘Hawaiian Wedding Song’?” I begin to play it, and they start dancing, right there in the middle of the food court. That’s the power of music. It can give the listener a moment of remembrance that transports them back to a story from their life.
I know firsthand about music’s power: I would not be alive today without it. I joined the military after high school and eventually became a drill sergeant in Alabama. I was married with four kids, but the pressures of the new environment, of trying to be a good dad, led me to the bottom of a bottle, and my wife ending up leaving me with our four kids and our only vehicle. Even back then, I knew it was the best decision, because I was spiraling. I thought about ending my life, but music pushed me through that wall of depression and anxiety. I would pop in one of the cassette tapes my family had sent over, and I would lay there in my barracks, crying my heart out to Gabby Pahinui, Olomana, Society of Seven, Don Ho. The words of the songs kicked me in the ‘okole and made me realize that I come from a culture of warriors that does not give up. It also made me think of my mom and dad and growing up as a keiki surrounded by music.
I remember when I was a kid, my mom would bring me to Ka Makua Mau Loa Church, where she played the pump organ. She stood 4 foot 10 inches, so being that her legs were short, she had me crouch on the floor beneath her while she played. She would press my shoulder with her foot, and I’d hit the right pedal, my ‘ōkole for the middle, and my thigh for the left. She’d be up top, pulling the valves and pressing the keys, while the whole congregation filled the church with Hawaiian song.
I never had any formal training in music, instead learning it the old Hawaiian way: Watch, now your turn. If you were good on the ‘ukulele, I no say nothing, I just watch. My Uncle Jonah “Charlie” Kipi—no one can touch him on slack key guitar, even to this day—he had this beat-up Fender that he’d lean up against a chair. My dad didn’t want me to touch it, but eventually my uncle said, “No, let him.” I’d go over, strum each string, and I would keep that sound with me.
After the military, and a stint playing college ball at Jacksonville State University, I worked as a correctional officer at prisons around the country, and later, deployed inmates in the U.S. Marshals Service. But it was music that always connected me to home. While I was in Phoenix, working by then as a criminal court bailiff, I got involved with this Hawaiian club called Lau Kānaka No Hawaiʻi. They had annual lū‘au, monthly meetings, and everybody would bring out their ‘ukulele, pakini (Hawaiian bass), and sing any kine music. The words would be all wrong, but we all had fun, and I was right at home.
During that time, I also got to open for The Mākaha Sons, who were playing a fundraiser for Na Leo ‘O Ke Kai, a canoe club. That night, after our set, we got not one, but three “hana hous.” We played “Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai,” and a third of the audience stood up and started dancing hula in the aisles. Right there, Moon Kahele and Friends was born. I would go on to record four albums, the first of which, called A Walk Across the Ocean, would be nominated for a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award.
For over a decade now, I’ve been going into Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, playing music for the braddahs incarcerated there. People ask me why I keep going back to play at Saguaro. They tell me, “You know they not in there for jaywalking.” I respond that the only difference between them and me is that they got caught. We all crooked in some way. With everything I’ve experienced in my life, I realize that when you wake up, God gives you a bag of miracles, and every day, you have to empty that bag of miracles—to your parents, your kids, your community. I continue sharing my music because I feel like I’ve got so much yet to give.
Moon Kahele is a fully bonded and insured teacher, songwriter, and performer based in Kapolei. He performs at the Beach Villas at Ko Olina on Monday and Friday evenings.
Follow on Facebook @MKahele.