Pat Simmons Jr. is not just a Maui boy, father, singer-songwriter, musician, surfer and an organic farmer. He’s also a cancer survivor, and the son of Pat Simmons, an American rock musician and original band member of The Doobie Brothers. Being from a musically inclined family, Simmons grew up listening to all types of music. He learned how to play both the guitar and ukulele at age six. He has two older siblings from his mother’s previous marriage, and his family has always been extremely close.
His father introduced him to playing musical instruments, showing him how to play the twelve bar blues on the guitar at a very young age. Later, Simmons continued his guitar education with Maui’s own Tom Conway at Bounty Music. Conway taught him how to play various songs from Jimi Hendrix to other various rock icons.
“Pat was a great guitar student who was always eager to learn,” Conway told me. “He embraced several styles like reggae, blues, folk, even a pinch of Gypsy Jazz! Now, he’s developed into a fine player, singer and composer with his own unique voice and strong conviction about his message as an artist. I’m proud to call Pat a friend and I was recently honored to play on his debut CD. Little known fact: He also plays a mean Didgeridoo!”
Simmons learned how to play the ukulele more than 20 years ago at Haiku Elementary School. The ukulele class was part of the Hawaiian studies program, focusing on basic technical skills as well as Hawaiian songs from Auntie Makua Bailey. In fact, Simmons says that Auntie Makua and her songs really inspired his passion for Hawaiian music and culture.
From his happy introduction to playing Hawaiian music and rock classics as a child, Simmons has always continued to increase his musical repertoire. He’s constantly learning how to play new instruments and continues to refine his playing skills.
“I’m always playing around with different things, not always diving in deep, but I do play a little hand percussion, harmonica, lap steel slide guitar, flutes, didgeridoo, etc., mostly just for fun,” he said.
Being that Simmons is the son of a famous American rock musician, I was curious about his youth on Maui.
“I was exposed to all kinds of music, people and places at a very young age,” he said. “It’s what has really sculpted me into who I am today, including my diverse musical interests from Django Reinhardt to roots reggae.”
Simmons said his greatest musical influences are Bob Marley, George Helm, Gabby Pahinui and his father. “My dad’s music with the Doobie Brothers has influenced me so much, as well as his innate musical talents,” he said. “A lot of the things that I listen to today, I first heard from my dad. Our musical collections are similar from traditional folk music, to the psychedelic rock of the ’60s and ’70s.”
Simmons was touring with his father and the Doobie Brothers band until a few years ago when he decided to settle into marriage and family life. Although he loves touring the West Coast (because there’s a lot of opportunity to surf and eat lots of yummy organic foods, he said), he prefers to play local and just be the Maui boy that he’s always been. He deeply cares about the ‘aina, and is currently focusing on building up his following in the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, he worked up a new set with two of his friends, Matt Del Olmo and Justin Morris. The Pat Simmons Jr. Ohana played their first show together at the last East Maui Taro Festival in Hana. As far as more music plans, Simmons wants to record another album in the next year.
On a daily basis, Pat listens to a variety of music. “Lately, I’ve been finding obscure Hawaiian music and singing along while I drive,” he said. “One of my favorite ways to learn a song.” He finds a lot of inspiration from Dennis Kamakahi, Gabby Pahinui, George Helm and Keali`i Reichel. “I’m also of course very into Bob Marley, various reggae musicians, and some newer music from Xavier Rudd and Trevor Hall,” he said.
Simmons said he’s recently been enamored with a song composed in the late 1800s by Eleanor Keho`ohiwaokalani Wright Prendergast. It was originally written for members of the Royal Hawaiian Band in opposition to the illegal U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. It’s called “Kaulana Na Pua” (you can find a Hawaiian-English translation here and you can hear the song on the Maui Museum YouTube channel). Perhaps soon, we’ll all have a chance to hear Simmons playing it, too.
I asked him how his experience of growing up in a musical family will translate to his own growing family. In just the past year, Simmons became a father to a baby boy.
“Since my son has existed, I’ve been singing to him and playing songs to him in his born presence, inside and outside of the womb,” he said. “He loves it when I practice near him, and I’m looking forward to sharing my love of different genres with him.”
Simmons also spends much of his free time tending to his family land in Haiku. He’s an organic farmer, and is energetic about supporting Hawaii’s natural environment and protecting the land from dangerous invasive species. This wasn’t always the case. Learning about agriculture and permaculture was a passion that began when he attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
“When I enrolled at Evergreen in 2008, I was headed in a completely different direction,” Simmons said. “I tried to get into this music class taught by a woman who is an expert in ethnomusicology, particularly Irish folk. But the class filled up, and I was forced to find something else. So at the last minute while scrambling to find a class with open enrollment, I chose a program called “Into the Woods–Community, Conflict, Alliance.”
Simmons said the class changed his life.
“At 18 years old, I was exposed to what was happening in the Pacific Northwest– logging,” he said. “I learned about the forest ecosystems and the damage being done to plant and animal habitats, including the waters. This perspective on the preciousness of the natural environment really shaped my thinking and my daily choices. After four years of studying natural systems, including agriculture and permaculture, I walked away with a bachelor’s degree in ecology, the study of the relationship between all biological lifeforms. Plants are my specialty. This helped me understand my own island home a lot more. I have a strong understanding of the natural environments of Hawaii, as well as how threatened they are from pollution and alien species.”
Simmons’ 10-acre family property in Hana is known as the ‘Opana Valley Farm. He hopes to reforest the land with endemic Hawaiian species, and continues to cultivate abundant, diverse orchards and gardens that will continue to feed his family. He’s currently expanding his potato production, as well as creating an organic nursery with rare plants that he can cultivate and propagate to be shared with the Maui community.
“Lately, my wife and I have been taking care of existing plants and trees that my father planted almost 20 years ago,” Simmons said. “But we are also planting vegetable gardens, weaved among perennial medicines, rare fruit trees, native Hawaiian ferns, trees, plants and rare Hawaiian food plants such as Kalo, Mai`a (ancient plantain banana cultivars) and ‘Uala (sweet potato). I really love collecting rare plants that are literally on the edge of extinction, which is the case for many of the rare Mai`a I’ve collected from remote valleys in East Maui. Gotta perpetuate the old crops so that future generations can enjoy them.”
Simmons and his wife also grow old Hawaiian sugar cane varieties, and press the juice in an old-fashioned hand-crank press. They sell their juice and medicinal teas every other Wednesday at the farmer’s market that takes place at the Waipuna Chapel on Oma`opio Road in Kula.
So far, all this sounds like the perfect life. It hasn’t been. When he was 23, Simmons was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He told me that it was a very scary and intense time for himself and his family. Naturally, a lot of emotions came up and he always did the best to stay in the present moment, full of gratitude for each moment, and trusting that it was all meant to be. He told me that his spiritual work is what helped him be more prepared for that kind of life crisis, and that it was just another opportunity for him to let go and love his body.
I had read somewhere that Pat Simmons Jr. was a fan of Buddhism. Curious about how deep he is into the Buddha’s teachings, I asked him how he integrates the teachings of Buddha into his everyday life. He started out by saying that he wouldn’t call himself a Buddhist, but that he discovered the teachings of Buddhism as a teenager.
“I’ll be quite honest, while exploring the realms of psychedelics, such as LSD and mushrooms, I found myself trying to interpret the unity and love that I was experiencing from taking those medicines,” Simmons said. “The teachings of the Buddha just made a lot of sense after spending time looking deep into my soul. The values of unconditional love and peace were instilled in my being because of my willingness to learn and move through my ego and all the negative things that the mind can choose to dwell on. Returning to love and the bare life essentials are what I took away from those times, and Buddhism helped me see more clearly how to just be.”
The influences that were the most positive for Pat’s cancer healing process were teachings from the Buddha and Eckhart Tolle. Along with the love and support of his family, Simmons said that Tolle’s The Power of Now helped him to stay happy.
“You gotta remember that it’s all perfect, and that life doesn’t give us challenges we aren’t ready or capable of handling,” Simmons said. “I’m so unbelievably fortunate to be raised on Maui and that I can raise my family here, too. I recognize that I’m just a guest here, among this homeland of the original inhabitants, Na Kanaka Maoli, the Native Hawaiians. I truly cherish their culture, and will continue to do my best to help revitalize this land with healthy forests and waters. After all, I’m not Hawaiian by blood, only by culture, being raised close to these values and this sacred ‘aina. My bones and my family’s bones will go back to the same soil as those who have lived here before me. And I will stand up, protect those waters, these mountain slopes and the creatures that live here. Aloha ‘Aina is my daily way of life.”
Pat Simmons, Jr. plays live shows around Maui on a monthly basis. He has frequent gigs at Charley’s Restaurant and Saloon in Paia and at Fleetwood’s on Front Street. He also plays weekly at Cafe Des Amis in Paia and every Thursday at Mulligan’s on the Blue. For more information about his showtimes and locations, visit his website.
Cover photo and farm photo: Darren Williams
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photo of Eleanor Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright Prendergast: Wikimedia Commons