Music teacher by day, performer at night–Benny Uyetake is the Maui’s ‘ukulele superman. His passion for entertaining started at a young age, and sharing his knowledge of music and performing is second nature. He grew up in Hilo, but today he lives in Haiku with his wife Debbie and two grandchildren. Whether he’s headlining at the upcoming Maui Jazz Festival, taking students to a stage performance or just gigging at Kimo’s with Glenn Kakugawa, Uyetake lives his life through music. We talked story with him to find out about his love for Hawaiian music came to be.
MAUITIME: Why did you get into the entertainment business?
BENNY UYETAKE: Before getting into the entertainment business, I learned the ‘ukulele at the age of 8 years old. I’d watch my dad play an old Kamaka ‘ukulele. He’d play old melodies on the ‘ukulele so beautifully. One neat tune he’d play was “Stars and Stripes Forever,” composed by John Philip Sousa. It was really cool.
He learned to play that from his childhood friend, Jesse Kalima. Uncle Jesse is now in the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame as one of the great pioneers of the ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music. Dad, Uncle Jesse and many of dad’s other friends–Little Joe Kekauoha, Lucky Luck, Alberta Kalama (who was well known at the time)–would come and visit Hilo often. I got into watching and listening in my living room with my dad… Legendary entertainment.
I also learned to play the ‘ukulele from Al Naleiha at Haili Church, which was down the street from where I lived, and Mrs. Gloria Adap at Hilo Union School when I was in the fifth grade. She was truly inspirational. I started playing the guitar there after.
MT: Did you have siblings who also played music?
BU: My brother Dominic played the guitar. He taught me at the age of 10. I watched him and his friends at rehearsals and gigs. It felt very good to have a brother that was so encouraging.
A group of friends started a band, The Sound Track Vibrations, where I was a vocalist and lead guitarist. I was also in The Everlasting Sounds, which lasted throughout high school. My first professional gig was at 11 years old. I played in middle school band and was in the high school choir. I attended Spokane Community College and graduated from Seattle University. I went on to study music at the Cornish School of Music in Seattle and the Berklee College of Music.
MT: How did you get your start as a musician?
BU: I played music a lot as a child. I was encouraged by my five brothers and sisters and wonderful parents. I’d play with my friends at parties, school dances, bars and dinner clubs. My dad was our “roadie.”
After my first year of college, I came home to work at the Hawaii County Parks Summer Fun Program as a leader and music specialist. I would visit all of the Hilo district centers and teach kids singing, guitar and ‘ukulele. This is when I got my first big start working for Dorothy Thompson, who was the director of the Parks and Recreation in the Island of Hawaii District. She is also the co-founder of the Merry Monarch Festival. Auntie Dot Thompson was a kind, yet a very to-the-point lady. She got things done and wanted me to do my best in everything I did for the program. She took me under her wing and was so proud of me for teaching and being a musician.
I also worked with George Naope and Edith Kanakaole in the summer program. They were in charge of the Hawaiian cultural activities such as hula, Hawaiian songs and arts and crafts. Auntie Dorothy insisted that I learn as much as I possibly could because Uncle George and Auntie Edith were the best. I watched them use patience and excellence when they worked with the youth. This was during the summer of 1975. I worked with the program for two summers.
MT: Who are some of the musicians that inspired you? What are your most popular songs?
BU: I played in the Seattle area with friends I met in college. I later played [there] with some cool musicians–Robert Damper, Michael Powers, Michael Brion James, Ken McCann, Rob Silver, Doug Hamilton and many others. It was great experiences.
I came back to Maui and Oahu to play the local hotel scene. I really wanted to make a living by playing music in Hawaii. It was close to home and a great way to make money. Also, I worked on the Aikane Catamerans, played a few gigs with David Inamine and Glenn Goto, Wayne DeSilva and Roy Okutani in Honolulu. In 1990, Aikane Catamarans, of which I was a member, got a Na Hoku Hanohano nomination. My song “Kuulei” was featured. “Kuulei” was also on “Hawaii Calls.” Also, I had a featured song with Fabulous Krush play on the Don Ho Show in Waikiki.
While playing in Hilo, my friends Carl Villaverde and Kenneth Makuakane were playing there, too. When they left for Maui, Ken gave me a call to fill in some spots for them. My cousin Glenn Kakugawa and I left Hilo for Maui. From there, we’d played at the Kapalua Bay Hotel, the El Crab Catcher and then became the mainstay at the Makai Bar at the Maui Marriott Hotel from 1982 to 2000.
MT: That was back in the day. Who do you work with now?
BU: Presently I work around as a solo artist and as a duo with Glenn Kakugawa and the Benny Uyetake Band. I play a lot for Hawaii on TV and Jazz Alley TV with Ken Martinez Burgmaier, Dave Lower, Henry Allen, Wilmont Kahaiali’i Productions, Pacific Radio Group, Debbie Probst and KONI Radio. The annual Maui Blues and Jazz, Annual Lanai Jazz, Slack Key and Ukulele and Big Island Jazz and Blues Festivals have been great and rewarding by working with Burgmaier and Lower.
MT: What are your favorite songs to perform?
BU: I like music that touches my soul: contemporary, old style Hawaiian, rhythm and blues, soul, Jazz and rock. I love the music of Barry Flanagan, Henry Allen, George Kahumoku, Willie K, Keali’i Reichel, Reiko Fukino and Eric and Amy Gilliom. I admire them and their music a lot.
MT: Where do you play now?
BU: I’m a teacher at Kalama Intermediate Public School in Makawao, where I teach six periods of ‘ukulele to more than 150 students. We’re a performance-based ‘ukulele band and travel throughout the state and California to perform. The Fine Arts department at Kalama is one of, if not the, finest on Maui.
Presently, I’m performing with Glenn Kakugawa at Kimo’s Restaurant in Lahaina on Sunday and Monday from 6-8pm, Captain Jack’s Happy Hour from 2-4:30pm and the Montage at Kapalua Bay Wednesday and Thursday from 6-9pm. I love playing for parties, weddings or just at the beach.