For as much as Uncle George is a popular, world-class slack key performer and renowned recording artist, he is also a teacher; it’s in his blood.
Born in 1951, the master recalled his fascinating youth.
“I lived together in the same household with 26 cousins. It was my great-grandfather’s place in a place called Kealia, South Kona,” he said.
“The reason we were all together was because all our dads worked at Bikini Atoll… Bikini Island. They worked on the atomic bomb. All our dads were over there, and all the moms were in Honolulu working at this bar called the Pink Elephant. It was a place called Tin Pan Alley in Honolulu. We were raised by our great-grandparents.”
Growing up in this fashion, to Kahumoku, music and teaching were synonymous and ingrained in his Hawaiian-ness.
“It was like through osmosis, whether you wanted to learn music or not,” Uncle George remembered. “In fact, we only had one ukulele, but 26 of us kids shared it. We only had one guitar, one mandolin, one banjo, one accordion, one everything, but all of us learned how to play every single one of those instruments, because we learned how to share.
“Number one, you are learning from somebody older than you,” Kahumoku continued. “Then, because you got cousins younger, they want to learn, too; so you also are teaching those younger than you. I had ten cousins younger than me. If you are learning and teaching, how can you not become a master at your craft?”
Kahumoku is a virtuoso, indeed. His resume of educational experience is extensive and his credentials impressive.
In his youth, he won a scholarship to the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
He graduated from Kamehameha Schools and received his Masters of Art in Sculpture from California College of Arts & Crafts. In addition, he earned his Master’s Degree in Education from Grand Canyon University.
“I wanted to become a teacher; that was the whole idea,” he explained.
Along the way, he’s taught science, social studies, art, shop, English, elementary math and, of course, music.
“I’ve taught in Germany over 1,000 students, in Japan over 10,000 students, in Nashville 2,000 students, and in Knoxville we had workshops with Chet Atkins for about 12 years,” Kahumoku said.
He recently retired from an 18-year stint at Lahainaluna High School — 15 years as a motivational teacher and three years teaching art.
Now, he’s the director of the Institute of Hawaiian Music at University of Hawaii Maui College.
Add his teaching time to his very busy schedule of performances — including, but certainly not limited to, his weekly shows at Napili Kai Beach Resort, monthly gig at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, daily Morning Show on Island FM 107.5 and Mainland and international concert tours — it is evident that Kahumoku’s life is full to overflowing.
But, apparently, not jam-packed enough!
Uncle George still finds time for the keiki.
He’s currently teaching a group of Princess Nahienaena Elementary School students, ages five to eight, how to play ukulele... for free.
Well, not exactly for free; there’s a trade involved.
Parent Deidre Ruiz-Rockett, my daughter, explained the exchange.
“I wanted my keiki to learn a musical instrument, and ukulele culturally meshes with what they are learning in school. I went up to Uncle George one day at the swimming pool (Lahaina Aquatic Center) and asked him if he knew of anyone who taught little kids how to play. He asked who it was for, and I said some kids from the Hawaiian language immersion program, and he said he’d be interested. So we started a small class at his house in Hawaiian Homes on Thursday mornings for the summer, and now we do it up at his farm in Kahakuloa on Sundays.
“He offered this class to us free-of-charge,” the mother of three continued, “but with the stipulation that the keiki and their ‘ohana had to give back by working in the yard or farm.”
“He teaches us the Hawaiian way,” she added.
This is the master’s style – has been for years.
Twenty-seven-year-old Peter deAquino, award-winning local performing and recording artist, has been a student of Uncle George’s since he was about 11.
He described his first lesson with Uncle George.
“I remember being so excited to go to his house to take a lesson, but he said we had to spread a little bit of mulch. I said, ‘No problem; I’m no stranger to work.’ ”
“When I got there,” deAquino recalled, “I was surprised to see a mountain of mulch and an empty yard. l didn’t question him or ask him what to do; I just grabbed a shovel and a trash can like the other kids (from the Lahainaluna motivational program) were doing already.
“He said hi and told me we would have the lesson after. It was all good to me; I just wanted to learn.”
For lunch, “Uncle cooked us a feast. After lunch, the rest of the kids went home... I knew I was finally gonna get my lesson... Uncle loaded up the truck with the usual sound equipment for a gig and said, ‘Okay are you ready for the lesson?’ ”
“I was stoked! We jumped in the truck and went to a gig,” deAquino continued. “I was confused again!
“I finally got the courage to ask Uncle, ‘What about my lesson?’ ”
“He just gave me the Kahumoku laugh and said, ‘Boy, dis is what we call on-the-job training!’ ”
Kahumoku told deAquino the yard work was to strengthen his hands, the food was to strengthen his body and music was for his soul!
As with all of his students, past and present, Kahumoku continues today with this age-old tradition in humble gratitude.
“Our kupuna are dying off; and, before I die, I want to be a kupuna or spring of life for all these kids, so I can share the aloha that was shared with me,” he concluded.
In trade for ukulele lessons, keiki and their families do chores at George Kahumoku Jr.’s (left) farm. Photo by Krystle Marcellus.