BY STEPHEN INGLIS | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Composer, singer, slack-key guitarist, and storyteller Dennis Kamakahi (1953–2014) was one of the greatest musicians Hawaii has ever produced. He was incredibly prolific, writing in the neighborhood of 500 songs; a handful of them became standards and hulas in the Hawaiian music world before Dennis was even out of his 20s.
I consider myself incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to record, tour, and study with one of my musical heroes. Our 2011 duo album, Waimaka Helelei, won the Na Hoku Hanohano award (Hawaii’s Grammy-equivalent) for Slack Key Album of the Year.
His wonderful and famous song “Koke’e” celebrates a beautiful place in west Kauai, up in the mountains above the Waimea Canyon. Dennis considered this a spiritually powerful spot, and wrote this lovely, timeless melody and lyrics while spending time at the lookout above the breathtaking Kalalau Valley on the rugged and spectacularly scenic Na Pali Coast. The song was written in 1979 when Dennis was a member of the groundbreaking group the Sons of Hawaii, and it first appeared on the 1980 album Grassroots Music. Better known today is the sparkling solo version on Pua’ena, Dennis’ first Dancing Cat Records solo release, from 1996.
Dennis’ wife, Robin, was kind enough to share some details of the song’s origin with me: “I think he was with Walter Omori, who at that time was the Sons of Hawaii’s sound man. I’m not sure if any of the Sons were there, as well. As a van full of photo-seeking tourists approached, the view of Kalalau [from the lookout] remained cloaked in rain clouds. As soon as the group left, the clouds lifted, with sunlight pouring over the cliffs, revealing the valley. The same chain of events happened several more times that day, and this immortal song was born. With ‘Koke’e,’ the words came first, then the melody. But Dennis had been up there visiting on numerous occasions, even watched clouds being ‘born’ from that valley.”
I have performed this song many times through the years—with Dennis as a duo, in bands, and solo—in a variety of different keys and tempos. I usually play guitar onstage, but I am also a longtime ukulele player, and I had a lot of fun working up this version on the beautiful Kanile’a low-G tenor uke you’ll see in the video.
Although the song has a simple harmonic structure, involving the I (C), IV (F), and V (G) chords in the key of C major, I add a few different colors to enrich the sonic tapestry. On the V chord, I sometimes play G7 or G7sus4 instead of a G chord, other times substituting a G9–F/G move for a more sophisticated flavor. In the chorus, I play the G7 at the fifth fret to add some lift that I feel complements the lyrics and the melody.
When performing in a solo setting, it can really make a song shine when you focus on dynamics. In the intro and verses, I keep things gentle, alternating between a three-finger (thumb/index/middle) and four-finger (thumb/middle/index/ring) picking technique. In contrast, when the chorus arrives, I go with more propulsive strumming. As indicated by the squiggly lines, I occasionally do a quick downward sweep, from lowest note to highest, with the nail of my index finger.
I love melodic solos, and with a melody this beautiful, I wanted to make sure to quote it in an improvised instrumental section, as seen in the transcription here. Finding the melody within chord shapes and picking patterns can be fun and ear-opening. I would highly encourage this; once you’re able to play the solo as written, try making it your own.
If you’re new to soloing, note that getting fluent with scales and chord voicings up and down the neck will give you the freedom and muscle memory to be a good improviser. But you can start simply: Take any three- to five-note melody, such as “Three Blind Mice,” and see how quickly you can find it in every possible spot on the fretboard. Try this in C major before moving on to other keys. Happy picking!