The Music Comes First

One year after taking over the Royal Hawaiian Band, Michael Nakasone is earning rave reviews from musicians

Susan Sunderland
Friday - February 17, 2006
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Bandmaster Michael Nakasone shows a range of emotions during a recent performance of the Royal Hawaiian Band at Ala Moana’s Centerstage
Bandmaster Michael Nakasone shows a range of emotions during a recent performance of the Royal Hawaiian Band at Ala Moana’s Centerstage
Bandmaster Michael Nakasone shows a range of emotions during a recent performance of the Royal Hawaiian Band at Ala Moana’s Centerstage
Bandmaster Michael Nakasone shows a range of emotions during a recent performance of the Royal Hawaiian Band at Ala Moana’s Centerstage
Bandmaster Michael Nakasone
shows a range of emotions during
a recent performance of the Royal
Hawaiian Band at Ala Moana’s
Centerstage

Michael Nakasone might be conducting his greatest work to date. As bandmaster of the renowned Royal Hawaiian Band, he keeps 38 musicians in harmony while keeping tempo with the politics of a municipal administration.

Who knew music could be so complicated?

Well, it really isn’t, in his view. It’s all about the music.

And Nakasone, who celebrates one year as bandmaster this month, claims to have the “best job in the world” and always gets applauded when he performs. As he stands before the nation’s oldest municipal band, he is awestruck with the responsibility he’s been given.

Indeed, Nakasone is a modest type. Some say that if Nakasone could do his job from behind the Royal Hawaiian Band, he probably would. That’s how intent he is on wanting his musicians and the music of Hawaii to be in the forefront. Nakasone wants people to view the 170-year-old Royal Hawaiian Band with a fresh perspective and new eyes.

In the words of legendary band master John Philip Sousa, “My success is not due to any personal superiority over other people.”

A band means musicians, not the band-master, Nakasone tells us. He puts the musicians first. Correction. He puts the music first, which is produced and presented by skilled musicians.

Oh, what endearing music it is! The Royal Hawaiian Band plays classic Hawaiian music that originated during the monarchy period. The band’s repertoire consists of traditional compositions by Hawaii’s ali`i, such as Queen Lydia Lili`uokalani and King David Kalakaua.

For those who lament that it’s rare to hear authentic Hawaiian music any more, let us remind you that the Royal Hawaiian Band performs it live nearly every day.

If you’re at Iolani Palace on Friday or Kapiolani Park on Sunday, you’re hearing music that’s performed by only one band in the world. No group can duplicate it, and the people who perform it say it’s “chickenskin” authentic.


The Royal Hawaiian Band has been around a long time. It dates back to 1836 during the reign of King Kamehameha III, and is one of the few remaining links to the Hawaiian monarchy. It has been led by 21 conductors, with Henry Berger and Aaron Mahi possessing the longest tenures at 43 and 24 years, respectively.

Last February, Nakasone took leadership of the band after being a music educator at Pearl City High School for 28 years. At 60 Nakasone assumed not only the baton but the vision and mission of Hawaii’s musical legacy.

A job description like this might bring lesser men to their knees.

The vision of the Royal Hawaiian Band is “to promote and foster music, both current and historic, to preserve the Hawaiian musical culture, inspire young musicians and ultimately enrich the lives of the people of Hawaii.”

A year into his job, Nakasone is working hard to deliver music to the citizens of our community. His supportive wife of 36 years, Brenda, knows it well. It’s an all-consuming, seven-day-a-week job.


Plus, the Royal Hawaiian Band is a municipal agency comprised of city employees who are subject to Civil Service requirements and benefits. They are accountable to taxpayers for a service.

Along with road repair crews, refuse collectors, police officers, and other civil servants, they are busier than ever. With renewed energy and commitment, band members will make about 400 appearances this year. Public and private bookings keep the phones ringing.

To request a band booking requires a letter to the Mayor. There is no charge for non-profit organizations. For a private function, the cost is $1,200 for one hour.

Regular weekly performances are at Iolani Palace and Kapiolani Bandstand, plus Mililani Town Center on the first Saturday of each month, and Ala Moana Center on the second Wednesday of each month.

And best of all, they’re free!

Then, there are special engagements like Windward Mall on Feb. 25, Honolulu Festival parade on March 12, Diabetes Walk on March 19, and Punchbowl Easter Sunrise Service on April 16. And there are school visits and community outreach efforts sandwiched in-between. On the band schedule for February, there are only five “days off” in the month.

“We’re busier than ever,” says drummer Noel Okimoto.

But he’s not complaining. Neither is flautist Susan Gillespie, who reminds us that a musician must play music to feel “alive.” She quotes bandmaster Nakasone, who contends that if there’s no audience, “it’s just a rehearsal.”

Speaking of rehearsals, that’s another distinction of the Royal Hawaiian Band. Lacking the luxury of a rehearsal hall, there are few opportunities for the band to practice music together. Musicians practice their parts at home on an individual basis. Occasionally, there might be group practice at a borrowed facility like the Waikiki Shell or Kapiolani Bandstand. But lacking privacy and practice rooms, it’s not an ideal situation.

“We’re a road band,” laughs Okimoto, amused and amazed at how music sometimes comes together spontaneously on stage. That could only happen with truly skilled musicians who have an innate sense of music and confidence in their musicianship.

“The secret is to make it look easy to the audience,” says clarinetist-vocalist Gene Roland, one of the veteran band members. “That’s the mark of a true professional. We’re doing it all the time.”

Gillespie is one of the noteworthy musicians in the band. She was hired in 1974 as the first full-time woman instrumen-

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