The Master of the 'Ukulele:  
Herb "Ohta San" Ohta

Saturday, March 30, 2002
Suburbia, California 


DH/Pila & Ohta San
"A Song for Anna" from "A Night of 'Ukulele Jazz"

I was a late-comer to the full appreciation of the gifts of the 'ukulele.  I'd always liked its sweet and innocent, clean sound, but admittedly, I was stuck for a long time on the superficial, plinkety-plink level.  

Not so for my dear husband, known in this journal as DH. Named for his grandfather, his middle name is Bill.  As Keoki is for George and Kimo is for Jim, Pila is the Hawaiian transliteration of DH's middle name, Bill.  

Not William.  Just plain Bill.  And therefore, in Hawaiian, it's not Wiliama.  Just plain Pila.  

Stringed instruments play significant roles in my husband's life. Like Grandfather Bill.  Like  his father. Like son, my husband. Three generations of guitar players. The guitar was his first steady girlfriend, his college sweetheart, and remains to this day his faithful mistress. 

In Hawaiian culture, the meanings of names as prognosticators have greater importance than in the Western culture. Prognostically for my husband, "pila" is the Hawaiian word that is used to refer to "stringed instruments." 

Some things -- and names -- are just meant to be.

Early in our marriage, I resented this interloper and I can admit now, I was more than a bit jealous.  He cuddled and stroked his guitar like a lover, and oh, the beautiful music they made together!  In time, enjoying their music together, I matured and learned to share.  I came to the realization that his guitar and its notes make him happy, bring him joy.  Just as books -- my "gigolos" -- and their words fill and satisfy me. I could relate.  

Life is a patient teacher, and  this, I've come to learn from life: Pila's happiness is my happiness, cascading into our happiness.  We've been together for 30 years, and these days, his guitar is a lover for whom I feel neither animosity, nor jealousy. All of us are now on very friendly terms.  

Over the last few years, however, Pila has taken up with another.  His first love. The 'ukulele. Most evenings, if he's not strumming and picking on his guitar, he's playing his 'ukulele, his little sweetheart.  And they called it puppy love...

These days, he has several fillies in his collection of stringed instruments, including the original "baby" soprano Martin of his childhood. With a little 4-stringed 'ukulele that cost them $32.00 in 1960, his parents also gifted their son with a lifelong love for music.  Miraculously, it survived the head bashings intact.

These days, that same Martin 'ukulele would sell for $500 or more. To Pila, it is priceless.


So what better than for a 'ukulele player than to spend the last 48 hours of his spring vacation (he's a professor), immersed in the music of his 'ukulele hero, Ohta San?

Joseph & BJ

Thank goodness for our friends, Joseph and BJ, who let us know by email that the Hawai`i Daughters Guild, an exclusive, 32-year old group of thirty native Hawaiian women, were hosting their annual Holoku Ball at the beautiful Omni Hotel in downtown Los Angeles with Ohta San as the featured performer at this private gala. 

Would we like to go?


Little did they know that Pila may well be one of Ohta San's biggest fans.  Ohta is not, by the way, his first name, and San is not his last. Herb Ohta is affectionately known as "Ohta San."  Call it his stage name.  It literally means "Honorable Ohta," as the word "San" is the honorific suffix that follows the surname, conveying respect. (Amazing how prognosticating names can be!) 

As long as I can remember, it's been Ohta San. 

Pila has been in awe of Ohta San, his artistry, talent and musical genius for a long, long time.  

We last saw Ohta San in performance at the Aloha Jam Concert in Long Beach in 1996, an outdoor venue that is less-than-ideal for a concert 'ukulele virtuoso. It was, nonetheless, at this live performance that I was turned on to Ohta San's intricate and precision 'ukulele picking and musical artistry. 

March 1997 was the last time we saw Ohta San, and only in passing.  Home to see Keali'i Reichel in concert, we were getting off the elevator at the New Otani Kaimana Hotel in WaikÓkÓ, just as Ohta San was getting on.  

We were dumbstruck. Looking at each other incredulously, without words, we uttered the same thought, "Did you see who that was?"  We just nodded to each other, smiling at our good fortune to be within mere inches of Ohta San.

Since, my husband has waited patiently to see Ohta San perform again.  Five, long years.  Success rewards those who wait patiently...


So early this Saturday morning, as I eased  into a leisurely morning listening to Aloha Joe's online radio show, Pila was back on the freeway, heading out to the city.  As l listened to Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole's soulful and rhythmic 'ukulele playing, I thought about Ohta San's influence on every 'ukulele player who has followed him.  

Ohta San is 'ukulele's "mover and shaker."  Combining the 'ukulele with different genres, he has shaken people's expectations of what is 'ukulele music and challenged the status quo.

What an inspiration!

At the Omni Hotel in downtown LA, Pila spent blissful hours as a student at a `ukulele workshop presented by Ohta San himself.  He was joined by avid students:  our friend, Joseph; Greg, husband of  Aunty Maebelle (of the Aloha Joe radio show); John, husband of HDG member, Lei; Peter with his Fluke Uke; and others in the 'ukulele community.  

Pila returned home AGLOW

With enthusiasm and detail, he shared his morning with Ohta San with me.  The workshop was not just a sharing of technical expertise; Ohta San "talked story" about his life and career, generously sharing snippets of his experiences, pearls of wisdom, and tidbits during a Q&A session.

>> Talking Story with Ohta San,
'Ukulele Workshop, Los Angeles


As I listened to Pila, I got a wave from Heaven. 

Ohta San told his students that 'ukulele wizard Eddie Kamae was his mentor and inspiration. I did not know this.  

Ohta San  took his mentor's advice of developing his own musical style to heart and the rest, as they say, is history. Ohta San became the virtuoso of the 'ukulele.

I was once again reminded that life is full of intertwining circles. The spiritual inspiration behind the website is Mary Kawena Pukui, master of the Hawaiian language.  She is my mentor in spirit and she continues to inspire me to take action, use my humble gifts, and do my best to help keep the language alive and vital.

Aunty Kawena was Eddie Kamae's mentor and inspiration in life. I see today that Eddie and I share the same Hawaiian name: Leilani.   Yes, Eddie Kamae's middle name is Leilani.

Strange coincidences?  Perhaps. I  prefer to think of these promptings as heavenly taps on the shoulder.

Portrait by Madge Tennant, 1944,
Donald Angus Collection, Bishop Museum

>> Aunty Mary Kawena Pukui

I hear you, Aunty! 

It was then that I was inspired into action. I hung on to every word that Pila shared with me about Ohta San. He became less a far and distant, famous celebrity, and more a human being who maximized his God-given gifts.

Hungry to learn more about him, I tapped his name into and scoured the list of links, only to quickly discover that the online information on Ohta San is woefully sparse.  

He's a musical genius and virtuoso, for goodness sake!

"The world should have the opportunity to learn about him," I thought. "I'd like to help extend his musical reach and influence, if I can."

I decided then and there (By Golly!) to share the magnificence of this man, his talent and accomplishments.  At least, in my little way. To Ohta San's "talk story" information, I've added information gleaned from online sites, liner notes, and George Kanahele's book.  Within a month or two, the search engines will pick up the webpage, and those hungry for info will have a bit more to satisfy their curiosity.

Humble, Ohta San won't himself elaborate on his laurels. That's for sure.  But as his fan, I can take the liberty of braggin', although it is not bragging at all, just laying out the facts for display. In the details of this master's life is the stuff that enriches the Ohta San music experience. 

Just minutes of "researching" his life with the limited info that is accessible to me has expanded the breadth and depth of my Ohta San music appreciation.  I was amazed with his life accomplishments, heretofore unknown to me.

Perhaps getting to know Ohta San and his life will inspire present and future musicians, professionals and hobbyists alike.  

Maybe, you, too.

His life lessons are simple, yet profound.  Here a few that I have discerned from learning about him:  Success is in the details... precision counts... help others... exceed expectations... keep your humility... success comes to those who are patient... live life...  "smile though your heart is breaking"... hang in, hang tough when the going gets rough, as the best may be yet to come, maybe even right around the corner. 


A few short hours later, showered and cleaned up, Pila was back on the freeway with me in tow.  And what an evening we had!  It was rich in every way, and far more than we'd expected.

Here it is in photo form (do try Yahoo's spiffy slideshow feature):


After an elegant holokŻ competition; a formal sit-down dinner with fine Pinot Grigio wine at the table of Guild President, Sharon Ku`uipo Kana`e Paulo formerly from Maui, who went to school at Baldwin and Kamehameha Schools; and a lively, entertaining pageant celebrating the  'ukulele with song, narrative and dance, it was time for the featured artist's performance.

Ohta San opened with those strikingly familiar notes from his signature song, "A Song for Anna".  Notes so familiar to those of us who remember... 

In 1974, this song, written expressly for Ohta San by famed French composer and conductor Andrť Popp, became an international hit, eventually selling upward of  6 million copies. 

An auspicious year, 1974, for Ohta San and for us. The year we married.  Now that's got to mean something.

Ohta San literally performed magic on that diminutive fingerboard.  A superb magician-artist, he makes the beauty and power of the music coming out of the 'ukulele startlingly alive. And seemingly effortlessly.

In the autumn years of my life, Ohta San's beautifully dreamy rendition of  "Autumn Leaves" captivated me. 

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold....
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands, I used to hold
Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song.
But I miss you most of all my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.

Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song.
But I miss you most of all my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.
~ English lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Music by Joseph Kosma

Ohta San played a beautiful rendition of  "Pua Lililehua" by Mary Kawena Pukui.  After he playing it masterfully, he said, "I really like that song, because it is so...pretty."

Mahalo e Aunty Kawena for once again bringing us together, full-circle.  Yes, it is so pretty.


Ohta San's evocative renditions of unforgettable songs possess an uncanny ability to hold me spellbound. Time flew and although it was a full evening, I could have listened to Ohta San's lush chord melodies and sweet finger-picking all night long.

His song list included:  My Little Grass Shack; One from the Broadway play, "A Chorus Line";  Jimmy Van Heusen's song, Like Someone In Love; Kui Lee's Where is My Love Tonight?; a Latin Samba -- Begin the Beguine; Paoakalani by Queen Lili`uokalani; E Hihiwai and a medley of Pua Hone and Wahine 'Ilikea by Dennis Kamakahi;  Irving Berlin's Sayonara, and his encore number, Sukiyaki.

Before he played Sukiyaki, he invited the audience to join in, "Sing along if you know the words. If you don't, no sing." 

I hummed. "Mm mm mm, mm mm mm mmm."

A few months ago, I chanced upon Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto's website to learn that he had perished in a 1985 plane crash. Saddened, with the words to Sukiyaki in front of me, I sang his song to honor him. Hearing Ohta San play this delightful song tonight,  I am now motivated to learn the words, so next time, I can really accompany Ohta San.  Watch out!

>> Cord International:  Listen to clips from Ohta San's "Where is My Love Tonight" CD


Before we took our leave, Pila insisted that I meet Roy Sakuma.  He was so taken by him. I saw "it" at  first glance. The similarities between them are striking. Not by looks, but hearts. Soul kin, those two.

I've since found out, both were kolohe in school, and no one who knew them back then would ever believe the distance and direction each has traveled in life. DH/Pila's high school counselor told him, "Don't bother applying to college.  You're not college material." 


Today, Pila and Roy are educators. With uncommon empathy, they help the youth find their places and joys in life. With the help of their caring mentors, they found their niches and joys.  These days, they give back as mentors and teachers, themselves. 

Some things don't change. Both are still kolohe sometimes.  Look at their eyes. See those glimmers of kolohe-ness?

DH/Pila & Roy, once and always, kolohe buggahs

What a difference an evening makes, as I will more fully appreciate 'ukulele musicianry on a whole different level.  I can't wait for tomorrow; Ohta San will be in concert in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles.  A comfortable, intimate concert hall, air-conditioned, and with excellent acoustics and great sightlines, the Aratani/Japan America Theatre is the perfect venue for his virtuosity.

Sleep well, dear husband, there's one more trip to downtown LA to go.... 

>> Next Day:  Easter Sunday with Ohta San


>> "Talking Story" with Ohta San from His 'Ukulele Workshop. LA
>> More on Ohta San
>> Biographical info on Ohta San
>> Excerpts on Herb "Ohta San" Ohta from HAWAIIAN MUSIC AND MUSICIANS, edited by George S. Kanahele

"Life is a Gift."

Me ke Aloha, 
Author Unknown

 "The only gift is a portion of thyself..."
Ralph Waldo Emerson


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This web journal was created on a September Morn, 
September 29, 2001
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