An Interview with the Musician Daniel Ho
Despite winning more Grammy awards than he could safely carry, Daniel Ho remains a kind and giving soul, effusively non-cutthroat in a tough, competitive industry that often rewards artists acting out. Speaking with him as he readied for a trip to Japan, he was happy discussing everything from the intricacies of melodic structure to his favorite Hawaiian fish restaurants.
An accomplished musician, Daniel has released ukulele, slack key guitar, piano, jazz, folk and pop albums. He has written books, toured the world, guest-lectured at Stanford University and had recordings featured in major motion pictures. He is both scientist and artist, a master producer and technician who completely understands and controls the sonics of music, while displaying an easy and emotive connection to the soul of the music.
Though he now lives in Los Angeles, his connection to Hawaii runs deep and you distinctly hear it in his beautiful music. But that Hawaiian connection is also found in his gracious attitude as he gladly gives of his time, doing what comes naturally to keep the music he loves so much, alive and relevant. It’s a true Hawaiian sensibility: keeping it simple, keeping it real, honoring the place, and always being the wonderful, amiable host.
OutriggerHawaii: Musician, producer, label owner, artist…which is the best? Which one is the true you? Where you feel most comfortable?
Daniel Ho: Well, I'm primarily trained as a composer. I studied composing, arranging, and film scoring in music school. So that's my background. I gradually started to learn a little bit about audio engineering, because it's the next logical step in managing sound - actually knowing the frequencies, the sound... So I would say, being a composer and producer, that's my comfort zone and probably what I know best - and it's certainly what I do the most. It’s my day job, yeah. [laughs]
OutriggerHawaii: You have won Grammy’s for your Hawaiian music, but you’ve released CDs that show a wide range of musical styles.
Daniel Ho: Right…the first album I ever did was all over the place musically. It had dance music, contemporary jazz, ukulele music…and it was such a mishmash that it really wasn't listenable… There might be good stuff there, but not in that setting, yeah? So now what I try to do is, if I'm going to do an ukulele album, it is only ukulele. If I'm doing a vocal album in English language, then it's only that. A slack key album is only that. I separate the piano album from the guitar album from the uke album. And that way if someone's only interested in the instrumental piano stuff, they don't have to deal with me singing out of tune. [laughs]
OutriggerHawaii: What’s been the path to get you where you are today?
Daniel Ho: I don't even know how it happened, but looking back, I started as a writer, so I did a lot of arranging and studio work and production stuff. And then I started throwing out some of my own originals, got a record deal and had a group called Kilauea, doing contemporary jazz music, where harmonically and rhythmically you could be really musically adventurous. But that kind of stuff did not go over well on the radio.
So, I started a record label and did some original piano records, because I played a lot more piano at that time. But it’s very difficult to sell original music. I started recording George Kahumoku, Jr., who did a lot of traditional Hawaiian songs and Hawaiian hymns…things like that. And boy, he sold a lot of records! [laughs]
I mean, he's a great artist - he got me into Hawaiian music, and it really made it perfectly clear what people wanted to hear. They wanted to hear things that were familiar: "Tiny Bubbles," or "I'll Remember You" by Kui Lee, and traditional Hawaiian hula songs. I mean, for every one CD I'd sell, he'd sell 20. [laughs] So now, a lot of my solo projects, like this ukulele project I just recorded, is completely original music. And I'm writing a songbook in support of it, because my hope is that by recording it and also teaching it, the music will continue to perpetuate…to stay alive.
An instrumental slack key guitar record or an ukulele record is not going to get radio play, so you just try to get it out there in different ways…keep doing what you believe in, and eventually, hopefully, something will catch on.
OutriggerHawaii: You mentioned your solo ukulele record. What is it about the instrument that’s so cool?
Daniel Ho: Well - it's a feeling. It's that good, happy, relaxed feeling associated with the place, the island, and the people, and what you experience when you visit. I don't think you can play an ukulele and be unhappy. It's be really hard. I mean, you could try all the minor chords and everything, try to play a real sad song on uke. Won’t work... Wistful though, definitely. You can do wistful...
By the same token, Slack Key Guitar is very relaxed. It has that feeling built into the music. And since I grew up in Hawaii, it's very true to who I am. And something I love doing.
Over the years, I've done a lot of commercial music here Los Angeles: film scoring, orchestrating…been on other record labels and so on. I have experience doing music for function - to underscore a scene, or support a commercial or whatever. But playing and recording Hawaiian music - even though we don't make tons of money doing it - it’s more true to who I am… It's very rewarding.
And the people we work with, like George Kahumoku, Jr., Kawaikapuokalani Hewitt, or Darlene Ahuna, Herb Ohta, Jr…they're friends, first and foremost. We love being together and hanging out. When we go on tour we're not staying in separate hotels with different buses and flying on different airplanes.
OutriggerHawaii: Is there a song that you never tire of playing?
Daniel Ho: I like playing "Living in Paradise." It's another fun song that Faith and I wrote about Hawaii and how it's not easy to make ends meet there. But you know it's all worth it, because you've got beautiful blue skies and it's a great place to be.
OutriggerHawaii: If I'm planning a trip to the island, what's one Daniel Ho song I should listen to before I go?
Daniel Ho: Let’s see… [thinks for a moment] "Along for the Ride." It's a song that I wrote with Faith Rivera, another Sacred Hearts Academy graduate and Hawaii transplant. We were cruising Sunset Boulevard reminiscing about what life was like in Hawaii: barbecuing on weekends, taking the time to smell the flowers…contrasting that with how L.A. can be like: marry a Supreme Court justice and raise 2.5 millionaires, buy a big house in Bel Air. Which are all part of the lyrics. We equate that to being on ‘The Bus’ and just being along for the ride…not having to be in control. It's a fun song that’s been recorded a few times by different groups. And was even a little bit of a hit single in Hawaii…
OutriggerHawaii: You live in California now - how often do you return to Hawaii?
Daniel Ho: I used to go back about every other month to visit family and to promote releases, but in the last couple years I haven't been able to go back as much. My father-in-law has been sick and we help take care of him, so we don't travel as often.
OutriggerHawaii: So when you're not there, what do you miss?
Daniel Ho: Well, all kinds of things. [laughs] I think what surprises me the most when I land in Hawaii is how blue the sky is. I get in the rental car and start driving to Honolulu, and - the sky is so blue... Maybe it's partly just the weather and the way it makes you feel. The cool breeze… The trade winds… There is such a relaxed atmosphere and people are so polite and friendly…it’s a lot of things…such a different vibe…
OutriggerHawaii: What is it about Hawaii that mainlanders and non-Hawaiians love so much?
Daniel Ho: I think Hawaii is more than just a location. There's a lot of tropical destinations you can go to. It's a way of life and I think the Hawaiian culture, the music, the traditions, hula, ukulele, and slack key guitar…all of that together really just makes it a very special place. So it is the culture, the traditions and the music. You know, in the middle of a cold winter, you turn up the heat and play your ukulele and sing some Hawaiian songs … it takes you somewhere else. [laughs]
OutriggerHawaii: What is the first thing you do after you get there?
Daniel Ho: Well, the first thing we do is we get in our rental car and we drive to Yama's Fish Market and get a pound of ahi limu poke and eat it in the car [laughs] on the way to check into the hotel. It's just so good. And I love it when they make it fresh because the rock salt isn't quite melted yet so you get these little spikes of salt. It's on Young Street, between King Street and Beretania.
OutriggerHawaii: Care to divulge any of your favorite off-the-beaten-path places?
Daniel Ho: Well, one place we like to go to is Henry Loui's, in Mapunapuna, which is not far from the airport. It's kind of like a little Cheers hangout - a bar, karaoke, and they have really good food and always familiar faces.
And probably the best sushi place in Hawaii is Mitch's Sushi, in Mitch's Fish Market…also right by the airport…it's really good. I think they have 13 seats in the whole restaurant… And what makes it so good is that it's an actual fish distributor – so it’s very fresh fish. And also their sushi chefs are from Japan, so it's prepared in an authentic way.
Note: Daniel Ho’s restaurant suggestions are listed with addresses at the end of this article.
OutriggerHawaii: Is there one activity I should do?
Daniel Ho: Well, definitely get in the water. That's a healing experience. Feel the warm water and the gentle currents. I always love doing that.
OutriggerHawaii: What have you been up to lately?
Daniel Ho: Well, I'm finishing up two books. I spent the last couple months writing because I had construction going on in my house and I couldn't record any music. [laughs]
One is called Na Ikena, and is a songbook of the music on the Ikena and He Nani CDs I did with Tia Carrere. I co-wrote the book with our lyricist Amy Kuuleialoha Stillman. She wrote the background of the songs, what they mean and how they came about. We also touched on the cultural politics and the music business in Hawaii, hula, … all kinds of other things. The other book I just finished is called Colorful Sounds. It’s an advanced music theory book about the harmonic system I use to compose and to play.
I was originally taught it by Dick Grove at the Grove School of Music, back in 1986, but have since adapted it in my own way.
OutriggerHawaii: You seem like kind of a giving, authentically nice person. What do you attribute that to? And do you find it difficult sometimes to remain that way in your business – which, you know, has a bit of a reputation at times?
Daniel Ho: Well, I am the way I am because of my father. He raised my brother and I. My mom passed away from cancer when I was 5. And my dad provided for us and sent us to school and was a role model. He was a very gentle person, always on time, always laughing, always friendly and very giving… He wasn't strict, but we knew that he worked hard and we wanted to be respectful of him. And yeah, I think he kind of shaped me that way just by being an example. It is difficult in this cutthroat business to not be that way. I've learned a lot about human nature and how competitive people can be from being in this business.
But I found my way by minding my own business and making our home our sanctuary. So, we stay home and do what we love, spending time with people we care about. Life has to be simple.
Restaurants mentioned by Daniel Ho:
Yama's Fish Market
2332 Young Street
Honolulu, HI 96826
Henry Loui's Restaurant
2850 Paa St in Mapunapuna
Honolulu, HI 96819
524 Ohohia Street
Honolulu, HI 96819-1934
OutriggerHawaii proudly features Daniel Ho’s music on the following videos throughout our website:
Experience the Road to Hana
Discover Genuine Experiences
Get Lost in Kauai
The Essence of Hawaii
Enjoy Kilauea Point
Whales Return to Hawaii