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Like Father, Like Son

Mark Yamanaka plays the guitar, as son Jorden Kealoha-Yamanaka accompanies him on piano and guitar at the Shipman House in Hilo.

Coming off a successful showing at the recent Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards, Mark Yamanaka looks forward to spending the holidays with his musically inclined family, including eldest son Jorden, who’s back after his ˙ first semester at college.

‘Ohana is the No. 1 priority in Hawaiian musician Mark Yamanaka’s life. Beyond fame or the busy pace of the music biz, family is what keeps him both grounded and motivated.

Hawai‘i Island Midweek caught up with Yamanaka the day after his son, Jorden Kealoha-Yamanaka, returned home for the holidays from his first semester in college. A few moments spent with this father-son duo and you can see Yamanaka’s philosophy for this next generation of family musicians unfolding.

Yamanaka’s family also includes wife Leilani Yamanaka and daughter Ellie Yamanaka.

There was lots of laughter, minimal chord instruction, harmonizing on familiar scores, and moments when Yamanaka took the lead on guitar. However, there were even more moments when the veteran falsetto singer paused and let Jorden decide what was next.

Yamanaka’s latest album Lei Lehua — his third solo album — was all about his family, too.

Lei Lehua really was all about my life now,” says the Hilo-born Yamanaka.

One track, Grandma’s Love, was a song Yamanaka wrote and recorded on his computer when his grandmother passed away in 2015. Previously, he had played it only for family.

Daughter Kaleoonalani Kealoha-Yamanaka, Jorden and Leilani, who pose for a photo at the 2016 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards. PHOTO COURTESY MARK YAMANAKA

The song Leilani was the first song he ever wrote for his now-wife back in 2010.

“I was just playing around, and I came up with a cheesy verse and a hook line and it became a song,” he recalls. “We just got married right before we recorded this last album. So we wanted to revisit that old song and added a new verse to show where we are in the present.”

The song Morning Drive was co-written by Yamanaka’s wife.

Lei Lehua was recorded in a matter of one week on Kaua‘i,” says Yamanaka. “It was special that my wife, Leilani, was there with me, being a part of the process, too. She was able to give us her opinions on the songs. Having that input from a non-musical person was so important. Sometimes we musicians overthink things too much. Sometimes less is more.”

Lei Lehua, which features nine original songs written and co-written by Yamanaka, won five Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards this year, including Album of the Year, bringing his career total to 14 awards. (Yamanaka also won Album of the Year for his first two solo albums: Lei Pua Kenikeni in 2011, and Lei Maile in 2014.)

But Yamanaka wasn’t there to receive his accolades in person at this year’s Nā Hōkūs because Jorden was set to graduate from Kamehameha Schools that same day.

“I had no intention of missing that milestone in my son’s life,” says Yamanaka. “There was only one choice to be made and that was to be there watching my son get his high school diploma.”

He says the folks at Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts were supportive of his decision.

“Being a parent is so life-changing, rewarding and heartbreaking all at the same time,” he says. “What a trip. Family is everything to me. They are my inspiration and my backbone.”

As it turns out, music appears to inspire Yamanaka’s children as well.

“Music is my biggest passion, and I hope to make music a career one day,” says Jorden, 18, a freshman at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. “I’ve been surrounded by music all my life so it’s something that I can share with my whole family. My father was the one who taught me how to play my first chords on the ‘ukulele, and I’ve been playing music ever since.”

Jorden says with the help of his stepfather and grandfather, too, his musical talents continue to grow.

At the start of Jorden’s junior year in high school, Yamanaka took him to Las Vegas to perform at the annual Kumukahi ‘Ukulele & Hula Festival.

“I had the honor of singing a couple of songs in front of people outside of Hawai‘i,” Jorden says. “There’s a photo that someone took of my father and me on stage, laughing and smiling. That photo means so much to me because it shows the connection that me and my father have on stage, and I will be forever grateful for that moment.”

Yamanaka says that his son is a go-getter when it comes to performing and singing for people.

“It’s amazing to watch because I was never that way,” he says. “Kaleo, my daughter, on the other hand, reminds me of myself when I look back. She loves to sing in the car, in the shower and behind closed doors. But once there’s an audience, she gets really shy. So hopefully, with a little push, she will get over the stage fright and start performing because she has a beautiful voice.”

Kaleoonalani Kealoha-Yamanaka, 14, likes the fact that music runs in the family.

“When I was a baby, and even sometimes now, my dad would sing me this lullaby that I absolutely love and will always remember,” she says.

It was a lullaby Yamanaka made up to help them go to sleep.

It went something like, “Goodnight to my babies … see you in the morning when the day is new,” Yamanaka recalls.

Says Kaleo, “This had a big impact on my life as a kid because if my dad didn’t play music around me, I probably wouldn’t love it as much as I do.”

But Yamanaka knows there needs to be a careful balance of encouraging his keiki just enough when it comes to music.

“I knew there might be a chance they would want to pursue music because musical families tend to raise musical children, whether or not it’s forced upon them,” he says. “Being in the industry, I know how tough it is, but with their talents, and a lot of motivation and creativity, I think they can do it!”

Yamanaka’s own mentors include kumu hula of Hālau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua Johnny Lum Ho, whom he has played with for 20 years now.

“He taught me how to be confident in what I sang and always told me to sing loud and come in on time,” says Yamanaka, who has no formal music training. “That has always stuck with me, and I still continue to learn from him.”

And now Yamanaka has another little bundle to sing to. He and Leilani welcomed their daughter Ellie earlier this month.

“It’s so fun and interesting being a new daddy again with another baby,” he says. “This will allow me to remain young and on my toes at all times.”

Yamanaka’s focus in 2020 will remain on family, but he says he’s looking to also get back in the studio to do some recordings.

“Maybe singles or an EP,” he says. “I am not sure yet, but I do know I want to do music of other genres such as country and reggae, and maybe some cool collaborations with other artists.”

For Yamanaka, he says he doesn’t have an exact process for composing songs.

“There may be an idea or a melody that pops up in my head and when that happens I try to get on it really quickly before it runs away,” says Yamanaka, who listens to everything from Boyz II Men to Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross and George Strait in his car. (His favorites are old school ’80s and early ’90s music.)

“Thank goodness for the iPhone voice memo app,” he adds. “For the Morning Drive song I wrote with my wife, I sat at the computer desk and she sat on the couch, and we were taking it measure by measure. I don’t trust myself with memorizing tunes. We’d write line by line and I’d dabble with the guitar. I recorded it bit by bit on the iPhone. On other occasions, I will just be humming at work, or there’s some melody playing in my head.”

You can also catch up with Yamanaka at his day job at Aiona Car Sales, where he’s worked for 11 years.

“It’s nice to be able to come to work and hang with good folks and meet the customers that come on the car lot,” he says. “Just being able to remain ‘normal’ is important to me. Hilo is a small town, and I just want to be the same kid that grew up in Hilo right next door to the Aiona ‘ohana on Wiliwili Street.”

His parents always taught him to say “hi” with a smile, says Yamanaka, and be humble.

“Family made me want to stay in Hilo,” Yamanaka says. “After a family, it’s just the community support I get here. It’s just not the same vibe anywhere else.”

Visit markyamanaka.com to learn more.