Piano and guitar amplified

Singer / guitarist Jimi Canha and keyboard-player Gilbert Emata visit Maui College with their music. Karyn Sarring invites Anne Ku to hear them in her piano and voice classes.

“You’re the third accountant I know who has become a full-time professional musician,” I said to singer/guitarist Jimi Canha over lunch this afternoon.

To his gig partner, Gilbert Emata who started taking lessons on the organ and piano from age 6 and who grew up in the Filipino equivalent of the Jackson Five, I said, “I took piano lessons from a music academy run by Filipino teachers on Okinawa. They’re the best musicians in Singapore I later discovered when I worked there.”

But I had more things in common than the accountant and Filipino teacher connection. Gilbert Emata and Jimi Canha are a duo — a keyboard and guitar/voice duo who plays regularly on Maui. On Thursday evenings, they play at the Grand Wailea. More recently they were flown to the island of Kauai to play for a Google convention.

Gilbert  Emata and jimi Canha at UHMC, Maui, 9 November 2011
Gilbert Emata and Jimi Canha at UHMC, Maui, 9 November 2011

Today they appeared in three consecutive music classes at the University of Hawaii Maui College as professional musicians and guest lecturers. I walked into the second class (a piano class) around 10:50 am. The performance was in full swing. It was as if they had brought their gig from a five star hotel into a class room. The front was set up with two amplified speakers and cables connecting keyboards, synthesizers, microphone, and other equipment.

In between their songs, Karyn Sarring, who teaches the piano and voice classes at the college, interviewed the musicians.

Jimi Canha told the story of how he learned music by ear and very quickly too. If a guest requested a song he didn’t know, he’d learn it overnight to play it the next day. At college he took a slack key guitar class but otherwise he was mostly self-taught — on the guitar, trumpet, drums, and keyboards. He worked as an accountant for some 20 years before turning his part-time hobby into a full-time profession.

Between his guitar and his microphone sat a small and nearly invisible iPad on a small stand. Jimi Canha showed the class that the iPad stored just the lyrics of songs he sang. No chords. No notes. Just lyrics. When asked which key he sang in, he replied, “It depends on the mood. I choose a low key if I want to be mellow. For a full band sound, I choose a higher key. This morning I started in A. After I’ve warmed up, I might move to B.”

Gilbert Emata elaborated. “By the time we finish our gig at the Grand Wailea, it’s 9 pm. We pack up and drive home. It’s 10 or 10:30 pm. I shower and eat, and it’s already 11:30.” Jimi Canha added, “This is the earliest we’ve had to get up to perform. We were here at, what? – 9 am?”

Once the original keyboard player for Ekolu, Gilbert brought the synthesizer to the group. When he left, Ekolu replaced him with two horn players. Since then he has played with various groups. His recording credits include Uncle Willie K’s red Christmas CD and also a forthcoming blues CD. As he introduced his bass keyboard, main keyboard, synthesizer, drum kit, and speakers that altogether gave him a full band sound, he played riffs that I recognised immediately: the Hammond organ and a familiar rock and roll sound. The grand piano and a nostalgic melody. The bass and drum kit producing a rhythm that made you dance. Here was a musician with an obviously huge repertoire and an ability to follow and accompany anything and everything.

An exchange student asked,”How do you get gigs?”

It’s the typical and most asked question of any musician who wants to perform. Jimi replied,”You start by playing for free. Play for your church. Play at family gatherings.” In other words, don’t expect to be paid when you first start out.

Gilbert added,”We had a guy from the Big Island come to our gigs. He watched us. Then he asked if he could sit in with us. We heard him. Now he plays four nights a week.” In other words, you have to be heard. Show up. This was an informal audition.

In a nutshell, the music scene is small on Maui. Everybody knows everybody (who is a musician). Jimi describes good musicians as those you can “see their heart through their music.” He played the Tahitian drums with a fire knife dancer during Uncle Willie K’s 15-minute performance in the Oakland Raiders football game. It was a great opportunity to share the aloha spirit — the essence of Hawaiian music.

It was 3 pm. Lunch was over. Gilbert and Jimi had given most of their Wednesday to eager students and two teachers. Karyn had another class to get back to. I was grateful to be invited to hear two local musicians share a sample of their vast repertoire, from reggae to jazz, from pop to rock. Until my own piano guitar duo returns, I am rejuvenated by the musicianship in theirs.