A Son of Makaha Passes

December 14, 2012 at 6:44 am

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By Terry Watada

For those in the Greater Toronto Area who were treated to the extravaganzas provided by the Hawaiian musical group the Makaha Sons back in 2009 and 2011, sadly, I have to announce the passing of John Koko. The popular bass player died June 25, 2012, of the heart problems he had since he was a young boy. He was 51 years old.

Born and raised in Nanakuli, on the southwestern shore of Oahu, Hawaii, he wasn’t able to complete his high school education because of those aforementioned health issues. He was so proud when in 1999 he completed his GED.
He started his musical career when he was 12 years old back in the 1970s. He was in a group called Na Leo O Nanakuli who eventually became known as Third Road Delight. They appeared regularly at the Makaha Sheraton. He joined the Makaha Sons in 1982 and enjoyed a long career.

The group itself started in 1976 as a five piece band featuring close harmonies and easy melodies. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole formed the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau (Makaha is a small town on the north shore of Oahu) with his brother Skippy, Louis “Moon” Kauakahi (brother-in-law to Skippy and Iz), Sam Gray and Jerome Koko. They began as the opening act of a small club called Uptown Yokos [sic]. They eventually toured the Hawaiian Islands, gaining enough popularity to begin touring the west coast.

In 1982, Skippy died of a heart attack. The band reorganized with John Koko joining as an upright bass player and continued to play and record. John brought a light touch to the act. His outgoing personality, sense of humour and obvious stage presence made him a fan favourite. Certainly that came across in the two Toronto concerts (2009 and 2011).

After more than twenty albums, their Ho’Oluana in 1991 is perhaps their best selling album. It was the last with Israel who went onto a solo career. His simple rendition of Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World made him famous the world over. Unfortunately, Israel, perhaps the best known Hawaiian musician, passed away in 1997.

Sometime in the late 1990s, the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau became a trio and were known as simply the Makaha Sons. Their goal from the beginning was to perpetuate Hawaiian culture and music. To this end, they chose their material carefully – from traditional Hawaiian folk songs like Ali’i ‘Iolani to original songs that celebrate Hawaii, Mehameha/White Sandy Beach for example. Add to that the slack-key guitar and jangly twelve-string and a distinctive Hawaiian sound emerged.
For their efforts, they have been awarded several Na Hoku Hanohano and Hawaii Music Awards for their commitment to the ideal of Hawaiian music. They have performed for the president and vice-president (Clinton and Gore) of the United States in Washington DC. They have played Carnegie Hall. They have played venues around the world (especially in Japan). As an indication of their reach, they had to postpone performances in Argentina, Brazil and Germany because of John’s deteriorating condition. They have also appeared as featured guests on shows like The Captain and Tennille Show and NBC’s Today Show with Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric. They appeared in concert with the inimitable Kenny Loggins.

John Koko was a devout Christian and devoted family man. Though he dabbled with modelling, chess, and achieved respected status as an artist, painting landscapes in oil, acrylics, water and charcoal, his family came first. He liked nothing better than taking them to restaurants, attending school functions or just “riding in the car around the island looking for that perfect sunset” as his friends testify.

Since John Koko’s funeral, there has been an outpouring of love. You Tube is filled with musical clips, Facebook contains many tributes and messages of sympathy and grief, and the musician Del Beazley wrote a moving song to the man.
Beazley, a Na Hoku Hanohano Award winning artist, recorded the song with John Koko’s brother Jerome and Louis “Moon” Kauakahi, the other two members of the Makaha Sons. He stated that he wrote the song the evening John Koko died “as my way of dealing with my good friend’s death … I just sat down and I wrote, and within a half an hour or so, I came up with a very simple tune to honour my friend.”

Beazley continued, “I asked Moon and Jerome to come and help because I wanted to capture that signature Makaha Sons sound. The song is real simple and I think everyone can take something away from it.”
The song is recorded with three guitars and no bass. “[The bass] belongs to John, and that’s our way of honouring him.” Just a Little is available as a free download at the Sons’ website, www.makahasons.com. John Koko’s family offers the song for free to honour the man and as a gift of appreciation to his many fans.

John Koko is survived by his wife Tonia and sons John Jr., Jerman, Jordon, Jerry, two grandchildren and of course the Makaha Sons.