If you’ve heard of Daniel Ho, it’s most likely from his recent concerts and recordings of Hawaiian music on ukulele, or the music books he’s written for the instrument. But this music making Renaissance man is a multi-instrumentalist who has his own record label and production company.
He’s won six Grammy awards as a producer and artist. His solo ukulele CD Polani was the first ukulele album ever nominated for a Grammy. The following year his piano album E Kahe Malie was nominated in the category Best Pop Instrumental Album, and On a Gentle Island Breeze, on which he plays ukulele, piano, and slack key guitar, was nominated in the World Music category in 2012.
Born in Oahu, Hawaii, Ho had a natural penchant for music from the start. “My mom had one of those really small pianos like Schroeder from the Peanuts played on. My first experience was at age three and my first song was ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in the key of C,” laughs Ho.
Other instruments followed: in second grade he picked up organ, in third grade ukulele, fourth grade was classical guitar, and in sixth grade he began classical piano lessons. At the time, guitar was his favorite. “I had an old Takamine guitar and I would put my ear on the side of the body and pluck the strings. That was the most incredible sound,” he says.
High school meant more opportunities: snare drum in marching band, bass, and singing and dance lessons. “For a career, I always wanted to be a musician. I had no other interests in anything really,” he says, adding that he wasn’t particularly good at any one instrument.
Ho credits his high school band director with giving him direction. “I was very lucky because my band director at St. Louis High School was Ray Wessinger, a former assistant director of music at MGM who had retired to Hawaii,” says Ho. Wessinger had played with many famous jazz musicians. “He taught me music theory and jazz writing for big band. That’s when I realized that I would probably be a writer.”
After graduating high school, Ho attended the Grove School of Music in Los Angeles. He excelled at school and flourished in the L.A. lifestyle, however, when his dad suffered a stroke he returned to Hawaii to study locally.
About one year later, Ho got a job with a publishing company and returned to L.A. When the company folded after six months, Ho was desperate to stay in L.A. “I had saved about $10,000 and I told myself, if I can’t make it work, I’ll move back home.” He lived as frugally as possible and desperately sent out demo tapes for the jazz group he’d put together.
“I got a record deal, and because I could write and arrange, I led the group,” says Ho of his smooth jazz band Kilauea. “I was arranger, producer, and writer. We did a lot of touring and our albums got national airplay.” Ho was also Kilauea’s keyboardist.
All the while, he was soaking it all up and learning as much as he could about the music industry. “I learned how to produce records and work in the studio,” he says. “I was given the opportunity to make decisions and work with engineers and others who were a lot more knowledgeable than I was. I kept my eyes and ears wide open and picked up as much as I could. Later on I would use those skills to start my own label and make records.”
When the record deal ended, Ho was kind of glad it was over. “I’d had a taste of the music business and it’s kind of what everybody makes it out to be,” he says. “A business person is there to exploit intellectual property and generate revenue. Artists see their songs as music, not business. I put my heart and soul and sweat into songs. To me they are works of art.”
Ho wanted to do things differently when he launched his own label in the 1990s. “I wanted to make decisions for myself and eventually have the autonomy and the artistic feel to get to the point where I could do the music that I’m passionate about,” he explains.
Still, the bottom line for any label is that you have to make money to stay in business. “Every decision you make you are putting your own money on the line. So, it was fun. I loved it! But, I don’t gamble in Vegas. Sometimes I think, ‘This is going to work,’ and other times it’s more like, ‘Hey, I love this music so much that I’m going to make this record exactly as I want it and I don’t care if it sells.’”
“We’ve done over 100 records since the mid ’90s. It was great learning about different styles of music and how different people work. You learn what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good,” he says.
In the past few years Ho has focused more on Hawaiian music, both in producing and as a performer. He says that getting back into Hawaiian music meant getting back to his roots, the stuff he grew up with. It’s also simply more practical than traveling with a six-piece contemporary jazz band like Kilauea.
“You needed to backline the percussion, the keyboard, you need six hotel rooms and air fares, and I couldn’t even play at a radio station with my piano,” says Ho. “So I switched instruments. I started playing slack key guitar and performing as a soloist. That was the late ’90s.”
That kind of flexibility is another advantage of having your own label he contends. “If you are on someone else’s label they’ll never let you change genres and instruments. You are starting from scratch, not a good economic decision that any business would make.”
Ho credits slack key legend George Kahumoko, Jr., one of the first artists on Ho’s label, with inspiring him. “The first CD of his we recorded was Hymns of Hawaii, and it’s one of our best selling CDs. He took me under his wing and gave me a start in a completely different genre. Without him, I don’t think I would be me,” says Ho.
Today, Ho takes great joy in all aspects of working in the music industry under his own terms. He says his favorite part is “making things.” “I love going to the manufacturer, picking up the CD, and tearing open the shrink wrap for the first time. I love the process of writing. It is like a 3D puzzle, trying to make all the pieces fit together melodically, harmonically. And
I love performing because of the
Ho’s focus on Hawaiian music has now evolved to mostly performing on ukulele. “It’s probably about 90% of my work now,” he says. “I love the ukulele. I can take it everywhere. It’s a way to have music with you all the time.”
“It’s such a cute happy sound,” he says, adding that the little folk instrument has gained huge popularity in the past few years, probably partially due to its simplicity and lack of pretension. “It’s a social instrument. You can get 50 people every week jamming together,” he says.
“There’s not a lot of repertoire available,” Ho says, but he’s doing his part to help with that. “I write down and document everything that I compose and arrange. A lot of people say, ‘Hey, I want to learn how to play that.’ I say, ‘Here’s the book.’” Ho’s arrangements are available through Alfred Music (www.alfred.com).
Ho takes great passion in promoting the little instrument. He’s currently hard at work on a Worldwide Virtual Ukulele Ensemble video. Ukulele enthusiasts from all around the world have until March 15 to submit a video of themselves playing his tune “Pineapple Mango.” Instructions, videos, and music for the project can be found at www.MakingMusicMag.com/virtual-ukulele-ensemble.
“What I wanted to do was create something that was inclusive, that brings everyone together from clubs to professionals to amateurs to people who just love the instrument; kind of a statement of unity,” he says of the project that he hopes will include hundreds of ukulele players from around the world. “I asked everyone to put a sign where you are and what the organization is.” The video will be launched at the Reno Ukulele Festival held April 24-27 and then posted on YouTube afterwards.
Being his own producer also gives Ho the opportunity to delve into lots of varied projects. For example, he recently recorded a duet of “Romance” with world-renowned classical guitarist Pepe Romero. He’s recording a duet with Chinese pipa player Wu Man. Plus, he wrote and recorded the theme song, “Of Friendships and Dreams,” for Honda’s record-breaking float that led the 2014 Rose Parade.
–If you like this article check out our Daniel Ho Ukulele Contest.
–Want more Ukulele Professionals? Here’s our chat with Jake Shimakukuro.
–Want to learn the ukulele? This store is filled with helpful books and videos.