Photo: Lydia Miyashiro
Though Daniel Ho has become very well-known in traditional Hawaiian music circles thanks to his co-production work and playing on last year's Grammy-winning CD Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Vol. 1 and this year's Grammy-winning Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Live From Maui, he has had a long and interesting career working in many different musical genres. The multi-instrumentalist (guitars, keyboards, drums, programming, etc.) is a classically trained pianist; he fronted a contemporary jazz ensemble; he's an accomplished singer/songwriter whose tunes often fall outside of strictly Hawaiian styles; and he's a successful record company owner. Daniel Ho Creations has put out dozens of CDs of mostly Hawaiian-themed music, from his wonderful collaborations with George Kahumoku Jr. of Hawaiian hymns to his series on Classic Hawaiian Hulas, Ukuleles in Paradise (Ho with Herb Ohta Jr.) and much more.
When I suggest that he's a mini-record mogul, Ho laughs and quickly disabuses me of the notion. “The ‘record company’ is just part of my house [in the Westwood section of Los Angeles],” he says. “My studio is in the master bedroom. Our ‘office’ is in a back room, and the ‘warehouse’ is shelves in my garage. But keeping everything small and manageable is how we've been able to put out as many CDs as we have and not go completely broke doing it.”
Ho was born and raised on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and as a youth studied piano, organ, ukulele, classical guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums and voice. He went to the mainland (L.A.) to study at the Grove School of Music and then stayed in the area and formed his first band, Kilauea, which, despite its Hawaiian name, was actually a very commercial-sounding, contemporary instrumental jazz band. During the course of some seven years together (1990 to 1997), Kilauea put out six very successful albums, with Ho acting as leader, keyboardist and producer. Two of their records hit the Top 10 on Billboard's jazz charts and the group was widely embraced by smooth-jazz radio stations.
But after a point, Ho became disillusioned by the increasingly strict requirements of the smooth-jazz format and longed to start his own label and explore other musical styles. “I wanted a lot more freedom, so in 1997 or '98, I put my own money down and I started a vanity press — Daniel Ho Creations — and I managed to secure national distribution because of the sales I'd had with Kilauea.
“I got back to my roots in Hawaiian music and went back to working almost exclusively with acoustic instruments. I couldn't wait to get away from synthesizers and programmed music,” he says with a laugh. “So my label is pretty much all acoustic music and we deal with soloists, duos and trios, and that's really about it. It's easy to support a record as a soloist. That's a reason I went from keyboards to guitar. I can travel all over: You get a guitar and jump on the plane and you don't have to worry about whether the rinky-dink keyboard on the other end has 88 keys or 61, or what it sounds like.”
The first artist Ho worked with on his new label was slack-key master George Kahumoku Jr. on the first Hymns of Hawaii album. Ho recalls, “He'd been wanting to record an album of Christian hymns sung in Hawaiian for 10 years, but no label wanted to do that, so I gave him that chance. I feel that when an artist does music that's true to them, that's more important than something that is supposedly commercially viable. But because we work at such a grassroots level, we can afford to take those chances and not have to earn tons of money on a CD to break even.”
Through the years, out of necessity, Ho has learned to be fairly self-sufficient in the studio, handling rudimentary engineering tasks. “I've learned on the job all along,” he comments. “I learned the production skill part of it producing for Kilauea. We cut our teeth on 2-inch tape in various studios around town [including Ocean Way, Mad Hatter and others]. In the mid-'90s, when ADATs came out, I started doing pre-production at home, and that's how I picked up tracking. At that time, I had a Mac SE [and I used] Sound Designer II, and could only do stereo files, and it was really quite tedious to work on. I have a friend from Hawaii I've known since we were kids named David Ho [no relation], who does movie post-production now, but he builds studios and he's been an audio engineer. He told me exactly what to buy for my studio and how to use it. Then, after learning how to mike things and do tracking, I learned how to manage the sound and add EQ, and that took years and years. Right now, I have the Mac Pro with the 2.66GHz Woodcrest processor, but I'm in the process of revamping my setup. I just bought 20-inch monitors and a couple of terabytes of memory. I'm looking at a few things: I'm excited about the [new] Mackie 1200F Onyx preamps.”
Ho says his house is great for recording acoustic music, with its oak hardwood floors and a long hallway that has a wonderfully natural reverberant sound. He occasionally augments the built-in acoustics with a checkerboard of Fiberglas panels on the walls. “When I record guitars and vocals, I just throw a blanket over the drum set so nothing is ringing, and the wood in the room makes the sound pretty nice,” Ho says. “But for those, I'm close-miking.”
The two slack-key guitar compilation CDs that earned Grammy attention were hardly ideal from a recording perspective. Every Wednesday night for the past few years, the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Kapalua, Maui, has hosted a slack-key show run by George Kahumoku, and featuring some of the finest players in the Islands. Paul Konwiser, who helps put on the shows through his Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Productions, approached Ho about putting together a DVD based on the Ritz-Carlton shows, “but I told him I have very little experience with visuals and I know it's very expensive to do a multicamera shoot,” Ho says.
But he mentioned that he had CDs of every single show, so I suggested putting out CDs instead. He gave me hundreds of CDs and had me go through them to pick out the best tracks. These were very simple recordings — they were archiving direct to a CD writer — and not mixed in any way. On some there was no separation between vocals and guitar, so sometimes the guitar would be super-soft and the vocal was too loud, or vice versa. Usually, I started with the limiter if the voice was too loud, which was often the case. Then I used EQ — pretty severe cuts on certain frequencies. The only outboard processor I use that I swear by is an old Lexicon PCM 90. That's how I re-create the room.”
Because of the technical limitations of the recordings, Ho and co-producers Konwiser and Kahumoku had to be quite selective in choosing tracks for the anthologies, but in the end they succeeded brilliantly: Both discs serve up a wonderful, soothing mix of some of Hawaii's finest players, including Ledward Kaapana, Dennis Kamakahi, Ozzie Kotani, Cyril and Martin Pahinui (sons of the late slack-key titan Gabby Pahinui) and, of course, Ho and Kahumoku.
Ho goes over to Hawaii every other month, either on business, to play music or see family (or all three), and if anything, his record label seems to be picking up steam now that it has gained wider recognition. “It's great being able to work with so many great musicians and give them the opportunity to make the music they want to make,” Ho says, “and to be part of this great tradition and to hopefully take it into the future.”