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The Making of a Drummer


Noel Okimoto was baptized musically at the age of 10 by a talent contest and his father's drum set. His father was a busy professional drummer, who worked a number of other jobs to make ends meet.

"The drums were in his bedroom, off-limits, kind of a shrine, but I just couldn't stay away from them," Okimoto recalls. "One day, I heard about a school talent contest and decided to enter it as a drummer. Now, my father had just checked into the hospital for back surgery, so I asked Mom to get his permission to use the set that day. He must have been surprised, but he did say yes, finally.

"I entered the show playing behind two records. One was by the Young Rascals, the other was a side my dad cut with Herb Ohta. It was a bossa nova, something relatively new in American music back then. I did fine."

Photos: Rae Huo

Whatever his father's house rules might have been, he also realized that a kid who could pick up on the bossa nova on his own was a prodigy. He became Okimoto's first and most demanding teacher. "My father pushed real hard," says Okimoto. "I cried every day, but I played every day, as well. He wanted me to know above all that the drums were not a toy."

Okimoto was just 10 when he joined the musicians' union and began playing with the Ebb Tides in Waikïkï. As he entered high school, he formed bands of his own, began studying the vibraharp-an instrument on which he would become fluent and which would give him new worlds of melody, harmony and musical color. His bands played fusion, a mixture of jazz and rock popular at the time.

About a year into college at the University of Hawai'i, he became Gabe Baltazar's regular drummer. "I was at the university, learning all kinds of new things-that was a haven," Okimoto says. "And I was playing every night with Gabe at the Cavalier. But in 1982, I'd graduated from college and gone freelance, and wondered what my next move would be. Fortunately, the phone rang and-knock on wood-it hasn't stopped yet.

"I've made trips to Japan, Australia, and spent two months on the road with Woody Herman's band. But for the most part I've stayed here, very happy for it all. Especially since '88, when I was accepted into the Royal Hawaiian Band. That makes for a steady livelihood, something very rare in a musician's life, and something for which I'm very grateful."

Okimoto's first recording under his own name, 'Ohana, was released last November. It is an impressive, wide-ranging musical autobiography, co-produced by Okimoto and Roy and Kathy Sakuma, longtime friends and, in Okimoto's words, "dream producers."

Okimoto had control over the project, which is a musical joyride but always under control. There is a fiery Latin opener ("Siete Noches"), funk ("You Buggah"), abstract tunes ("Cinder Cone") reminiscent of the Miles Davis groups of the late 1960s, an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek send-up of fusion ("Displaced"), a bebop line that might have been written in the '50s ("Pop's Bop") and a very pretty ballad ("San Francisco Rain").

"When I was first planning this album," he recalls, "I was trying to decide whether it should be a concept album with a theme, or whether it should be schizophrenic." He pauses, and one catches a glimpse of a determined 10-year-old kid again. "I picked schizophrenia."

‘Ohana by Noel Okimoto

Roy Sakuma Productions Inc., $16.99. Available at Tower Records and Borders.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2018
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