Melveen Leed

NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG
Melveen Leed

NA MELE: Melveen Leed

 

Singer Melveen Leed is joined by her hula dancer daughter Kaaikaula Naluai at the PBS Hawai‘i studios. Best known for contemporary Hawaiian, jazz and country, Moloka‘i girl Melveen also has deep roots in traditional Hawaiian song.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Celebrating Dads

 

In this special Father’s Day compilation, we celebrate dads and the life lessons they’ve passed along to their children. You’ll hear stories of how fathers and father figures influenced business adviser Pono Shim, comedian Augie T, entertainer Melveen Leed, champion spear-fisher Kimi Werner and community advocate Kamuela Enos.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, June 16, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Celebrating Dads Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

We’re about to celebrate fathers and the life lessons they passed along to their children, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Welcome to a special edition of Long Story Short celebrating dads.  You’ll hear stories of how fathers and father figures influenced business adviser Pono Shim, comedian Augie T, entertainer Melveen Leed, champion spear-fisher Kimi Werner, and community advocate Kamuela Enos.

 

Let’s start with a clip from my 2012 conversation with Pono Shim, CEO of the Oahu Economic Development Board.  His parents, Alvin and Marion Heen Shim, were known as political visionaries.  Pono shares the life lessons he absorbed from his father, and lessons related by family friends.

 

What have you learned from your dad?

 

Oh, gosh.

 

I take it he didn’t sit down and tell you: Son, here’s the way it is.  This is stuff you just learned through osmosis?

 

What did I learn from Dad … so much.  Guardianship; a lot of guardianship.  Here was a man who was born very, very poor, whose parents were divorced really young. And so, he would tell me that he really was raised like an orphan.  And then, he came to Kamehameha from Maui.  And when he came, he was so poor.  I remember Uncle Bill Amona when my dad died—he was my dad’s classmate. He said: Pono, when did your dad make his decisions that his life would be committed to making a difference for people, to serving people?  He said: He never really talked about that.  And Uncle Bill said: You know, when we were at Kamehameha, all of the students were boarders.  This was at Bishop Museum.  And he said: You know, I have these pictures of watching your dad almost like his hands are under his chin the fence, because all of us from O‘ahu would get visitors on the weekends, and they’d come and they’d sometimes take us home, but they’d always bring food and gifts.  And he says: I can just see your dad kinda just watching us, and nobody ever came for him, and he had this smile on his face; he didn’t hold it in a negative light, but he would just observe.  And he says: Something keeps taking me back to those moments.

 

So, he went from being essentially a loner at the fence, kind of dreaming, with nobody coming to see him, to having friends from many walks of life, and a big family.

 

Yeah. Well, you know, I wouldn’t say he was a loner, because my dad was kolohe.  I mean, really, really, kolohe.  His oldest and best friend was Uncle David Peters.  And Uncle David tells a story, and he’ll still tell you the story of how the two of them got arrested at age five.

 

Five?

 

Yeah. He said: Officer Hanohano arrested these two boys who weren’t in school; so vagrancy.  And you know, they would blame each other—Yeah, your father got me arrested.  And you know, I don’t think anybody who knows Uncle David and my dad would say it was Uncle David.  My dad was kolohe.  But yes, he had a lot of friends.  Very, very engaging; very well-connected.

 

What was the secret to his forging so many tight relationships?

 

When I was in kindergarten, my first day of school, I came home and he said: How many friends did you make today?  And I said: None.  And he said: Weren’t there other kids there?  I said: Yeah. So, he said: Let me teach you how to make a friend.  And he stuck out his hand and he said: Hi, my name is Pono; what’s your name?  And so, he practiced with me.  And probably the most significant thing ever taught to me in my life was that.  If there’s one thing I look back at—first day of school, Dad said, How many friends did you make today.  And so, I’d like to believe that’s what he was doing, and he’d make friends.  But then, how do you keep friends?  That’s the thing.  And I think it’s because he was able to really focus in on the relationship, and put a priority on the relationship.

 

Our next guest learned early on about prioritizing his relationships.  Comedian Augie T found out that his girlfriend was pregnant with their first son while they were both still in high school.  Knowing he’d have to make sacrifices to support their child, he followed his father’s admonition and gave up something he loved—boxing, a sport he says taught him life values like discipline and hard work.  As Augie explains in our conversation with him in 2018, those lessons were soon put to the test.

 

At sixteen, I became the Golden Gloves champion.  I boxed; I was like PAL champion.  At sixteen, I entered the Golden Gloves, I won the Golden Gloves. At one time, I was ranked seventh in the U.S. for boxing at junior flyweight.  And then, I made that mistake.  You know, I don’t call it a mistake, because I love my son, but like I did, I made a mistake and made my girlfriend pregnant.  And with that, came responsibility.  So, my dad was like: Eh, boxing; you have to go work, because I’m not supporting your kid.  It was tough working at Jack In the Box, you know, knowing that you have to pay for medical. And I wanted my son to carry my name, so it was important for me to work hard, so that I can be a good example for him growing up.  But I wasn’t making enough money.  So, I applied at Kapi‘olani Medical.  I got on the bus, and I wanted one interview that day.  I told her my story, and I said: I’m determined, I want to work.  And you know, the rest is history.  I stayed there for sixteen years.  The day I graduated from Farrington High School, I got part-time with benefits.  Now, having benefits is like, a lot.  You know, they were able to cover my medical expenses, and because I worked at the hospital, the hospital paid for the other half.  So, I was able to, you know, take care my son and, you know, provide.  So, you know, that for me was big, providing. Because even as a kid growing up in public housing, I never wanted to be part of that vicious circle, and I saw a lot of that happening.  And there was a side of me that said: Yeah, Augie, you screwed up, but now you gotta take responsibility, and you gotta work.  Yeah?  And that’s what I did.

 

And you did it by working pretty much all the time.

 

Yeah.

 

In many ways.

 

Yeah; and I still do, Leslie.  I still do, and I love it.  I love being out there and talking to people, you know, watching people’s lives change. You know, it helps me as an entertainer doing comedy.  So, you know, I’m thankful every single day.  Yeah.

 

It’s amazing to have such a long run of it. Because you’re on a treadmill, and you have to be creative and be okay without sleep many times.

 

Yeah.

 

Because you got a day job, you got a night job, you’re promoting.

 

M-hm. Twenty-six years of doing comedy.

 

How has your humor changed over those twenty-six years?

 

Yeah; you can tell.  I mean, when I first started, I was like the moke action guy.  You know, a little older now, I’m seeing life differently. You know, there’s a lot of observance.

 

You do more social observations.

 

I talk about my kids, I talk about my family.  You know, that way, you cannot get in trouble.

 

You can get in trouble talking about your family.

 

You can. You can, by your mom.  That’s it.  You know, you shouldn’t say that, Augie; so stupid, you.

 

You know, but they love it.  They love it when I talk about them.  You know, I have an overachieving daughter that created B.R.A.V.E. Hawai‘i.  It’s a anti-bullying foundation.  My stepdaughter does my bookings.  Bo and Taj, you know, they help Dad look good; they do my hair.

 

They both are hairstylists, and I talk about them.  They’re both, you know, openly gay men.  You know, twelve, thirteen years ago, talking about your kids being gay was like, almost like, whoa.  But now, I get stories on how people say: Aug, because was so easy for watch you accept who your kids are made it easy for me.  So now, I get guys, construction workers, cops: Augie, I like tell you something.  What’s that, brah?  Eh, my boy mahu too.

 

All right. Yeah!

 

How was that for you?  Did you immediately accept when they told you they were gay?

 

Yeah. You know, at the end of the day, that’s your kids.  That’s why it’s so hard for me to see parents that you know, like, disown their children. That’s your kid, that’s your blood, you know.  Yeah; I might not agree with everything, but that’s my kid at the end of the day.

 

In the fall of 2018, Augie T performed at what he called his last headlining show at Blaisdell Arena an announced he would no longer focus on comedy; he would be pursuing other projects.

 

Our next entertainer, Melveen Leed, had an outdoorsy childhood.  Growing up, she split her time between her mother on O‘ahu and her grandparents on Moloka‘i.  With her birth dad out of the picture, Melveen’s grandfather was her father figure. In our conversation in 2018, she recalls how her grandfather introduced her to music, the wild outdoors, and the meaning of hard work.

 

I was brought up a real, real old-fashioned way, and I’m so glad I was.  Washing our clothes in the streams, you know, growing up like that, growing our own vegetables and fishing, hunting, you know. And we knew how to work hard.

 

What did the family hunt for?

 

Well, my uncles and them, especially.  I went on just a few, but I would never do that again.  As I said, my grandfather used to say: You carry down what you shoot. Oh, shucks.  You know, no, I’m not going carry the deer down by myself. Uh-uh.  So, I wasn’t interested in that.  I was more interested in fishing.  And my grandfather taught me how to make fishnets, from scratch. Yeah.

 

Did you try to throw them, too?

 

Oh, he taught me how to throw.  And so, we had a needle to make the nets; that’s called a hia.  Okay?  And then, we had the rectangular wood, and that was the size of the eye of the fishnet. And that was called the ha ha. See?  So, my grandfather would teach us how to patch the nets, and he had a pocketknife that he used and we made the hole, and we patched the nets, you know.  And so, things like that.  My grandfather was a remarkable man, and he was the one that actually made an ‘ukulele for me when I was only about three years old.  And so, I played the ‘ukulele and sang for all my grandparents’ guests.

 

How did you learn; did you watch somebody else?

 

My grandfather; yeah, I just watched him.  For some reason, I’d watch someone play an instrument, and I’d grab the instrument and I’ll play it.  You know?

 

From the beginning?

 

Yeah; by ear.

 

From an early age?

 

Yeah; early age.

 

Tell me, did you know your biological dad? Was he in your life?

 

I learned about him only when I was about fifteen years old.  That’s when I knew who my real father was.  ‘Cause it was kept a secret from me.  Walter Chun Kee; that was my dad.  He was from Maui.  And then I found out I had siblings on Maui.  So, I have one sister and three brothers.  And so, one brother, we lost; that’s Jimmy.  So, I found that we have siblings, siblings there.  And then, we found one more sister in Puerto Rico.  My dad was busy.

 

You’ve been married several times.

 

Yes.

 

Do you have stepchildren and …

 

Oh, yes. They’re all like my children, still, you know.  Yes.

 

Lots of family, all along the way.

 

Yes. And you know, it was a learning time for me, too.  Because I had gone down to the bottom.  I picked myself up, you know, every time and I said: I can do this.  Yeah?  And I’d start from scratch.  I’d leave everything behind, and I’d start from scratch.  I mean, everything; my clothes, everything behind.  I just walked out and started from scratch.

 

Wow.

 

Yeah.

 

You seem like a very hopeful and optimistic person, because you got married again.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, again.

 

Yes.  I probably was looking for like, my grandfather’s image.  You know, ‘cause he was a perfect father, grandfather, husband to my grandmother. You know, he was a great caretaker, and he was an inspiration.  And I could sit and talk to him.  He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, they were words of wisdom.  You know, I look up to him.  And I finally found that man, and that I’m married to now. Yeah.  And he reminds me so much of my grandfather; very dignified, you know, and very caring, and puts me on a pedestal, puts me first like how my grandfather put my grandmother on a pedestal first.  She always came first.

 

Our next guest also spent much of her childhood in nature.  Kimi Werner, a former national spear-fishing champion, spent her early years in rural Haikū, Maui. In a 2016 conversation, she recalls her childhood living off the bounty of the land and sea.  Thanks to her father’s influence, she would develop a lifelong love for freediving.

 

My life was just one that was really focused around nature.  We lived on this property where we had absolutely no neighbors in sight, and so, the only things that I really knew were just my family and the natural world that was right outside of my doorstep, really.  Our house was like, a little shack, pretty much just falling apart at the seams.  And I remember I could never really explain to kids like, what color it was, ‘cause it just depended on what kinda moss was growing on all the rotten wood.  But at the same time, it was just an absolute magical childhood.  We spent out days outside, and gathering food with our family.

 

So, you say you didn’t have a lot of money; you had these natural resources.  Did you feel poor?

 

I never felt poor.  I mean, I remember when I did start school in kindergarten, like kind of realizing then that I had less material things than all of the other kids.  But I never felt poor.  In those years, especially, I would say I felt so rich with just activity and fun.  I mean, every morning, my job was to go out and gather the chicken eggs from under the house, and pick whatever fruit were ripe, and to spend the days underwater diving with my dad, and just watching him bring me up fish and lobster for dinner. Like, that doesn’t feel poor.

 

You would float above him as he went way down?

 

I was just a tagalong.  I was about five years old when he started taking me diving.  And I would just float, and just watch him.  My main goal was to keep up with him.  And I remember, as long as I could see the bubbles of his fins, I knew I was going in the right way.  And then, when he would take a drop, then I’d be able to catch up, catch my breath, and put in my orders for dinner, really.

 

And would he actually be able to get you what you wanted, the type of fish you wanted?

 

He would. He would pride himself on that, basically.  If my mom wanted to eat octopus or if she wanted to eat lobster, or fish, whatever it was that she wanted, he always, you know, would see it through and make sure he got that for us.

 

It’s amazing how formative that experience of foraging as a little kid and diving with your dad, I mean, it seems to have shaped your life.  That’s what you do as a career, to a great extent.

 

It really has. You know, I think like anything, you adjust and you adapt.  And I definitely did adjust and adapt to the new more modern life that was given to me, and I got bicycles, and nicer clothes, and friends, and you know, got used to the store-bought eggs.  And we just evolved that way.  But I think it was later in life when I was an adult, still kinda going through the motions of what seemed like progress, and was there with my, you know, degree and my job, and doing everything I could to kind of connect the dots of what should make a fulfilling happy life, but still, there was just something in me that just was longing in a way, for the past, and realizing that it had been that long, and there was still just something calling me back to those really early childhood memories.  It is what shaped my life.  I think for the longest time, I believed that you have to let go of the past, and you can’t go backwards.  And even though I did accept that, finally, when I was about twenty-four years old, I just kind of started to realize that, you know, maybe it wasn’t something that’s just left in the past; maybe it is something that I can incorporate into my world today.

 

Our final guest also took up his father’s passion, not right away, but later in life.  Kamuela Enos is director of social enterprise at Mao Organic Farms on O‘ahu’s Wai‘anae Coast.  Mao helps at-risk youth in the community reconnect to the land, their ancestral roots, and themselves.  Kamuela’s father, activist Eric Enos, was a pioneer of this land-based approach to community healing through the operation he co-founded, Ka‘ala Farm, also in Wai‘anae. When Kamuela sat down with me in 2018, he reflected on his father’s journey and the indirect path that would lead Kamuela to the same work in what’s now known as ‘aina-based education.

 

It was borne out of this idea of reclaiming land and identity as a response to the Hawaiian renaissance, of having had that part of our identity kind of been told explicitly to step away from.  You know, it’s important for you to assimilate into contemporary American society, and to, you know, be a good American, and to take all the vestiges of your ancestry, your language, your practices, and put that behind you.

 

When did your father start reclaiming the land?

 

You know, I remember that, ‘cause I was really young.  And he, you know, was from Wai‘anae, he went to Kamehameha Schools, and then actually, he went to college.  And going to college at UH in the late 60s, early 70s, you can only imagine, like, colleges across the campus, you know, that was the heart of the civil rights movement, and the birthplace of the Hawaiian renaissance too, when you started actually learning your history and realizing that we weren’t allowed to understand our ancestry from a place of strength.  He was coming of age, and he was heavily radicalized, and he got a job teaching at Wai‘anae High School, where he got a chance to really see it, from how I understand it, his stories.  He was one of a few men who was of Hawaiian ancestry from the community actually teaching, and he was able to hear how teachers were talking about kids from Waianae.  So, he often tells me like, he had to quit, or he would have been arrested.

 

He was so angry at the messaging.

 

And just like, the disregard and the blatant racism that he saw behind the scenes. And then, he took up work with an organization that worked directly with at-risk youth.  And it was from that point that … it was called The Rap Center, where he began to take students—young adults, actually, not students, that were kind of out of the system, hanging out at the beach parks, walking in the mountains, to kinda get them away from where they would just hang out and associate, and do all the things that were leading to their delinquency, back up into the mountains to kinda understand, take them out of their environment and put them in a new environment.  And there, he started seeing all the remnants of the taro patches.

 

How did he come to acquire the land?

 

That’s a really interesting question.  I think back in the 70s, it was just like: You know what?  We’re just gonna clear this place out, bring water down, and reclaim it.  And if people don’t like it, then they can come and talk to us.

Was it abandoned land?  Who owned it?

 

It was in the back of the valley.

 

Probably State-owned?

 

State-owned land.  And they just decided to have these youth repurpose their time at this—I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing, but what they ended up doing was cutting, clearing out haole koa, and putting in PVC pipes and bringing water back down. And then, learning from people on the east side of O‘ahu who were still doing traditional taro farming, like, how do we grow this.  And I think that was a really important thing for me to understand.  Like, he wasn’t just trying to reclaim ability to grow food, but he was trying to reclaim the ability to grow people, and therefore, the ability to regrow community.

 

And it’s so interesting that it’s not like you suddenly see your future open up.  I mean, you are following clues along the way, listening for the sounds in the forest, kind of.

 

And getting slaps in the head when I step out of line.  You know, I think it’s never about us; I think it’s always about how people guide us.  And like, you know, we have to learn how to humble ourselves to the fact that we’re put on paths, and kicking and screaming, and resenting it is part of it at times.

 

Or taking the wrong path.

 

Taking the wrong path.

 

Taking the wrong path.

 

You know, I think there is no straight path.  My dad used to always tell me: You gotta walk the crooked path straight. It’s like, it’s not a clearly laid out path for you.  And you know, it’s one that you have to open yourself up to the process of learning. I was put on the path intentionally that has really allowed me, more than anything else, an opportunity to be in a place to help people I care about.

 

Thank you to Kamuela Enos, Kimi Werner, Melveen Leed, Augie T, and Pono Shim for sharing personal stories about fathers, father figures, and fatherhood.  To all loving fathers, mahalo nui for your guidance and wisdom.  On behalf of PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

AUGIE T:

I worked for Mayor Billy Kenoi, and we did a senior summit.  And he goes: Aug, you like come up and say something?  And of course, he was worried, because you know, I talked about my dad.  You don’t want to talk about being old in front of old people.  But, my dad lives with me, and he’s dealing with dementia. And I talked about my dad, and how, you know, he remembers stuff like forty, fifty years ago, but he cannot remember anything in the last ten minutes.  I came home one day, and he was like: Who made this soup?  I go: Dad, I made the soup.  I never know you know how make soup, Augie.  This good soup.  Where your brother Ernie?  Ernie lives Mililani.  Ernie live Mililani?  I never know Ernie live Mililani.  Who made the soup?  Dad, I made the soup.  Good soup, this.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Melveen Leed

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Melveen Leed

 

Melveen Leed’s music career spans over five decades and has taken her around the world. However, in many ways, she says she’s still “da tita from Moloka‘i.” She opens up about life’s challenges: a childhood spent in two households and on two islands, a “nightmare” performance in Russia, and why she’s found a new sense of peace and personal happiness in her life.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 25, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Melveen Leed Audio

 

Melveen Leed Transcript

 

Transcript

 

We know what your nickname is.

 

The Tita?

 

Yeah; The Tita.   Now, tita means …

 

Sister.

 

Sister.

 

Yes.

 

Does it mean that, or fighter?

 

Both.

 

And both are true.

 

Yeah; both are true.  Yeah.  But you know what?  In those days, you know, we didn’t get—I know, I didn’t, I never got into real big trouble.  Yeah. And I fought for my rights.  Yeah; we all did, yeah?  But it made me more confident.  You know what I mean?  Because there were a lot of bullies in those days.

 

Melveen Leed has made good use of that confidence, entertaining audiences for over fifty-five years, from Waikīkīto Carnegie Hall, and around the world.  Melveen Leed, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Melveena Ku‘uleipuanani Leed, better known as Melveen, is an icon in the local entertainment industry.  As a young girl, her first performance venue was kanikapila night at her grandparents’ home on Molokai.  Since those childhood days, life has dealt Melveen Leed her share of highs and lows, but the one constant, the unwavering achievement, is a talent that moves easily across musical genres, from Hawaiian to Jazz, to Gospel, to Country.  She can sing and perform all of them, and at high level.  Melveen Leed, the vocalist, musician, and composer, grew up in the 1940s and 50s, having the best of both worlds with her family on Oahu, as well as with her grandparents on Molokai.

 

 

I was born here.  My mom was very young; she was only seventeen years old, and she was a child herself, you know.  And so, she couldn’t really, you know, mother me as much as she should have, you know, because she had her career and her life to think about.  And I don’t blame her.  So, my grandparents came and took me away, and raised me on Moloka‘i.

 

What part of Molokai?

 

‘Ualapu‘e; it’s the eastern part of Moloka‘i, God’s country.  And so, every vacation or anything, my grandparents would put me on the plane. It was Cockett Airlines at that time, small little airline, rubber band airline, we call it.  And they’d send me to my mom, to spend vacations with my siblings. I have my sisters and my brother who was children of my stepfather; yeah?  And so, we spent time like that together on Easter and Christmas, and summer vacation, and all that.  And then, she’d send me back to go to school on Moloka‘i, at Kilohana School on the eastern part of Moloka‘i.  And I was brought up a real, real old-fashioned way, and I’m so glad I was. Washing our clothes in the streams, you know, growing up like that, growing our own vegetables and fishing, hunting, you know.  And we knew how to work hard.

 

What did the family hunt for?

 

Well, my uncles and them, especially.  I went on just a few, but I would never do that again. As I said, my grandfather used to say: You carry down what you shoot.  Oh, shucks.  You know, no, I’m not going carry the deer down by myself.  Uh-uh.  So, I wasn’t interested in that.  I was more interested in fishing.  And my grandfather taught me how to make fishnets, from scratch.  Yeah.

 

Did you try to throw them, too?

 

Oh, he taught me how to throw.  And so, we had a needle to make the nets; that’s called a hia. Okay?  And then, we had the rectangular wood, and that was the size of the eye of the fishnet.  And that was called the ha ha.  See? So, my grandfather would teach us how to patch the nets, and he had a pocketknife that he used and we made the hole, and we patched the nets, you know.  And so, things like that.  My grandfather was a remarkable man, and he was the one that actually made an ukulele for me when I was only about three years old.  And so, I played the ukulele and sang for all my grandparents’ guests.

 

How did you learn; did you watch somebody else?

 

My grandfather; yeah, I just watched him. For some reason, I’d watch someone play an instrument, and I’d grab the instrument and I’ll play it.  You know?

 

From the beginning?

 

Yeah; by ear.

 

From an early age?

 

Yeah; early age.

 

Did your family teach you all kinds of songs?  ‘Cause you’re good at all kinds of genres.

 

Well, my grandparents, you know, they had kanikapila nights, you know, and so, they’d have people come over, and they all played music, and I would watch and I’d grab the ukulele, and I’d play with them, you know, and everything, and learn all these beautiful songs.  And Lena Machado used to come over to the house, and of course, you know, we had musicians friends that came over, and our family.  You know, everybody knew how to play the ukulele and guitar.  You know, my auntie could play slack key, and it was really nice. And so, I learned all this.  And plus, my mom now, in Honolulu, she had those 78s.  And so, I’d listen to all of the jazz music, so I was raised with jazz music; yeah? That old music, and I love it. And so, I’m so glad that I learned how to sing jazz; I learned by myself.  And then, I was very fortunate, years later, to hang out with Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.  You know.

 

How did that happen?

 

Because I was working the SS Lurline.  You know, the ship.

 

Yeah.

 

And they were the main stars in on there.

 

And what were you doing; you were singing too?

 

Downstairs; yes.

 

Oh, different—

 

Yeah.

 

Different floors.

 

Yeah.  So, we hung out together.  So, we went off the boat, and I took her all over, and you know, we hung out and I’d sit and watch her, and I learned a lot just by watching them.

 

That’s a great opportunity.

 

They were so professional.  Yeah.

 

You were in two households.  You were in your grandparents’.

 

Yeah.  And my mom.

 

Oh; and so, you’d go on the rubber band airline.

 

Yes; the rubber band airline to Honolulu.

 

Okay; now, where did your mom live?

 

Halawa Housing; you know, where the Aloha Stadium is?

 

Yes.

 

That’s where we stayed.

 

Halawa Housing; bit of an urban tone there.

 

It was a very rugged district.  It was; yeah.  But we all took care of each other; we watched each other’s backs, you know, all the children.  You know, so they all knew me, ‘cause I went on vacations, yeah, and stayed there. And then, I went to fourth grade. My mom decided she wants me to go to fourth grade to Halawa Intermediate, or whatever.  And I got kicked out of the school because I got into a fight.

 

With whom?

 

With a girl.  I went on detention.  I’ll never forget that big Peterson Field.  We had to crush all the white chalk, and then we had to pour the chalk, ‘cause it was a baseball field; yeah?  So, we had to put the chalk in.

 

Now, what was the fight about?

 

I’m so embarrassed to say that.  But yes, I was a naughty girl.

 

What was it about?

 

Oh, well, this girl was rocking her chair, and she kept bumping to me, and I was sitting in back of her.  And she had long braids.

 

Uh-oh. 

 

And she kept telling me to shut up.  You know, kept telling me to shut up, and she kept banging me.  So, I grabbed her hair, and went boom, right down, and I finished her off.  And then, I got into big trouble.  Oh, my god, I got called in.  And then, a note was sent home to my mom, so my mom sent me right back to Molokai, which is what I wanted anyway.  I wanted to be with my grandparents.

 

And you didn’t really mind the disruption?

 

No.

 

When you went back to the school, did you worry about another run-in with her?

 

Oh, no; it didn’t bother me.  She was scared of me already.  I don’t even remember her name.

 

Well, what about a bigger bully; did you ever have to deal with that?

 

Yes, I have.  Yeah, I have.  But the problem is, I’m not afraid of anybody.  You know what I mean?  So, I got into trouble, yeah.  But it’s okay.  You know, it’s cool.  Yeah.

 

I remember one story, when I was going to Radford.  And this one girl got into a phone conversation with me, and she was from a bad district.  I won’t even say where.  And so, she wanted to meet me in Foster Village, ‘cause I went to Radford; yeah? So, I told my friends, I said: Hey, you folks coming with me, there’s gonna be a big fight.  And they said: Yeah, okay, okay, we’ll come.  Nobody showed up; only me.  So, was waiting on the corner.  I wore my sweater and, you know, put my hair in a ponytail, I made sure I was—

 

You were ready.

 

–all ready; oh, yeah.

 

Can’t pull it; right?

 

So, I thought to myself: Yeah, okay.  So, I waited and waited, and nobody showed up. Years later, I was performing at the Garden Bar, Hilton Hawaiian Village, and the waitress comes to me: Oh, Melveen.  I was really skinny at that time, but before, I used to be hefty; yeah?  And I used to lift weights and I took, you know, martials arts and stuff.  But anyway. And so, she said: Oh, Melveen, there’s a couple over there that wants to see you, and they want to say hello.  And I said: Oh, okay.  Was dark; yeah?  So, I went up and I saw this massive woman in the dark, and her skinny little husband next to her.  And I said: Yes?  And she said: Eh, you remember me; my name is so-and-so.

 

 

I said: Let me see, the only name I know, I said, was long time ago.  She said: Yeah, that was me.  And she had tattoos on her arms.  And I went: You?  And I said: You know, I showed up that day.  She said: Yeah, I know; we saw you.  And she said: I told my friends, Anybody can show up by themselves, they must be good, they must be, so we took off.  She said: We just left, we left you alone.

 

That’s right; you kept the date and stayed there, even though you didn’t—

 

Oh, yeah.

 

–have any backup.

 

Yeah; knowing I was gonna get beat up anyway. You know what I mean?  But oh, that was something I never forgot.  And we became good friends.  You know, it was really nice.  Like, whew.  Oh, god.

 

You’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people again; right?  You’ve met them at different stages of your life.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

You must have had some surprises about how people turned out.

 

Oh, yes; of course.  And you know, especially because I’ve been singing all over, and for everything, and doing a lot of charities, you know, and people that I haven’t seen.  But I remember … my classmates, I remember their names, and I remember their faces. Yeah.  And the kids that I grew up with, you know, I remember them.  And they’re amazed that I do, you know.

 

Some of them have changed a lot, so that is really surprising.

 

Oh, yeah.  Oh, listen; there was one—I must tell you about this one.  Okay; I was at a class reunion.  Now, in high school, I wasn’t that popular; yeah?  I mean, I sang and everything, you know, but because my stepfather, he was quite strict with me; yeah?  And it’s understandably so, because they don’t want me to get into trouble, you know.  So, my mom and her husband, they were really strict.  When I had to go and perform, you know, it didn’t bother me to sing in school.  And we used to go to different schools and perform.  But the thing was, this one guy I had a crush on in high school, but he never knew I was alive.  And we used to walk down the hallway, and the guys used to stand on each side of the hallway and look, and hey, and whistle at us, and we don’t pay attention.  We wanted them to pay attention, but we just walked.  And then so, years later at the class reunion, I was standing with my friends and they said: Eh, there’s so-and-so over there.  And I said: Where?  I looked, and I went: What?  He was kinda bald, and he was big, he had a big belly.  And I went: No; really?  And they said: Yeah.  I said: Follow me.  We went there, and I knew that uh, he would call me; yeah?  So he says: Eh, Melveen.  And I said: Yes?  And he says: You remember me?  And we all had our little patches on with our high school picture on; yeah?  And our little buttons, yeah, big buttons, you know. And I said: Um …  I already knew who he was.  I said: No.  I said: I’m sorry.  And I looked at his.  He said: Yes, you remember me, I was, I played football.  And I looked at his picture, I went to his face, I went to look at his picture again, I looked at his face.  I said: Oh, yes; what happened?

 

Oops. That’s the last reunion he went to.

 

I said, that’s the ultimate revenge, you know.  I was terrible but, oh, we laughed, we all laughed and it was so funny.

 

So, your mom was seventeen, but along the way, she—

 

Yeah.  My mom had a career.  Because she was working.  Oh, she had to work; she worked two jobs, you know.

 

Did she finish high school after having you?

 

No.  But she went to Farrington for a while, and then they finally gave her, her diploma. Yeah; years later, yeah.  So, it was nice.  But anyway, so she had to work.  She moved to Honolulu from Molokai.  Because in those days, it was a disgrace to have a child when you’re young. You know what I mean?  And all your family’s out there; you know that, yeah? But my mom held her head up high, and she went to work.  I give her credit; she worked hard.  Yeah. And then, she had all these children; yeah?  And she still worked.  Yeah; she worked until she retired.  And even when she retired, she went back to work again, you know.

 

What did she do?

 

Well, she was a cashier hostess at the Hilton Hawaiian—well, it was the Hawaiian Village, Kaiser Hawaiian Village before. And so, she was a cashier hostess, and then she went to the front office cashier.  And then, she went to the main office, accounting.  And so, she was always working with figures; yeah?  And she was good at that.  And then, she finally retired from that.  And then, she was working also at Leed’s Shoe Store. Yeah.

 

She was very—

 

Yeah.

 

And to have a lot of children.

 

Yeah.

 

How many children?

 

She had five; yeah, with me, five.  Yeah.  But she had four from this man; yeah.  And then with me, five; yeah.  But she was a great dresser.  I think that’s why I like to dress up, you know, because my mom was like that.  She never left the house not looking nice. She was a beautiful woman; very gorgeous.

 

Tell me, did you know your biological dad?  Was he in your life?

 

I learned about him only when I was about fifteen years old.  That’s when I knew who my real father was.  ‘Cause it was kept a secret from me.  Walter Chun Kee; that was my dad.  He was from Maui.  And then I found out I had siblings on Maui.  So, I have one sister and three brothers.  And so, one brother, we lost; that’s Jimmy.  So, I found that we have siblings, siblings there.  And then, we found one more sister in Puerto Rico.  My dad was busy.  My mom never married my real father.

 

I see.

 

So, she married Palmer Leed.  He was from Tacoma, Washington, and he was in the Navy.  So, my mom married him.  And I was named after his brother, and he had a high official position in the Navy, and they named me after him.  His name was Melvin.  So, my real name is Melvina.  And my grandmother gave me my Hawaiian name of Ku‘uleipuanani, and then they took the name Leed.  So, that’s how I got that name.

 

Did you find it confusing to have two different families, two different islands, or did it all seem normal?

 

It was normal to me.  Yeah.  I was looking forward to seeing my mom, and my sisters and my brother, yeah, every trip that I took, yeah?  And I was lonesome for my grandparents and my uncles and aunties, you know.  And so, I’d go back home, you know.  It was like that, so I had the best of both worlds. Let’s put it that way.

 

Melveen Leed started her professional singing career when she was invited to the stage to sing with the band at the Garden Bar of the old Hawaiian Village Hotel. She soon left her secretarial job and became a fulltime entertainer, singing, recording albums, producing music shows, and traveling the world.  Yet, while Melveen’s career was hitting high notes, her personal life often too a different direction.

 

You’ve been married several times.

 

Yes.

 

Do you have stepchildren and …

 

Oh, yes.  They’re all like my children, still, you know.  Yes.

 

Lots of family, all along the way.

 

Yes.  And you know, it was a learning time for me, too.  Because I had gone down to the bottom.  I picked myself up, you know, every time and I said: I can do this. Yeah?  And I’d start from scratch.  I’d leave everything behind, and I’d start from scratch.  I mean, everything; my clothes, everything behind.  I just walked out and started from scratch.

 

Wow.

 

Yeah.  It’s not easy to do, but you gotta have that willpower.  All you women out there, you can do it.  You know, you have one life to live; you push your own buttons. That’s what I say.

 

So, each time, you could have packed, you could have taken some things.

 

Yeah.  But I’m not like that.  Because they had children, so I didn’t want to take anything away from them.  And they could have my stuff.  It doesn’t matter; it didn’t matter.

 

So then, what did you do when you walked away?

 

I just started from scratch again.  I was still singing, working, making good money, you know, and I had to go on my own and find my own jobs; yeah?

 

What’s the hardest thing you’ve been through up ‘til now?  And we’re talking in March of 2018.

 

When I had to leave my daughter, and I had to move to Tahiti.  That was the hardest thing I had to do in my whole life.

 

How old was she then?

 

She was just … senior, high school.  Junior or senior.  And I had gone away to start a new life.  And it was a big mistake in my life, of course.  I realized that after, yeah, I’d gone there.

 

You were getting married.

 

Yeah; I was getting married, yeah, there.  And she came for the wedding, and I could see her face; she was so sad through the whole time, you know.  And I thought to myself: Okay, Melveen, you know, you gotta make this work.  So, what happened was, when I moved to this island, this desolate island; it was an atoll, it was called Aratika.  Because my ex-husband was the luna, the boss of that island.  And it’s a black pearl farm.  He built a house for me on that island, and there was no running water, no electricity.  So, I had to leave all my beautiful gowns and nice clothes, everything, my beautiful things back in Hawai‘i and move there with only pareaus and shorts and tee-shirt. Which I didn’t mind, because I grew up like that on Molokai.  You know what I mean?

 

Yeah; I was thinking before, you were washing your clothes in the stream.

 

And they were all amazed.  The Paumotu people there; they were amazed, even my ex-husband, that I could just adjust immediately.  Then, when I started patching their nets and throwing my net and catching my fish, they were like: Where’d this woman come from; yeah?  So, the Paumotu women would come up to me and say: How come you’re doing this; us women never do that.  And I said: Well, us Hawaiian women do back home.

 

I said: You do what you do, and if you don’t want to watch, you just go away.  So, I’m busy working.

 

Did you pull her braid?

 

No, no, no.  No. And I caught my own fish.  And then, I realized that I couldn’t stay on the island with all these twenty-seven men, alone.  It’s dangerous, you know.  So, he said: I’m gonna teach you how to free-dive, ‘cause we gotta go out fishing.  So, he had a floater on the top, and a rope with knots every so many meters, and down to fifty feet where the big block of cement was on the bottom, sat on the bottom. And my graduation was to go down fifty feet and grab that sand, and bring it up to him, before I could go and fish. ‘Cause I wanted to spearfish so badly. So, I went, and my last day he said: I’m gonna pull that up, and you can’t go out fishing with us.  I was determined.  I went down; I didn’t come back.  And he says: Okay, pull it up.  I said: No, wait; give me one more chance.  He says: You Hawaiian girls can’t do it.  I said: Oh, yeah?  Watch me. I went down, got the sand, came up, and I threw it in his face.  And then, he had a special spear made for me, and he taught me how to spear fish.  And we only caught what we ate.  And so, it was really a wonderful whole year, though, that I learned and I lived there, because I loved the cleanliness.  The water was so pristine, you know, and oh, the air was fresh, and it was wonderful.  It brought back memories of Molokai.

 

You seem like a very hopeful and optimistic person, because you got married again.

 

Yeah.

 

And then, again.

 

Yes.  I probably was looking for like, my grandfather’s image.  You know, ‘cause he was a perfect father, grandfather, husband to my grandmother.  You know, he was a great caretaker, and he was an inspiration.  And I could sit and talk to him.  He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, they were words of wisdom. You know, I look up to him.  And I finally found that man, and that I’m married to now.  Yeah. And he reminds me so much of my grandfather; very dignified, you know, and very caring, and puts me on a pedestal, puts me first like how my grandfather put my grandmother on a pedestal first.  She always came first.

 

Okay; you have to tell us how you met him, then.

 

My husband?

 

Yes.

 

Mike?

 

Mike.

 

We knew each other when I was fifteen years old. When we lived in Halawa Housing, when I was on my vacation, I was only fifteen, and his sister lived right next door to us.  So, that’s how we met.  And then, we didn’t see each other until years later.  I was singing at Chai’s, and he walked in with all of his siblings; yeah?  And his family, and they sat there.  And he was well-dressed.  He’s always well-dressed.  And so, we said hello, but nothing, you know.  I said: Oh, hi.  You know, he came, and I was setting everything up.  He comes on stage, and he says hello to me, you know, and hugs me, and I said, oh, okay.  So, after the show, I usually go and eat at a place; this cook always cooks for me in this small little bar.  And so, I said: Oh; what are you gonna do?  You know.  No; I think he asked me what I was gonna do after the show.  And I said: Hang out with you.  I think that’s what I said.  Yeah?

 

So, that means you made the first move?

 

I think so.  So, I said: Well, I’m gonna go eat; you know, you folks can come out, you know. So, I jumped in his car, and so we went to that place, and we sat together, and we laughed and everything. And then, we started emailing each other.  We exchanged emails, and stuff.  So, that’s how it started.  Yeah. Was really nice.  And after a year, then he proposed to me on one knee.

 

Tell me; was Michael wary of you because there had been several husbands. Three others.

 

You know, I think because he’s so mature, and he’s a smart, very intelligent man, and he had a very good position—he’s a retired quality assurance director for the nuclear subs for the Navy and federal government, and he had a very high, important position.  So, he had a thousand people working under him.  You know, he knows exactly what he wants, and he’s very consistent.  And not only that, he’s very clean and he doesn’t leave a stone unturned.

 

Even if your career had ended twenty-five years ago, you would have had an illustrious career.

 

Yeah; I did.  Yeah.  But you know what?  Getting to where I am now, yeah, if it weren’t for all those curves that I’ve had in my life, I would not be the person that I am today.  Yeah.  And what I love about now is that I have the love that I’ve always wanted, from my husband. You know?  He truly deeply loves me, for me.  And I love that.  You know.

 

You feel like you didn’t really have that before?

 

Not fully.  Something was missing.  But now, it’s just all there.  Everything in the puzzle is there; that last piece is there.

 

In her mid-70s, Melveen Leed confides she worries about losing her voice someday. Yet, at the time of our conversation in the Spring of 2018, the former Miss Molokai says as she’s gotten older, her voice has actually become stronger.  She says she’s able to hit high and low notes that were never part of her register before.  Mahalo to Melveen Leed of Mililani, Central Oahu for sharing part of your life story with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

For all you Molokai people out there, this is for you. Yee-ha!

 

MOLOKA‘I NUI A HINA
Ua like no a like
Me kuʻu one hānau
Ke poʻokela i ka piko o nākuahiwi
Me Moloka`i nui a Hina
ʻĀina i ka wehiwehi
E hoʻi no au e pili
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu
Ua nani nāhono a Piʻilani
I ke ku kilakila i ka ʻōpua
ʻO kuʻu pua kukui aia i Lanikāula
ʻO ka hene wai ʻolu lana mālie

Ua like no a like
Me kuʻu one hānau
Ke poʻokela i ka piko o nākuahiwi
Me Moloka`i nui a Hina
ʻĀina i ka wehiwehi
E hoʻi no au e pili
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu
E ka makani ē
E pānei me ke aheahe
ʻAuhea kuʻu pua kalaunu

Ua nani nāhono a Piʻilani
I ke ku kilakila i ka ʻōpua
ʻO kuʻu pua kukui aia i Lanikāula
ʻO ka hene wai ʻolu lana mālie

Ua like no a like
Me kuʻu one hānau
Ke poʻokela i ka piko o nākuahiwi
Me Moloka`i nui a Hina
ʻĀina i ka wehiwehi
E hoʻi no au e pili
E hoʻi no au e pili

Woo-hoo!

 

 

 

NA MELE
Ukulele 2002: A Weekend with the Masters

Ukulele 2002: A Weekend with the Masters

 

Air date: Mon., July 20, 7:30 pm

 

This episode of NA MELE is a special 12th anniversary encore of an event recorded in 2002, featuring some of Hawai’i Music Institute’s teaching staff, including Melveen Leed, Byron Yasui, Brother Noland and Ku’uipo Kumukahi.