Buffalo Grove resident Kaleo Lee’s first name is Hawaiian for “the voice.” As it turns out, he was aptly named.
Lee, whose father was born in Hawaii, grew up singing and playing traditional music. He’s now passing that passion on to his four daughters, with whom he has formed a Hawaiian band.
Lee exposed his children to the Hawaiian culture at a young age by strumming his ukulele and breaking into impromptu performances at home.
He found a captive audience in his young daughters, who “were swinging their legs, singing” along to their dad’s music, he recalls.
The girls began learning Hawaiian songs about seven years ago, even then singing in three-part harmony. A few years later, they began taking hula dance lessons. Soon they were strumming their own ukuleles.
Now, Kaleo and daughters Alyssa, 14, and 12-year-old twins Brittany and Courtney, perform regularly together as Makani.
Their group’s name is a Hawaiian word that means “wind.” Joined by 6-year-old Gracie, who contributes to hula dance numbers, the family travels the suburbs — and occasionally to other states — sharing their passion and talent with the public.
- Related Story:
Performances this summer took them to Indiana and Wisconsin, with local shows in between. While they often are commissioned for private parties, they displayed their talent last weekend at their , where the girls also taught basic hula dance moves to those in attendance. (See video above.)
Kaleo Lee said that while he’s thrilled his daughters are so interested in their Hawaiian culture, he tries not to force it on them.
“Every now and then, we sort of test and say, ‘Are you still interested in this?’ I don’t want to be that stage dad,” he said.
So far, the answer has been an enthusiastic yes.
“I feel like we have to live up to it a little bit,” Alyssa said. “I want to be really good so I can pass it on [to my own children].”
While she puts a certain amount of pressure on herself, Alyssa described family band performances as “really laid back.”
“We can pick up a ukulele anywhere and have a show,” she said. “I feel like this is what keeps us together a little bit.”
“I know we’ll keep it with us for the rest of our lives,” she added.
The girls performed with confidence at their Buffalo Grove block party, but for at least one Lee sister, it took some time before she was comfortable being in the public eye.
“In the beginning, we had a lot of stage fright,” Brittany said.
Now that they are more experienced, Courtney chimed in, “I enjoy it so much that I just don’t get afraid anymore.”
While strangers to the Hawaiian language likely won’t understand the story behind many of Makani's songs, they will notice the singers’ precise enunciation of the foreign words interspersed with English ones.
“On certain songs, the pronunciation is really important because if you get it wrong, it would mean something insulting,” Brittany said. “We try really hard to nail it.”
While clearly devoted to mastering their musical skills, the Lee sisters say that they remain well-rounded by participating in other activities.
A high school freshman, Alyssa is a member of ’s junior varsity poms squad. Courtney and Brittany, who are seventh-graders at , and Gracie, a first-grader at , play soccer.
And while Hawaiian music is frequently played in their home, the girls said they enjoy more mainstream tunes, too.
“We listen to all kinds of stuff. I listen to hip-hop, country music,” Alyssa said.
While that may be true for many children in Buffalo Grove, Kaleo Lee also is doing his part to expose other young residents to Hawaiian music.
Last year he brought his ukulele to Gracie’s kindergarten class and led monthly music classes. He hopes to do the same this year for the school’s littlest students, who don’t have a formal music program.
When he’s not working with his daughters or Longfellow students, Lee still can be found teaching. He is the instructor at the Na Kupuna Ukulele Club of Chicago, where he helps 40 players hone their skills.