Kalei Yamanoha

 Article by Estefany Gonzales on December 22, 2016 for THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

North Bay musician Kalei Yamanoha, 23, has played in 12 different bands, performed in 30 states and plays around 270 shows a year.

He stays busy, and this season, you can find him accompanying the Imaginists theater ensemble in Santa Rosa and playing a big New Year’s Eve show, with many other musicians, in Petaluma.

In addition to his own musical projects, Yamanoha has played and recorded with bands such as The Dixie Giants, The Easy Leaves, Frankie Boots and the County Line, and once performed seven shows in one day.

Yamanoha grew up in a musical family. His father played in a traditional Hawaiian band and taught him to play guitar when he was 10. He started strumming publicly at 13 and played in various punk rock bands until he stumbled upon an accordion on Craig’slist for $100.

“I started getting into other types of music from other parts of the world, and I just thought they were very beautiful,” Yamanoha said. “They spoke to me on a level that punk rock didn’t.”

His passion for music grew until, during his junior and senior years at Santa Rosa High School, he often attended his first three classes and then ditched to busk along Fourth Street.

“For me, it’s something I just truly love doing,” he said. “I like playing in places where people don’t expect there to be music, and it makes so many people’s day just being in a public place.”

Yamanoha also wanted to join the school band but couldn’t because he wasn’t able to read music at the time.

“I’ve always relied on my ear more than reading,” Yamanoha said. “I was taught by ear from my father, so it’s more natural for me to hear music in that way.”

Despite that, he learned to play the accordion and instruments that include the trumpet, banjo, piano, trombone, mandolin, upright bass and pump organ.

Yamanoha now works on music fulltime. He teaches music to make ends meet and often fills in when bands need an extra musician for a gig or recording.

He also is a member of The Crux, The Vivants, The Traveling Spectacular (a traveling circus-themed vaudeville musical experience) and is creator of Oddjob Ensemble, a project he conducts while he plays the accordion.

“This is what I want to do with my life, so why not do it all the time?” Yamanoha asked. “It’s what makes me the happiest and brings me the most joy.”

Despite his many musical projects, Yamanoha remains humble and often prefers to be thought of as “the Swiss army knife in the background,” an all-purpose player rather than the frontman. He takes inspiration from old session musicians — “The ones that are in all of the recordings and you hear them all the time but you don’t know who they are,” he said.

Josh Windmiller, frontman of The Crux and director of The North Bay Hootenanny, has known Yamanoha for nearly seven years. He said he doesn’t remember when Yamanoha officially joined the band.

“As far as I’m concerned, one day he wasn’t in The Crux and then the next day he was,” Windmiller said. “Working with Kalei began just as natural as starting to grow facial hair and losing hair as you get older, or something that’s just a natural process.”

Windmiller has enjoyed seeing Yamanoha grow as a musician. He also has witnessed the special relationship Yamanoha shares with music and admires the way he conducts Oddjob Ensemble.

“He’s in the middle, and his accordion is leading it, but he is by no means trying to grab attention away as a front man like I will do,” Windmiller said. “The songs are the frontman. He let these songs take the attention.”Oddjob Ensemble fiddle player, Kassi Hampton, has a background in classical music but had never been in a band before. She said she has enjoyed working with Yamanoha because he’s flexible, and she now considers him as family.

“Kalei does a really good job of rallying the troops, but he never gets entitled or pompous. He’s a very humble leader, and I think he’s great at pulling us all together,” Hampton said. “He’s an amazing musician, and I’m glad he’s in my life.”

Estefany Gonzalaz is a freelance writer living in Santa Rosa.