The Music of This Talented Quartet Has a Way of Growing on Their Fans
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In 1961, an Englishman named Brian Epstein was working in his family’s business, minding a small neighborhood record store in Liverpool. It was not his life’s plan, but he figured it would do until his real destiny appeared. For Epstein, the work was boring and unchallenging, but he was struck by the number of teenaged girls who visited the shop every day, looking for the latest recordings of a local skiffle group that had previously been known as the Black Jacks, the Quarrymen, and Johnny and the Moondogs. Intrigued, Epstein paid a visit to the nearby Cavern Club, a smoky, cramped jazz cellar where the group played. There he discovered four scruffy, leather-jacketed toughs who were pounding out rowdy cover versions of the latest American hits popularized by Smokey Robinson, Martha and the Vandellas and Little Richard.
That band was the Beatles and the propitious meeting of Epstein and the fab four would change the world forever. What the local record store manager saw that most of the rest of world missed was a distinctive energy in their performance and an originality in their music that immediately connected with him. But what surprised him most of all was their wit and humor, which waffled out into the audience during musical breaks.
Epstein would clean up the band — cutting their hair, dressing them in suits and refining their stagecraft so that they suddenly appeared professional and clean-cut on stage. Within two years the Beatles were playing to standing-room-only crowds in England and were on their way to their first tour of America.
This is the apocryphal story that is part of show business legend and the eternal flame that draws all young performers into its almost irresistible orbit: the overnight rescue from the darkness of anonymity that leads to the hot white light of success.
But the reality of the music business is much harder and unforgiving. It can take 20 years for performers to become an overnight sensation — and that’s if they hit, at all. For many young musicians, the siren song of the music business can be nothing but an empty promise.
“Unless you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth, it is very difficult to break into the business. There is no shortage of people who are willing to be unfair and take advantage of you,” said Brian Webb, the cello player in the musical group, Streetlight Cadence.
The four twentysomethings came together serendipitously through street fairs, musical auditions and campus concerts. Chaz Umamoto, 28, plays guitar, violin and ‘ukulele. Jesse Shiroma, 27, taught himself to play accordion after taking piano lessons in his youth. In addition to the 16-pound accordion that is strapped to his body throughout the band’s performances, Shiroma also plays a foot drum and a foot-controlled tambourine. Umamoto and Shiroma earned their bachelor’s degrees from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Brian Webb, 26, plays the cello, which he only began studying at age 15. Jonathon Franklin, also 26, plays guitar, violin and ‘ukulele. Webb and Franklin earned their degrees at Hawai‘i Pacific University. Ironically, none of the four were music majors: Umamoto’s bachelor’s is in writing and public relations; Shiroma double-majored in history and German studies, part of his heritage; Webb graduated in sociology and Franklin earned his bachelor’s in entrepreneurial studies.
Their academic training has come in handy to some extent. “Our group has to do everything, from marketing, to recording, to scheduling, and doing it ourselves is 100 percent necessary because you have to maintain control of what you create, otherwise, you can be exploited,” said Webb in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
Besides playing music, they all have band duties: Webb is responsible for bookings and events, music distribution and publishing and coordination for the group’s upcoming Japan tour. Franklin is responsible for Streetlight’s music recording and video production; Umamoto handles public relations; and Shiroma is in charge of their social media.
“You cannot wait around for someone to discover you, because that’s a fantasy and that’s never happened for us,” said Webb. “If you want to make progress, you have to make it happen for yourself.”
In 2009, Streetlight Cadence began playing for loose change and dollar bills from passersby on Kaläkaua Avenue near the Duke Kahanamoku Statue. They were also a regular presence on First Friday events, playing near Hawaii Theatre in Chinatown under the syncopation of the changing streetlights, offering a sound that was an improbable blend of folk, rock and Americana storytelling that some have tried to pigeonhole as alternative pop. But even that label does not fully capture the eclecticism of the group’s distinctive sound.
“We play classical instruments with a pop sound, but we also want people to hear real stories,” says Webb, the curly-haired cellist who dances with his 10-pound cello strapped to his lanky body. “We all grew up playing classical music on the piano or violin, so that training is fundamental to us.”
While some bands are meant to be heard and not seen, the true power of the quartet can only be appreciated in a live performance. In front of an audience, Streetlight Cadence conjures up a brand of music that is sinewy, explosive and wildly original: Check out
YouTube.com for their soaring, irresistible speedball version of the Pachelbel Canon in D and see if you agree.
Initially envisioned as a band of misfits who played unusual musical instruments, Franklin, one of the combo’s original members, placed an ad on Craigslist calling for players of the mandolin, banjo and didgeridoo. The group currently showcases an even wider variety of instrumentation — accordion, cello, violin, guitar, ‘ukulele, foot drum and foot tambourine. Depending on the song, Franklin and Umamoto can quickly switch off instruments as easily as changing their positioning on stage.
“That’s the funny thing, it just kind of came out that way, with no real or intentional effort on our part,” said Webb. “We would arrange our parts together and try to give songs dynamic range, but also make sure they pack enough punch to make us stand out on a sidewalk.
They stood out to Gail Matsushima, a web designer at Hawaii Information Service, who was immediately drawn to the freshness and vitality in their songs that is unpretentious and authentic. “Seeing them live was uplifting,” she said. “They’re a talented group that engaged with the crowd naturally . . . and they multitask!” she exclaimed. “Would definitely love to see them live again.”
“Our goal was to be storytellers and to inspire people to feel joy with our music,” said Webb. Their gift isn’t only in their versatility with instruments — they are equally gifted song-writers and arrangers who supplement their tunes with creative sound effects.
“Our themes are generally sad, but we try to present them in an upbeat, life-affirming way,” said Webb.
Their lyrics also reflect their hopes and dreams and the emptiness they know they would be left feeling if they did not challenge themselves to grow as artists in order to realize their dreams.
In August 2016, the band members packed their suitcases and instruments — and, for most of them, with their wives — crossed the Pacific Ocean to chase their big dream in the bright lights of Los Angeles. As much as they love Hawai‘i, Webb said they had accomplished everything they could achieve for a group that played their kind of music, including winning the Nä Hökü Hanohano Award for Alternative Album of the Year in 2015 and 2016.
“We were a big fish in a little pond in Hawai‘i because we were the only group doing our kind of music,” explained Webb. “When we moved to Los Angeles, we became little fish in a very intimidating pond where it is very competitive. Gatekeepers in our business are hard to access, so you have to have a plan and carry it out well, especially when you are an independent group like we are with limited resources.”
He says “home” is “60/40 Los Angeles/Hawai‘i.” “By that, I mean the community we’re in now is growing and good to be a part of, but Hawai‘i has such a wonderful, safe and warm feeling to it.”
Life in L.A. has been about starting over, Webb said. They are all still committed to music and Streetlight Cadence full-time and are doing everything they can to continue making it their livelihood — tracking down new performance opportunities, connecting with new communities and networks, attending songwriting festivals, touring the U.S. mainland and scheduling return shows to Hawai‘i. According to Webb, the band is now at the point where they have the economic stability that they had in Hawai‘i before relocating to L.A.
The much bigger challenge for the group is the Rubik’s Cube of remaining friends as they struggle to achieve their goals, said Webb. “Our work is more than just a business; it’s a family, so the challenge is to maintain healthy relationships while also having very high expectations of each other, professionally. There is also the anxiety that we might never make it.”
Since settling in L.A., the group has returned to life as street musicians, but with a bit more security.
“We still street-perform in a technical sense,” said Webb. Disney and Universal CityWalk hired Streetlight Cadence to perform at their theme parks. “So, it’s something we haven’t shed after seven years. The best thing is the real, face-to-face interaction with your audience — it’s much more interactive.” And the worst thing? “The feeling you get when no one stops to listen to you or enjoy you,” he said.
Webb said audience size is always their gauge of whether the crowd likes their sound or not. “The audience size on the sidewalk was our gauge: A big audience meant we were killing it; a small one meant we had things we could improve on.
Next week, Streetlight Cadence will embark on its “Hello Japan Tour,” doing shows in Okinawa, Tökyö, Ösaka and Kyöto. “Japan is a market that is very open to world music and we think there will be a great appreciation for what we are trying to create,” explained Webb.
In 2015, the band got its first taste of how their music would be accepted by an international audience when the U.S. Consulate General Naha selected Streetlight Cadence as the first Arts Envoy. The band has street performing in Waikïkï to thank for their selection.
Webb said an official with the U.S. Consulate General Naha happened to walk by when they were performing. “She watched the show, we became friends and after some time talking, she applied and got us approved to become an ‘Arts Envoy’ for the U.S. Consulate General Naha. After that, they programmed all of our events and we came as music ambassadors.”
Unfortunately, just after the group arrived on the island, Typhoon Chan-hom hit Okinawa, forcing the cancellation of all outdoor festivals, where they were scheduled to perform. Three shows were cancelled, but the Consulate quickly scheduled two new ones as soon as the all-clear was sounded.
Streetlight made the most of their remaining days in Okinawa, visiting an orphanage in Henoko, where protests continue in an effort to stop the relocation of the U.S. Marine Base Futenma in Ginowan to Henoko in the northern part of Okinawa island. The group performed for the children and administrators, even letting the children touch their instruments. A report from the U.S. Consulate General Naha noted that some of the children had never seen an accordion or a cello and were excited to touch the instruments and learn how the sound is made. At a show in Nago City, the band played, “Shimanchu nu Takara,” the popular tune by the Okinawan group, Begin.
The trip was especially moving for accordion player Jesse Shiroma, whose paternal family roots are in Okinawa. Although he was not a stranger to Okinawan culture because of his family’s involvement in Hui Okinawa, the Okinawan club in Hilo, where Shiroma was raised, it was nevertheless the yonsei’s first trip to his ancestral homeland. Jesse’s sister Katie had emailed a Shiroma relative about Streetlight’s performance. Several family members came out to meet Jesse and cheer on the group at their street performance on Kokusai Döri in Naha.
“Meeting my family in Okinawa was a surreal experience,” emailed Shiroma from Los Angeles. “I had last seen them over a decade ago in Hawai‘i, so it felt like I was meeting them all over again. Their generosity and good spirits hadn’t changed a bit, though!” he said, adding that visiting and performing in Okinawa “definitely marked a new point in my life.”
“To see, learn and experience the culture so intimately was an experience I will never forget, as everything I emulated and learned about in Hawai‘i was suddenly so real, tangible and beyond what I even imagined.”
And, he said, “I’m also happy to say my family thoroughly enjoyed the music when they came out to see us perform!”
The overall experience convinced Streetlight Cadence that they had to return to Okinawa on their upcoming tour. “The reception to our music was so wonderful, we knew we had to return,” said Webb.
The group is scheduled to do three performances in Okinawa: on Saturday, May 13, at Naha Main Place; and on May 14 on the fifth floor Sky Stage of the AEON Mall Okinawa Rycom. Later that day, they will perform at Mihama Sunset Beach at American Village in Chatan.
Streetlight will then fly to Tökyö to perform with the HPU ensemble at the Italia Bunkakaikan-Umberto Agnelli Hall in Chiyoda-ku on May 16. On May 18, the group will perform at UrBANGUILD in Kyöto and then reconnect with the HPU ensemble for a final concert at the CREO Osaka – South Hall on May 19.
Webb concedes that Streetlight Cadence is at a turning point in their career and that the next two years will tell them a lot: Do they invest their trust in outside people beyond their core group, or do they keep doing things independently? If they don’t widen their circle, are they condemning themselves to a career of only performing in the shadows and margins of the recording industry? Whatever their decision, it will cost them something in exchange.
They are still united in their long-term big dream — to win a Grammy, the recording industry’s top award, and to have a song or album on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
“We appreciate we have a rare opportunity to be together. All four of us are intentional about maintaining good relationships with each other and the people who enjoy our music,” concluded Webb. “Love, kindness and respect for each other are what we try to model for our audience. That is what our true message is, and music is our vehicle.”
Visit Streetlight Cadence at www.streetlightcadence.com