Music is His Next Stage
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Evan Nagao held his first yo-yo at the age of 1, started throwing it at 2 and parlayed his hobby into a world championship title last year. Now the 23-year-old yonsei is moving in a new direction: making music.
The Hawai‘i Kai resident was 5 years old when he displayed his skills on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” He did six tricks with one of the 12 yo-yos he brought to the NBC studio in a black bag. His bag of tricks also included jokes, like, “Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the shell station.”
He even asked Leno and fellow guest, actor Rob Schneider: “What did the banana say to the apple? Nothing, bananas can’t talk.” Evan’s nearly eight-minute guest appearance on the show can still be seen on YouTube.
Evan likely inherited his early enthusiasm for yo-yos from his father, Alan Nagao, who owned a kite store in Kaimukï when he was just 19 years old.
Alan was no stranger to overcoming adversity. He was born in 1961 with serious congenital disabilities after his mother was prescribed thalidomide, a medication used to treat respiratory infections, while pregnant with Alan. At the age of 4, Alan was selected as the 1966 poster child for the Easterseals Society. Alan found joy in yo-yoing, which helped him deal with the challenges of being teased for his disabilities in elementary school.
In the 1990s, Alan convinced American yo-yo makers to hold a demonstration at the Tokyo Toy Fair. The presentation by Alan’s Team High Performance — the first all-star team of yo-yo players — led to the yo-yo boom in Asia. In 1995, he made deals with every big yo-yo company at the time — Duncan, Yomega and Proyo — to make a one-dollar royalty from each yo-yo sold in Japan. His goal was to make a million dollars and ended up selling 10 million yo-yos in the first year of sales.
“My dad actually launched the yo-yo boom of 1996,” Evan told Newsweek magazine in an interview after winning his second national championship. “Any yo-yo that was sold from 1996 to 1999 was pretty much due to his marketing. So, at that time, he had a bunch of yo-yoers over at my house. I just saw everybody yo-yoing and I thought, ‘Wow, this is what humans do then.’”
Yo-yoing came as natural to Evan as walking and talking. Tricks came easily for him. By the time he was 3, he could do tricks using two yo-yos at one time.
By 2001, after being featured twice on KGMB’s “Hawaiian Moving Company,” Evan appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “Steve Harvey,” “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” His parents turned down an offer for him to join the Nickelodeon ensemble, wanting him to enjoy a normal childhood.
The then-Punahou kindergartener went on to win a national yo-yo contest that same year, competing against 200 children in the division for children age 6 and younger.
Evan eventually grew bored of doing yo-yo tricks and dropped out when he was about 10. “School also distracted me,” added the 2014 Punahou School graduate. “I also played on the tennis team, but I wasn’t super skilled in that sport.”
His passion for yo-yoing was rekindled during a family vacation to Southern California. While visiting a kite shop at the Redondo Beach Pier, where he and his dad used to promote the toy by doing yo-yo tricks, he tested a yo-yo that was manufactured by Yo-yoFactory. After the first throw, “It was pure magic,” Evan said.
Although the Yo-yoFactory yo-yo was nothing like what he had played with earlier, all his earlier tricks came back to him. Yo-yoFactory later became Evan’s professional sponsor in his quest to become a world champion.
He convinced his dad to fork over $120 to buy the yo-yo. He watched tutorials on the Internet and, in 2009, entered his first U.S. National Yo-yo Contest, placing 25th in the preliminary round with a field of 35 contestants.
The early competitive years were rough. In contrast to his early glory days, he couldn’t get past the preliminary rounds. Another period of assessment followed and he thought of what had initially motivated him to take up the yo-yo.
“I started yo-yoing because I enjoyed yo-yoing and because I could create happiness and joy in those who I was performing for. I didn’t yo-yo to prove that I was better than anyone else or to try to have cooler tricks and make people feel less than me.”
Evan also accompanied his father on marketing trips between 1995 and 2015 when Alan had made his fortune promoting yo-yos and, later, skincare products.
Although Evan had added to his repertoire of tricks, several setbacks at national competitions forced him to take another look at his style. He realized that he needed to study how the matches were judged and which tricks counted. Evan said he now has some 10,000 tricks in his “yo-yo bag.”
Things began to turn around. Evan placed in state and regional contests in 2010 and became a sponsored player for Yo-yoFactory. In 2010, the company released Evan’s first signature series yo-yo, called “The Edge,” followed by “The Wedge.” Both can be purchased online at Yo-yoFactory’s website (yo-yofactory.com). The Edge retails for $80 and the Wedge costs $150.
His hard work was now paying off. Evan won his first U.S. National Yo-yo Contest in October 2017 in Chico, Calif., after having placed fourth in 2016.
In June 2018, Evan repeated as U.S. National champion with a win in Chicago. Two months later in Shanghai, China, Evan bested 700 competitors from 25 countries, including 500 Chinese and 50 Americans, to earn his first world title.
Evan’s performed his routine to the song “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. According to a YouTube video, he logged at least 17,520 hours preparing for the competition.
“That’s how much practice I put in, before I finally took home the title. I used every ounce of energy I had left to do the best freestyle I can do,” he said.
On his website (EvanNagao.com), Evan called winning his first national championship in 2017 a “humbling experience.”
“So coming off that win, I hope to inspire people to realize that success is not easy. There is certainly a level of effort and time that you need to be willing to put in. The biggest advice I can give, though, is that if you truly do the disciplines required to create success, you will succeed in whatever avenue you are taking. If you truly want it, you will have it. It’s just a matter of time and effort.”
The yo-yo superstar’s next goal is to make it big in the music business. “I write for guitar and piano and even sing,” said Evan.
He has been recording what he describes as pop songs, playing three of the five instruments — piano, guitar and bass. His friends accompany him on flute and drums. The entire composition is mixed at his home studio. This past June, he released his first song on YouTube, titled “Waves.”
And, yes, the yo-yo makes a cameo appearance near the end.
Gregg Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C., and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.