G.F. Mlely – Helps Kaimuki kids compose music

G.F. MlelyG.F. Mlely helps Kaimuki Kids Compose Music
by Susan Essoyan

The Kaimuki High School students sit clustered around G.F. Mlely, a jazz pianist renowned for his originality. But the Seattle-born composer isn’t there to wow them with his unique style. He is helping them uncover their own. For the past eight weeks, the teenagers have been shaping lyrics from their own lives into songs, as part of the first songwriting workshop ever offered in Hawaii’s public schools. “Kids have a natural affinity toward poetic language and songs, but they’re tuned into the music industry, to messages from strangers,” Mlely said.

“They don’t need to just be customers of someone else. They can make their own music.” All the students, members of Darryl Loo’s Polynesian music class, play the ukulele and perform regularly as Ohana O Mele. But most had never tried making up their own songs, figuring that was a job for professionals. The pilot project taps into their emotions, creativity and ability to express themselves.

The best compositions will be showcased at Kaimuki High School’s annual spring concert, Kanikapila, on May 17.

“We’re pretty excited because we’ve never done this before,” said J.P. Soon, a junior who plays ukulele and guitar. “You can tell Mr. Mlely knows what he’s doing.”

In a wide-ranging career that spans four decades, Mlely has toured internationally as a solo pianist, and written and arranged music and lyrics for the likes of Freddie Hubbard, George Harrison and guitarist John Tesh. He recently released his latest CD, “88 Keys And Counting,” on the JazCraft label.

Since marrying his high school sweetheart, Billie Jean, in Hawaii in 1995, Mlely has been dividing his time between Honolulu and Los Angeles, conducting the Pacific Songwriters Workshop in both places. His foray into the state Department of Education — his first effort with such young songwriters — was underwritten by a state grant and JazCraft.

“So many kids are dropping out,” Mlely said. “So many have headphones on their heads, cutting themselves off from the people around them.

“Songwriting speaks of their personal experience and ties them into the community. A workshop like this supports kids’ interests, so they’re not left to look in the wrong places.” When the workshop started in late January, no one quite knew what to expect. Loo, head of Kaimuki High’s Music Department, wondered if his students’ writing was up to the task and whether there might be some culture shock on both sides. But Mlely’s gentle, soft-spoken approach won over the teenagers. They gradually shed their inhibitions about reading their lyrics aloud, facing up to feedback, and even delivering it. A workshop by definition is collaborative, but critiquing each other’s work did not come naturally for these local kids.

“During the first couple of weeks, nobody was saying anything,” said senior William Harris, his dark ringlets bobbing as he shook his head. “I guess they were all too scared to hurt people’s feelings. It’s easier now, because we know what we can fix.”

Mlely told them to write about whatever they wanted. The compositions offer a window into the lives of these 30 sophomores, juniors and seniors:

Semi Qoro’s “Oh Fiji, My Fiji” quickly caught on as an anthem for the class, an uplifting, spirited tribute to his homeland that gets listeners swaying.

Four students known as “The Gurlz” — Claudia Amaya, Tianna Barrett, Porsche Storm and Ona Preston — cobbled pieces of their individual poems into a song of heartbreak.

Kua Kekoa, declaring he was sick of love songs, composed an ode to the “Kings of the Sea,” the whales. Soon and Ephrium Li penned a rap piece called Alcohol, a blunt warning that vividly depicts how liquor and “ice” (crystal methamphetamine) destroy young lives.

One student went so far as to bring in some obscene lyrics. There, his instructor drew the line. “I told him I have no problem with him doing the song for himself, but it’s just not appropriate in class,” Loo said. “Eminem can do it. But not in school.”

The compositions evolved over the 90-minute weekly sessions, as the students got a handle on their new craft with Mlely’s coaching. Songs need structure, form and repetition, he told them — but not too much repetition. They usually have a “hook,” a repeated phrase or word. They can deal in metaphor, imagery and symbolism. Some rhyme, some don’t, but those that rhyme should be consistent. “Without his help, we would be kind of lost,” said Ken Tatafu, a junior. “With his help, it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

Mlely cautioned the students to avoid falling into the trap of plagiarism. “You’ve got to watch out when you write a song that you’re not thinking of someone else’s song,” explained Andrew Pang, 17. “It’s a common problem. You try to sing something and when you write the lyrics down, you find yourself following something you heard on the radio. We try to just blank everything out and focus on originality.”

Other problems could be as simple as unintentional bad grammar, or a weak choice of words. Some words are hard to understand when sung, or they are just plain ho-hum, such as “nice.” The first draft of a song might lack any melodic distinction between its verses and chorus. To add dimension to a piece, Mlely might suggest changing the chord sequence.

“Many of the students have hidden talent,” he said. “In a sense, songwriting is almost like sports in that it draws upon people with particular talents, except this also has an intellectual element to it. “They take a very faulty first submission, and learn how to improve that.”

Hawaii is fertile ground for such an experiment. After all, much of the music on the radio is homegrown, and people toting ukuleles break into song at bus stops. Kaimuki High School, in particular, is known for turning out topnotch local talent, from members of the band Kapena to ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

“Some of the students in the class were already dabbling in songwriting, but they didn’t know how to do it, and I couldn’t help them,” Loo said. “I could help them with their chords, but I sure couldn’t help them with the lyric writing. This is just wonderful.”

At their last session, the students thanked Mlely for opening up a new dimension in music for them. “It kind of changes your perspective,” said 18-year-old Amaya, an earnest look in her eyes. “You learn to appreciate the hard work that goes into writing a song. And how much artists take their work to heart.”

To learn more about the Pacific Songwriters Workshop, visit home1.gte.net/jazcraft.