Molokai Musicians: Bob Underwood
By Roberta Cross, Community Reporter
Editor’s note: In a series highlighting Molokai musicians, the Dispatch asks local artists about their roots, passions and influences.
Bob Underwood was born in Indiana, grew up in Pensylvania and Colorado, and moved permanently to Molokai in 2003. He is a first grade teacher at Kaunakakai Elementary School.
Underwood spent the first 20 years of his musical life performing all kinds of pop and jazz music. He plays many instruments, although bass is his main instrument and guitar his second choice. “I can play decent violin, but I wouldn’t hire me as a violinist,” he said with a laugh.
A few years after arriving on island, he began teaching instrumental music. He has founded two musical groups — Molokai Strings (violin and bass) and Community Band. He continues to teach and lead both groups, that welcome musicians of all ages and levels.
Question: What’s your very first musical memory?
Answer: I can’t remember how old I was, but I was at home with my mom and my little sister and Nat King Cole’s recording of Ramblin’ Rose was on the radio. We had one of those old style bakelite radios, it was the size of a toaster. I remember being moved by the sound of Cole’s voice. Something about it seemed sad and beautiful all at the same time.
Q: Who’s been the biggest influence on your and your music?
A: Oh, boy. I think the biggest influence for me would just be the music itself.
As my awareness of music increased, my taste in music also grew. And that led to trying to understand more complex kinds of musics. Like symphonic music and jazz. I’ve always loved jazz.
I was lucky enough to be influenced by many different talented people and I’ve always been influenced who by anybody who plays an instrument really well and seems to be a conduit for good music.
Q. What does music do for you?
A: To me, it connects me to other people. It connects me to the world. It connects me to what John Lennon called it the “ether” — that other world, wherever it is, that music comes from. I feel it connects me to that.
It’s an inspiration for me, it continually gives me joy, and has made my journey through life. It’s helped that.
It’s helped me understand the world by hearing different musics. For example, at the end of 2015, I read music critics recommending a certain album by a popular hip-hop artist. I didn’t know anything about him, and I pay only a little attention to hip hop music. The more I read the reviews, the more intrigued I became. I bought a copy, and I listened to the album from beginning to end.
I was just blown away — it’s just the next step in music. It’s a combination of music that is performed, but also sampled, and has it roots back in the early days of hip hop and rap. And along with that, the artist is making a lot of very powerful statements about our country, and in the bigger sense, and the world in terms of race relations. I was blown away by the artistic statement of the album.
So that’s an example of something where I had not much knowledge of that particular style of music, but because of all the different styles I’d listened to before that, I could connect in lots of different ways with what he had done with his songs.
Q. How is Molokai present in your musical life now?
A: My connection right now is with the students, and trying to connect students to music and trying to build a musical community that way.
I’d like to hope that the students that pass through the class are going out into the world with a different view of music. I hope that I’ve helped them expand their musical vocabulary, so they can share that joy with other people, their own kids, or other people. Or if they are in some phase of their lives where it helps them connect to the world in a more meaningful way.
The thing about Molokai is that music is just everywhere. It’s part of the cultural experience. So it’s interesting to me to come from that angle where we’re using note-reading and trying to gain a level of expertise on an instrument. It’s like coming at that talent from a different direction. Most people that are attracted to the music program are people who love music also.
People who love music usually share that in different ways. On Molokai, sometimes that will be someone qho completely goes into the experience of keeping the mele alive, and learning all the songs that are passed orally. And then there are people who do that and are also able to connect to another instrument, and approach music form a different standpoint.
But because media and technology has so greatly changed the way we experience music, Molokai is the same as everywhere else, right now. Technology has made the “world flat.” The experience that kids on Molokai are getting is the same experience kids are getting anywhere in the world, through media and the Internet.