Plucking at guitar strings, tugging at heart strings

Words and photos by Daniel DeMay

Meeting a tall Korean-Japanese reggae singer from Hawaii at Ohana in Seattle seems a bit cliché. “Of course,” I think as I wait for him by the bar. “He would hang out here.”

He arrives with a “Hey braddah!” greeting, hugs me, and then orders a Hawaiian Sun juice from the bar. `Ohana, in Hawaiian, means family, and when people meet a guy like Daniel Pak, he tends to treat them like family.

The 34-year-old has a family of his own: his wife, Amy, who puts up with his unending schedule of music and work projects; and two children, Jahyoo, 5, and Asa, 2, who are named for Pak’s own roots. Jahyoo means freedom in Korean and Asa means morning in Japanese.

But what makes this long-haired Seattle musician stand out from the droves of long-haired Seattle musicians is not his children’s names, his choice of hangout, or his band’s classically modern style of reggae.

Here’s a guy who gave up a lucrative career to make music and help others find their way in life. Helping people, Pak says, is what drives him in everything.

And he’s into everything.

He has his band, Kore Ionz — a Seattle reggae band building a solid following in Seattle and beyond through several albums and EPs, as well as the music videos Pak is now focusing on. He sings, plays guitar, writes songs and acts as manager, booking agent, promoter and tour manager.

He has his family — his son gets him up every morning at 7 a.m. for breakfast and refuses to eat unless dad sits down and eats with him.

And he has Totem Star Records, a nonprofit, youth-run record label in south Seattle that teaches kids about the recording industry with the underlying goal of keeping them off the streets and in school.

“I gotta say, I’m busy,” Pak tells me after rattling off everything he’s into these days. “But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

It all started with music

Pak — anyone who knows him just calls him Pak — was born into a musical family on Earth Day in 1980, hearing the rhythm even before he saw daylight.

“My mom told me that when she was still pregnant, her and Dad would go to jazz shows,” Pak says. “She said I would kick around in time with the drummer.”

Growing up in Kane’ohe, a small town near Honolulu, on Oahu, Pak’s father spent hours playing bebop on an old upright piano. Pak learned to play the `ukulele in second grade while his dad started giving him bebop piano lessons. His was a house of music.

A Duke Ellington quote, carved in the sill of Pak’s bathroom window growing up, still inspires him today: “I merely took the energy to pout and wrote some blues.”

But it wasn’t until college — when Pak was studying engineering at the University of Washington — that he started a reggae band, somewhat by accident.

“I know when the moment was, we’d all jam–kanikapila–the jam. Six dudes just singing their asses off,” Pak says. “We took this trip down to L.A. to visit my friend during spring break. We ended up at a frat party, then we started to play and everyone was asking if we had a CD. That’s when I vowed that I would start a band and get something going. This is what I need to do. I need to do music.”

He returned and started the band Mystic Rising in 2001 before he finished college.

When he graduated with distinction from the University of Washington, Pak received an offer to go to work at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard for $80,000 a year plus living costs. But music had taken over.

He turned it down and started bussing tables in Belltown so he could focus on music.

In time, Mystic Rising split up, but Pak and a couple other members continued playing together and eventually formed Kore Ionz, the band that would become a vehicle for the music that had been stored up inside Pak all his life.

A commitment to community

Pak admits that he had it pretty good growing up. He was able to attend private school from seventh grade on, and then able to move to Seattle to attend UW. He knows a lot of kids don’t have that chance.

“It’s really a matter of privilege,” Pak says. “And I’m a privileged motherfucker.”

It was that reality that inspired him to do more than just play music. In 2010, while he was teaching music classes here and there in West Seattle and South Seattle, Pak, along with Kore Ionz guitarist Thaddeus Turner (who has his own band Thadillac, as well as stints with Maktub and others), formed Totem Star Records.

Initially a six-week summer program primarily serving previously incarcerated youth, Totem Star has grown into a four-day-a-week program housed in the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center that serves a wider spectrum of local youth. And Pak says its a potential way out of cycles of poverty and violence in gang-ridden parts of the city.

Jason Evans, who took part in a 2012 summer program with Totem Star, says it was a life-changing experience that taught him much more than just how to produce music.

“They told us we needed to be more comfortable performing. I wasn’t that comfortable in the first place, but they (Pak and Turner) told us that you have to get the the mentality that you’re the best around and you don’t care what anybody else thinks,” Evans says. “You gotta go up there doing your best, or more than your best, every time. It built up my confidence a lot.”

The program walked the students through everything from a brief history of music producers to reading a contract to writing and producing the music and then performing it, Evans says.

“We did all the hard work first,” Evans says. “We didn’t just walk in and start producing. It was very complicated and real fun.”

The next step at Totem Star will be to recruit some former students to start teaching, start giving back, Pak says.

“I want to bring in the next generation of teaching artists and continue this revolution.”

Back in the sushi bar at Ohana, Pak tells me about the life many of his students face in South Seattle. Pak lives in Rainier Beach, and he hears and sees the signs of a troubled life daily. The night before we met, he and his wife were getting ready for bed when they heard gunshots. They counted 20 shots that weren’t far from his home.

Not 10 minutes after telling me about it, he gets a text from his wife. She just counted 33 gunshots that sounded like they were a few blocks away. Pak knows there’s a good chance one of his students could have been involved. He’s seen it before.

Reliant on grants and donations to fund its projects, Totem Star has had breaks in its programs in the past. And when troubled kids step out of the program and back on the streets, trouble is never far away.

“Yes, we are helping them,” Pak says. “But when the funding runs out, the gaps literally kill them.”

One former student was gunned down in front of his home after leaving a program at Totem Star, Pak says. It’s one of the few times he breaks his smile. He actually gets angry for a few minutes before his joy wells up and breaks through again.

“The work that I do keeps me inspired,” he says. “The kids inspire me.”

A positive persona

After our nearly two-hour meeting that ends close to midnight, Pak is still smiling. He’s been smiling for something like 98 percent of the conversation — even as he described some dark moments.

As he talks, he’s animated in every way. He leans in close to make sure I can hear him, and then pulls back and nearly yells when he gets particularly excited. He tilts his head back and forth and runs his hands through his hair when he’s not using them to help make a point. His energy seems endless.

He tells me that he has no real financial security — certainly not the kind he would have had if he took the job at the naval shipyard out of college. But he’s happy, his wife is happy and his kids are happy.

“Somehow, we’ve been able to achieve an ultimate state of happiness without any financial security,” he says. His family and friends are a big part of that.

Turner and Pak first met doing youth service work in the Seattle area seven years ago — Pak coming from the Service Board mentoring program and Turner from Rock School. Turner said their work together on Totem Star has been the most fun and the most challenging yet.

“The thing that makes it hard is the sustainability,” Turner says. “The thing that makes it easy is the kids.”

Turner and Pak’s relationship in the band seems to fuel their passion for helping the community through projects like Totem Star.

“It’s like family, you know?” Turner says.

He says Pak is the kind of top-notch role model that troubled youth need — albeit a role model with some flair.

“He’s an American-Asian, tall, good-looking guy. He’s a charismatic, caring and loving person who can also be stubborn,” Turner says, laughing. “You know, he’s a good dude. He means well and he treats people well.”

Pak and I stand as we wrap up our talk and I wonder how he has the time and energy to meet me for a two-hour interview at 10 o’clock at night — especially if his son will be getting him up at 7 a.m. But he seems to like it that way. It has to be that way, for him.

“Every job is necessary,” he says. “It’s like taking care of a city, my little city.”

But he knows he needs help in all his work. He praises his wife for her support and help — he once held up a family vacation to go help out a student 30 minutes away — and also a new friend (who, coincidentally, grew up in Trenchtown with Bob Marley) who Pak has been talking to regularly lately, seeking advice and gaining wisdom.

Pak might be the enigmatic core that everyone rallies around, but the connection forms a symbiotic relationship that he recognizes.

“No one,” he says, “can do it alone.”
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