Mekia ("major" in Hawaiian), so named because his father was a sergeant major, emerged from poverty to become one of the most respected musicians of his day, as an instrumentalist, composer, troubadour and finally as the bandmaster of the Royal Hawaiian Band.
His music training began in reform school, where he was sent at age 12 for truancy. Captain Henry Berger taught music there, and the boys who showed talent were recruited into the Royal Hawaiian Band. Mekia Kealaka`i was one of these. He spent many hours learning harmony and how to play trombone, flute and piano, and became one of Berger's favored pupils.
Although he was admitted into the band as a trombonist, it was Mekia's flute playing on a US mainland tour in 1895 that so impressed John Philip Sousa, that Mekia was invited to join Sousa's band. The March King once remarked that Mekia was "the greatest flutist I have ever heard." For more than 20 years Kealaka`i toured the US and Europe; his three years in London performing at the Palladium, Savoy and Crystal Palace helped to spark the interest in Hawaiian music which still exists in England.
Kealaka`i's composing skills were such that he could compose on the spot by request. "Eo E Kalanikaulilua" was written on the death of King Kalakaua in 1891; "Ko Leo" was written for Queen Lili`uokalani. His best known song is "Lei `Awapuhi" ("Ginger Lei") written on a train ride to the Buffalo Exposition in New York in 1902. The sight of a daisy field inspired Mekia to write about Hawai`i's sweet smelling ginger. "Lei `Awapuhi" was one of the few songs composed by a Hawaiian that became popular in the US before it was ever heard in Hawai`i.
Mayor John H. Wilson called Mekia Kealaka`i back to Honolulu in 1920 to lead the Royal Hawaiian Band because "Hawai`i needs you to help preserve her music." Under Mekia's strong leadership, the band kept its Hawaiian character, Hawaiian membership and emphasis on Hawaiian songs. From reform school to Bandmaster, he served for 40 years in the Royal Hawaiian Band.