Growing up on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Daniel Pak knew that music was in his blood. His father was a jazz pianist and taught him to play scales around age 6. In a few years, he had advanced to performing pieces by Mozart and Beethoven. But it wasn’t until he taught himself acoustic guitar at 13 that his passion was truly ignited. “That’s when I really found that music was more than just lessons. Music was something that would be with me every day,” says Pak.
Pak has fond memories of kanikapila, impromptu music jam sessions with friends. “We’d all go to the beach. Someone would bring ukuleles and guitars, someone would bring bongos. We’d play music and listen to the waves coming in and the palm trees rustling,” says Pak. Today — minus the beach, palm trees and crashing waves — Pak tries to “perpetuate that tradition here in Seattle.”
After attending the University of Washington, Pak was offered a job as a nuclear engineer. He turned it down and started playing gigs. Today, he is the singer, songwriter, and producer for Seattle reggae band Kore Ionz and co-founder of Totem Star, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for young people to record and perform music. Located at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in West Seattle and fiscally sponsored by Arts Corps, a citywide youth arts education organization, Totem Star works with young people who have little to no access to music education.
Pak is passionate about increasing music programs in Seattle public schools and juvenile detention facilities. “Are we just meant to learn how to process numbers so that we can join the labor force? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the imagination? Where’s the collaboration?” he says.
Decades of research compiled by the Arts Education Partnership consistently demonstrates that students involved in the arts outperform students with little or no involvement, particularly in school settings. Students earn better grades, feel more positive about school and are less likely to drop out. The outcomes are most significant for economically disadvantaged students. “Music is part of being human. It’s how we express ourselves and say, ‘I’m here and I have a voice,’” says Pak.
Totem Star runs three programs: The Studio (recording songs alongside mentors), The Stage (performing at open mics and showcases) and The Story (Q&A sessions with music industry professionals). “I love seeing that look of wonder,” says Pak. “Youth come from all over the place to Totem Star. They can celebrate each other’s differences and music styles and just enjoy each other. That’s really what I love most about bringing them together.”
Taking his mission to share music and amplify young people’s voices even further, Pak recently accepted an appointment by the Seattle City Council to serve on the Youth and Community committee of the Seattle Music Commission. He also teaches ukulele to kids of all ages through Families of Color Seattle, a community organization founded and directed by his wife, Amy Pak. The couple has two boys, ages 5 and 7, both of whom share his interest in music: “I just make my instruments available to them.”
For parents who wish to inspire a love of music in their children, Pak recommends creating a “culture of music” at home — which in addition to playing recorded music and providing kids with instruments, can also mean picking up one yourself. “I encourage parents not to be afraid to sign up for ukulele lessons or piano or guitar. Bring the music home. Play music for your kids.”
To learn more, visit totemstar.org