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Omaha Magazine

Steve Yoneda's Many Talents: Being a Merchant of Happiness, His Life’s Work

Jun 25, 2021 04:35PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Asian man in pink shirt plays guitar

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

A decade ago, Steve Yoneda found himself stuck in a midlife crisis. It took surviving stage-four colon cancer for this Hawaii transplant to reorient his priorities. 

“When I look back, I was just a miserable human being, obsessed with, well-what-about-me, what-about-what-I-want,” Yoneda said. “It sounds weird, but cancer really saved my life. I realized the only thing I want is for my wife and kids to be happy.”

Cancer-free now six years, he’s free, too, of the negativity that once cast a shadow over everything.

“Unless you actually go through something like that, it’s hard to really take to heart changing your mindset,” Yoneda said. “You realize all that space in your head those negative thoughts take up. Now it’s like my mind is clear.”

“If making someone else happy makes you happy, then that’s all there is, man,” he continued.  These days, part of what is making him happy is dedicating himself to wife Deb and daughters Elyssa and Lindsey.

Yoneda, 62, is a craftsman with the heart of an artist. “My eyes tell my hands what to do.” He owns SY Construction, where he creates custom carvings and murals for clients that often draw on the cultural palettes of Hawaii and his Japanese heritage. Water, sky, and floral imagery abound in his work that graces homes and businesses.

A musician since youth, the acoustic guitarist and singer performs solo and with his band The Coconuts. 

He came to Nebraska when classmates left the big island to attend Creighton University in the 1980s. He followed, not for school, but to hang out. 

“I always was attracted to the mainland,” Yoneda said. “I like the difference. I like the change of seasons.”

There’s a sizable Hawaiian contingent in the metro, where he found a laidback culture not unlike home. He met Deb, an Omaha native, here. She’s Jewish and he grew up Buddhist. The couple’s daughters made a birthright trip to Israel. Within the Yonedas' circle of friends, he said, “In true Hawaii style Deb and I are ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ to all of their kids, as they are to ours.” 

He was a teppanyaki cook at the former House of Genji and a display artist for J.C. Penney’s at Westroads Mall.

Yoneda and two island bros he reconnected with here, Mike Baysa and Eric Ramelb, formed the original Coconuts. Their public debut came at the annual Creighton Hawaii Club luau. They played at Mai Tai Lounge and Mai Tai West. More recently, Vino Mas and Ono Pinay Kitchen became the band’s home base. They’ve also played weddings, private parties, and backyard concerts. 

Ramelb has since departed the band but still drops in to harmonize. John Kreifels sometimes plays congas and cajon with the group.

A typical Saturday night Coconuts gig features Hawaiian music the first set, with the rest of the night devoted to covers of singers such as Jimmy Buffett, or Ed Sheeran. “Just good times,” Yoneda calls the intimate gigs. His solo sets on Thursdays feature the darker tunes he personally gravitates to.

“I am drawn to any song that tells a story,” Yoneda said. “When I sing, I close my eyes and actually try to live the song. I don’t have any illusions about having a great voice. but I know I can get to what the story of the song is and relay it to people.”

Vino Mas owner-manager Deanna Albertson said, “Steve’s warmth and personality shine when he’s playing. He and his group make you feel like you’re sitting in their living room and they’re just jamming out. There’s a little island flair to everything they play. We’re eager to have Steve and The Coconuts back this summer.” 

As Yoneda’s matured, he’s taken his music more seriously. “I’m only now concentrating on the musicianship part of it. I think it's good I'm doing it so late in life. I'm not jaded and burned out. Everything is new and exciting.”

Creative pursuits run in the family. His daughter Lindsey is an artist who has designed and sold T-shirts and is a musician (her dad taught her guitar) who plays in the band Ghostlike. Daughter Elyssa is an interior designer. A niece is an architecture student and Yoneda collaborated with her in designing and building a garden bridge.

As “an old guy,” Yoneda can’t relate to much new music. He eschews high-tech devices for pen and paper to curate songs. 

“I enjoy writing a song’s lyrics down word by word because as I do it I get to know the song. You’ll find a phrase you never noticed before and it makes the story clear to you.”

In the throes of crisis, he followed that ritual for the Colin Hay song “Beautiful World” and was struck by how a subtle shift in verse—“perhaps this is as good as it gets” to “yeah, this is as good as it gets”—offered “a totally different perspective.” “And now this song is like my life anthem,” he said. 

Yoneda’s artwork can be viewed at @Stephen-Yoneda-Art.

This article originally appeared in the 60Plus section of the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann