music group Kekaniwai plays in the heart of Waikiki
with hula dancers every Wednesday.
Hawaii — Every few songs it would happen: The ukulele
launched into a furious strum, the bass began to gallop,
the guitar jangled to life, and the three powerful voices
behind those instruments erupted into a harmonious whirl.
Then someone danced.
was no telling which songs would send a he or a she into a
barroom spin to a roomful of cheers. At least there was no
telling for a visitor from the mainland venturing out of
Oahu’s tourist bubble to catch some authentic Hawaiian
someone’s going to dance to this one," said Cody
Pueo Pata as we sat in a booth at Chiko’s Tavern, a dim
dive bar where the band had just launched into "Pua
Ahihi," a slow country burner sung, like much of the
evening’s set, in Hawaiian.
enough, a woman with a long brown ponytail glided to the
front of the room and began spinning slowly, arms raised
in the air, smile affixed to her face. When she finished,
she kissed each of the four band members on the cheek and
returned to her table.
cradling a bottle of Heineken, explained: "This music
has never changed through four or five generations. It’s
thought of Hawaiian music might evoke images of men in
leis gently strumming songs for sun-baked tourists in
Waikiki, and, well, it is sort of that. But on intensely
musical Oahu, live Hawaiian music can be found nearly
every night of the week and in all directions: the coastal
resorts, the small-town bars, the dives of Honolulu and,
yes, Waikiki, for the tourist masses.
music is a lush, languorous sound wholly its own — hear
it and you know it — but it also bears obvious ties to
the folk, bluegrass, country and even mariachi genres. Its
appeal is both in reflecting and fitting so seamlessly
into the islands from where it comes. It is beautiful,
peaceful music for a beautiful, peaceful place.
supplies some of the most traditional renderings of
Hawaiian music, such as slack-key guitar master Cyril
Pahinui, whose gentle strums can be found every Wednesday
at the waterfront Outrigger Reef Hotel. (His father, Gabby
Pahinui, also a slack-key player, had music prominently
featured in the film "The Descendants").
Wednesday I found Pahinui, he wore a red button-front
shirt and white lei, as did his fellow players — men on
steel and acoustic guitar — at a small stage near the
hotel pool on a warm January evening.
sets, I approached the stage, where Tom Campbell was
buying Pahinui’s latest CD and telling him, "We can’t
get this back in Minnesota!"
sitting over there listening to that steel guitar,
thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have to take that home,’"
said Campbell, of suburban Minneapolis. "I can’t
take the flowers back, and I can’t take the smells back,
but I can take the music back."
hotels do an admirable job of supporting traditional
Hawaiian music; the Outrigger Reef is among the hot spots,
with nightly concerts. And the band Kekaniwai, a trio of
men dressed in black with red leis, plays on Wednesday
afternoons on a patio behind the Embassy Suites Waikiki
Beach Walk, accompanied by hula dancers.
to find the music played by locals for locals, head into
town to a place like Corner Kitchen, the self-billed
"musician’s playground." Corner Kitchen
features live music several nights of the week, and
virtually all of the players have won a Na Hoku Hanohano
award, the Hawaiian version of a Grammy. The restaurant
sits just outside Waikiki but is a local haunt.
evening I visited, Hoku Zuttermeister, who plays ukulele
and guitar, strummed through a series of gentle Hawaiian
classics with a bass player at his side. Every other song
or so, Zuttermeister’s vocals would reach into a looping
falsetto, a tenet of Hawaiian music.
the show, Zuttermeister told me that, like many Hawaiians,
he grew up surrounded by traditional Hawaiian music. But
early in his career, it was difficult to play publicly.
one point you couldn’t find Hawaiian music
anywhere," Zuttermeister said. "Then the clubs
came in, and it’s starting to come back a little
it has come back strongest are in the bars of Honolulu.
Those bars are home to a fluid scene of musicians —
mostly guitar, ukulele and bass players, virtually all of
whom sing — who swap in and out of multiple bands.
night after Corner Kitchen, I visited Imua Lounge, a bar
tucked into a strip mall about 2 miles from the heart of
Waikiki. It’s the kind of place you could find only by
seeking it out, and it was culturally riveting.
took a seat at the bar and ordered a Guinness. There wasn’t
an open booth in the house, and if there were any other
tourists there, I couldn’t pick them out.
the music began. There were just four instruments —
ukulele, upright bass and acoustic and steel guitars —
but the musicians’ frenetic strumming created a
positively huge sound, like the joyful rumble of a musical
songs, the players caught their collective breath, and the
ukulele player, Ho’o, would issue the occasional plea
for another rum and Coke.
next night I met up with Pata, a semiretired musician now
focusing on Hawaiian arts education, at Chiko’s, another
delightfully dim Honolulu bar. That night’s band also
featured Ho’o, this time with different guitar and bass
players, though the same steel guitar player sat in with
was another gloriously raw and festive scene, the band
plowing through its set and the crowd taking turns
twirling to the jangly roar. It was difficult to imagine
mainlanders singing and dancing to the songs that also
mattered to their grandparents.
Hawaiian song catalog is hundreds of songs deep, and most
of the players know most of the songs. Hence, they’re
able to create fluid set lists that sound almost like one
all know the songs," Pata said. "We all love the
with that, he got up to take his turn on the dance floor.
music is scattered across Oahu but can be found primarily
in Honolulu, including at the following bars and
restaurants (where up-to-date performance schedules can be
found): Corner Kitchen (477 Kapahulu Ave.), Chiko’s (930
Mccully St., chikostavern.com), Imua Lounge (815 Keeaumoku
St.) and Kona Brewing Company (7192 Kalanianaole Hwy.,
konabrewingco.com), as well as hotels such as Pacific
Marina Inn (2628 Waiwai Loop, pacificmarinainn.com) and
Outrigger Reef (2169 Kalia Road, outriggerreef.com). Pulse
(honolulupulse.com), a free entertainment newspaper
produced by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, offers current