The Kahilu Theatre’s annual Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Festival is one of those Big Island events you don’t want to miss. But it’s much more than just a three-day concert event – the all-star line-up of musicians also offers intimate music workshops, and more importantly, visits to several local schools as part of the theatre’s Education Outreach Program. What a wonderful program that gives back to the community and next generation of musicians! It’s what the Kahilu calls their “passion and priority.”
Back in 2016, I was the house photographer at the Kahilu and got to capture images at the Kanikapila concert. It’s the first night of shows where audience members with musical instruments are invited on stage to perform along with Hawaii’s best Ukulele and Slack Key artists. They had me climb a tall ladder to get a wide shot of the sixty or so players on stage. To someone who has photographed acts like Santana and Mötley Crüe, I can truly say that this was a far more moving experience!
This year’s line-up of top-flight players included Jake Shimabukuro, Jeff Peterson, Sonny Lim, Led Kaapana, Nathan Awaeau, and Mike Kaawa. Brittni Paiva was scheduled to perform but broke her thumb and had to cancel at the last minute.
On night one, during the second act, the crowd was invited on stage. It was a mix of ages and skills, and instruments – bravo to the elderly wahine harmonica player! Perhaps the youngest was an eight-year-old boy named Franz, whose passion and energy caught the attention of ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro. Jake had turned around to face the players and offer instructions on strumming rhythm, while mouthing what the next chord was. When it came to the last song, Jake invited Franz to sit in his chair and experience performing in front of an audience. Franz wasn’t fazed and he strummed away proudly. Chuck Gessert, Kahilu’s Artistic Director, offered the promising performer a free class with Jake at Saturday’s workshop.
I returned to the theatre on Friday for the Ho’olaule’a concert. It was the theatre’s seventh sold-out show for the 2018-2019 season, and you could feel the crowd’s excitement at every opportunity to applaud and cheer. Maybe that explains why it ran nearly three hours when it was scheduled for two.
Each of the six performers had roughly 15 minutes to play a few songs and then introduce the next player. Often there’d be a duet before the prior musician left the stage. Jake Shimabukuro, as you’d expect, began the evening with jaw-dropping frenzied fretwork. When he played “Dragon,” he pulled out all the stops. Not visible to the audience, Shimabukuro had a box of special effect devices, and throughout the song, he utilized looper, freeze, octave, and delay pedals. The range varied from quiet harp tones to full-on rock guitar.
Up next was Hawaii’s critically acclaimed male vocalist and bass virtuoso Nathan Awaeau. The highlight of his set was his workout on that massive neck of his seven-string STR bass on the traditional English folk song “Greensleeves.” He teased us with the familiar holiday melody often, but then launched into a jazzy version like a dual between Marcus Miller vs Victoor Wooten producing a high-gloss sound of enormous power. If the late bassist Jaco Pastorius was still here, I’m sure he’d be erupting in applause like the rest of us did. Awaeau closed out his set with the heart-wrenching “One More Road,” which he dedicated to his late father.
Jeff Peterson, three-time Na Hōkū Hanohano Award winner, followed Awaeau. In his set, the Slack Key guitarist said he was inspired to write a song on his drive to the festival. “This time of year is so wonderful,” said Peterson in awe of the many vistas. “Just the way the light hits Mauna Kea without a single cloud. You can see all the way up… and all those shades of green, the pastures, and the light coming through… that is chicken skin!” Peterson titled the tune “Kamuela Inn,” after the place where he and the rest of the festival performers stayed.
After a 15-minute intermission, Big Island’s own Sonny Lim kicked off the second section of the program. Lim talked about coming from a musical family and being inspired by the legends Gabby Pahinui and Leland “Atta” Isaacs. He’s working on a new CD, and played “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” which will be featured on the 2019 release.
Hawaiian master of the 12-string, Mike Kaawa, played one solo song before bringing out his partner Led Kaapana. Together they played touching tributes to musicians like the late Dennis Kamakahi, Solomon Aikau, and Kaapana’s uncle Fred Punahoa.
Everyone came out on stage for an informal jam session featuring the songs “Wai‘alae,” and a beautiful tune called “Hi’ilawe” about the waterfall at the foot of Waipio Valley.
The night ended with the audience on their feet cheering for more, and the fitting “Hawaii Aloha” was played. As captured in this cell phone clip by the Kahilu’s tech crew, you can see the crowd holding hands, swaying to the music and gratefully raising their hands at the end.
Jake Shimabukuro: Medley: Akaka Falls/Ave Maria | Sakura, Sakura | Bohemian Rhapsody |
Nathan Awaeau: While My Guitar Gently Weeps [w/ Jake Shimabukuro] | Kipona Aloha | Tiny Bubbles | Greensleeves | One More Road |
Jeff Peterson: Ku’u Ipo I Ka He’e Pu’e One [w/ Nathan Awaeau] | Kamuela Inn | Aurora | Kukui Nut Run |
Sonny Lim: Pau Hana Rag | Somewhere Over the Rainbow |
Mike Kaawa: Chillin’ |
Led Kaapana and Mike Kaawa: Medley: Wāhine/ ʻIlikea/ Pua Hone/ Kokeʻe | Radio Hula | Kolomona Slack Key | Twelfth Street Rag/Sweet Georgia Brown
All: Wai‘alae | Hi’ilawe
All: Hawaii Aloha
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby
Video: Kahilu Theatre