It’s been 126 days since the Kahilu Theatre offered a public concert. Back in mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic caused the venue and others on the island to close their doors. The shock was abrupt, especially for the public and an institution like the Kahilu, an incubator for local arts and touring acts from various parts of the world. But thanks to visionary Chuck Gessert, the theatre’s Artistic Director, the Kahilu has plans in the works to adapt to these extraordinary times and reach an even larger audience beyond the island.
The concept for Sunday’s Kahilu fundraiser concert began with a conversation between Sanjiv Hulugalle, General Manager of Mauna Lani, Gessert, and friend of the theatre Surinder Brar. The storied beachfront resort on the sun-drenched Kohala coast was closed for a year-long $200 million renovation, re-opened last January, but closed again in March after travel restrictions were put in place by the Governor. Since the Mauna Lani recently got permission to open its CanoeHouse restaurant, it seemed like a no-brainer to partner with the Kahilu and offer a beautiful setting for music and a meal while following safety protocols.
When arriving at the closed gate to the hotel, I was greeted by a friendly security staff member who checked my temperature (97.8) and gave me a green sticker to show I was approved to enter. I first passed through the lobby without a human in sight, not as exactly creepy as watching The Shining, but I later learned there was only one guest staying at the 295-room resort – Brother Noland.
The CanoeHouse (yes, it’s one word) faces the shoreline, perfect for sunset watching. For tonight’s show, there were 20 pairs of lawn chairs comfortably spaced in front of the stage. Under the covered area of the restaurant, there was seating for another 50 concertgoers. Everyone complied with the mask-wearing rule, and sanitizing stations were easy to find.
Danny “Kaniela” Akaka, a Hawaiian kahu (priest), who also serves as Community Director of Cultural Affairs at the Mauna Lani, opened the two-hour show at dusk with traditional conch shell blowing, prayer, and Hawaiian music. He was joined by his wife Anna, who danced hula.
Brother Noland then took the stage and was eager to tell the crowd his story about being quarantined in Oregon during the start of the pandemic. “I was ready to tour the west coast with John Cruz and Nathan Awaeau, but it all got canceled,” recalled Noland. “Luckily I had a flight to see my grandkids. What was originally supposed to be a short visit turned into a three-and-a-half-month stay during the lockdown. The silver lining was I got to spend the most time ever with my grandchildren. I set up camp in their bedroom – one bed was called the mauna, and the other the village.”
About halfway through his set, Noland proudly held up his plastic room key card. “Even though it isn’t open, I have the first room key at the Mauna Lani,” he declared before laughing. “I’m going to have all the managers sign this!”
At times, I was easily distracted by my surroundings, and Brother Noland’s music became the perfect soundtrack as the sun set, the stars came out, and a warm wind gently reminded all that it was summer – it’s been easy to lose track of days, let alone seasons, during the pandemic.
Toward the end of his set, Brother Noland invited kumu hula (hula teacher) Tumu Naleialoha Napaepae-Kunewa to an open area in front of the stage to perform while he and Paul Buckley (bass and percussion) played several songs.
Before leaving the stage, Noland left us with these thoughtful words about live music performances. “Hawaiian music is embedded in the culture of the islands. They both go hand-in-hand. It would be sad if we didn’t continue with the music and the audience that comes out to share in the celebration.”
If you missed this show, you can watch a live-stream on the Kahilu Theatre’s Facebook page.
Winner of fourteen Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, Mark Yamanaka will be the second artist to appear in the Kahilu’s fundraiser series. Tickets for the July 19 concert can be found here.
Steve Roby is a music photojournalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. 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
Read a 2019 interview with Brother Noland here.