How Big Island Musicians Are Handling Isolation During The Pandemic – Part Four

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In this final chapter of the series, we’ll speak with a rising star in the reggae genre, a “paniolo country” musician from Waimea, and the bandleader for one of the busiest groups on the island.

Lopaka Rootz is a Big Island musical artist, singer, songwriter, and lyricist. He lives in Kailua Kona, originally from Erie, Pennsylvania. Growing up with a mixed plate of ethnicity and cultures, he aspired to have his own identity. Understanding the perspective of life from a worldwide view allowed him to be in tune with the many different cultures of the world.

Lopaka Rootz ( photo Steve Roby)

How are you spending your creative time during this pandemic?
[Rootz] This time for me has been a blessing in disguise as an artist and musician. It has been an opportunity to step back from all the weekends of heavy gigging and weekdays of working 8:00-4:30 p.m. Driving out to band practice or rehearsal only to finally hit my bed at 1 a.m. And start the next day again.

This “pause” has opened me up as an artist and creator. I was finally able to sit down and let a song fully channel its way into creation without being in a rush or having to think about 10 million things at once.

Do you have any plans to release any new material, and will there be any COVID-related songs?
I have two upcoming releases. One is a radio ad jingle (“Irie Hawaii”) that I wrote for Irie Hawaii, the Big Island’s glass/headshop. It’s produced by a reggae producer in Canada named DM Kahn. The vocals were recorded with Michael Surprenant at Mana Music Studio. My second tune will be released and its titled “The Three L’s.” This song was written during quarantine during the second week and COVID-19-related.

How are you connecting digitally with your audience?
I have not been livestreaming as much because there are so many doing it now. It’s becoming a little overwhelming. So, I’ve been releasing content periodically. I started my own group called The Lopaka Rootz Ohana on Facebook. It’s a group for my friends, family, and fans. And also, a place to support other musicians and artists. I also finished up and released a music video for my last single “Living My Best Life.”

How has the pandemic affected your livelihood?
I’ve definitely lost a lot of money like everyone else. The two Sashamon shows I booked for Umeke’s and Hilo Town Tavern fell through and I wasn’t able to get reimbursed for the band’s airfare. Which hopefully if things open up in the next year, I can still have the credit. I did lose all my gigs, which were booked solid till June. Between my band and solo Lopaka Rootz gigs. I had planned on going on tour with the band Ocean Grown and we were booked for a music festival in California that got canceled.

What do you anticipate the future of performing might be like in the near and long term?
Music will be back; you can count on that! Just when is the question. In the meantime, it’s a great time for music. Think about how much new music is gonna come from all of this. Because obviously, I’m not the only one who had a lot of time to write and create. New music will be flourishing.

Dagan Bernstein is one of Waimea’s most authentic folk musicians. He infuses Hawaiian stylings into his own original compositions to create a refreshing sub-genre he calls “paniolo country.” His music hints at honest beginnings in an off-the-grid family and years spent playing alongside the legendary Hawaiian artist Braddah Smitty. By blending the two genres, Bernstein has created a style that pays tribute to the ranching history of Hawai’i while embracing mainstream folk sounds.

Dagan Bernstein (photo Gerald Besson)

How are you spending your creative time during this pandemic?
[Bernstein] Since there are no more gigs, I have been going through my songwriting journal, looking at song ideas I’ve had, working on the partially written ones, or doing some final edits on songs that I feel are close to being ready to record. I’ve felt really inspired and I am excited for some new song ideas that I have been able to create.

Do you have any plans to release any new material, and will there be any COVID-related songs?
I did release a full-length studio album last June so I am still trying to support that project, but since I’ve been able to work on these new songs ideas I’ve had, I feel like a new project could be bubbling up. Nothing COVID-related. I am still sharing my artistic inspiration which is songs about Hawai’i and my experiences growing up here.

How or are you connecting digitally with your audience?
Funny you should mention that, as I just did my first Facebook Live this morning. I know when things first went into shutdown everyone and their dog was doing a livestream, so I didn’t want to just mindlessly join the herd for the sake of doing it. So, I stepped back, kind of looked at how it would fit into my thing, and I’m gonna start doing it more moving forward. I think as an artist I can only play in my bedroom for so long and being able to connect with the community is so important to me, so if I need to move things online to a platform like Facebook, I’m all good with that. I feel like people still need and want music to listen to, so if people like what I do, then I’m gonna bring it to them.

What’s the first thing you want to do when the live music returns to the venues?
Well, just get out and see my friends and people in my community. Again, for me, playing live is a great way to just connect with and feel a part of my community that I have so much aloha for. So, while I do crave the artistic enjoyment of playing songs and sharing my music, I also miss just seeing people, seeing their kids, saying “Hi,” talking story, all that stuff. And I love supporting my local small businesses. This is a really hard time right now, and I love playing at Waimea Coffee, Big Island Brewhaus, Kohala Cofee Mill, etc. because they are such important parts of creating that sense of community that we are missing right now.

During this downtime, most bands and artists are wondering when a sense of normalcy and live music will return. But for the Average Joes, and more specifically their bandleader Ryan Sabate, the break is a mixed blessing because of the recent studio work he’s been undertaking. The band is using the time off from live shows to cross off a bucket list item they wanted to do since the creation of the band – release a record! 

How are you spending your creative time during this pandemic?
[Sabate] For me the break is bittersweet, we miss the venues and patrons, but I don’t miss the work that goes into prepping an Average Joes show (setlists, promo, and gear prep) my shows start the day before and end the day after, so the break is actually nice. We are using this time off to write and record our record which we hope to release at years end. We’ve always wanted to do one, but our show schedule didn’t allow it, but now we can do it. It’s something we get to do and don’t have to do.

Do you have any plans to release any new material, and will there be any COVID related songs?
We are releasing a single soon called “Better Days,” and it’s about being resilient, and looking ahead. It could be pandemic related but it’s not. To me, to write a song about the pandemic is too cliché’ were not looking back, only looking ahead. I’m cautious, but not paranoid.

 How are you connecting digitally with your audience?
Our Average Joes social media pages and our podcast (The Average Joecast) we haven’t done social media shows, we’d rather play live.

What’s the first thing you want to do when the live music returns to the venues?  
Take a second to appreciate what we have, cause as we found out, it can be gone in a second. My wish is that the venues, patrons, and bands appreciate each other. I wish the venues would promote and focus on live music more and promote ALL bands, not just the big names. I wish the bands would put more energy and effort into putting on great shows and not just punch a time clock. the patrons who come spend money on drinks, food, and whatever else, so give them a reason to stay. I wish more of the patrons would go and support all the musicians and artists who take the time to hone their craft to help you enjoy your time in the venues. We all need each other to make it work.


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.

Featured image: John Matychuk

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