Award-winning musician John Keawe, 43 years into his professional career, achieved a milestone last Friday (April 2) with his concert debut at the Kahilu Theatre. It was a long time coming, but well worth the wait. Keawe’s instrumental “Pauʻole,” (not done yet), sums up nicely his outlook and perseverance to continue to perform despite life’s many challenges.
The self-taught slack key guitarist from Kohala played a sixty-minute set perched on a riser mid-stage surrounded by lush displays of tropical flowers. Occasionally his wife Hope would come out to offer background vocals or take center stage to perform enchanting hula.
About halfway through Keawe’s concert, he paid tribute to Raylene Ha’alelea Kawaiae’ea, a revered kumu hula and Hawaiian cultural preserver. “She was so gentle, and had that special gift,” recalled Keawe fondly. The great Tutu from North Kohala passed in March of 2012 and was honored with two songs in the show “Beautiful Hula Dancer” and “Aloha Aku No (I give my love to you).” Hope Keawe now has her own school called Hula Halau o Mana o’lana o Kohala where she continues the teachings of her former instructor.
At this point in his career, Keawe can pull titles from his vast songbook like “Kona Sunset” which dates back to 1981 when he worked at Huggo’s and was captivated by the way the fading sunlight lit up the hillsides just before it disappeared.
The talented musician used two guitars to obtain his signature style of slack key. One is a Gomes 8-string guitar – Keawe’s “go-to” guitar that he uses at all of his performances. “The added octave strings lend itself well to the slack key style fingerpicking,” Keawe noted. “When I acquired it, I was attracted to the extra two strings because it made the tunings sound fuller.”
His other prized instrument is a James Goodall concert series guitar that he’s been using for over twenty years. He had it customized with a wider neck, and uses it primarily in the studio, especially for instrumental pieces.
Keawe demonstrated their unique qualities on songs like “Punahele” (a song by Raymond Kāne) and his original “Hawaiian Man.” If you watch the concert playback of the livestream, notice Keawe’s intense focus while his fingers delicately dance effortlessly across the fretboard.
Keawe debuted two new tunes, “We Are Ohana” and “Aloha Aku No” that were penned during the pandemic. He’s recorded them with guitarist Charlie Recaido (formerly of the band Kohala) and plans to release them on CD later this year.
With some help from Paul Buckley (Kahilu’s sound tech) on cajón, Keawe closed out the evening with his popular song “Hawaiʻi Island is My Home” and “Kauholo.” The latter instrumental recalls the journey of Kamehameha as a young child on Hawai’i Island.
If you want to catch John Keawe in person, he currently plays on second Thursdays at the Royal Kona Resort and sometimes at the Kona Brew Club. Once things get back to normal, he hopes to be back weekly at the Kings’ Shops in Waikoloa Village and the Bamboo Restaurant in Kohala.
Notes & Links
Set List: We Are Ohana | Kona Sunset | Punahele | Talk With You Again | Hana By The Sea | Hawaiian Man | Pau ʻole | Beautiful Hula Dancer | Aloha Aku No | Hawaiʻi Island Is My Home |
Hana ho: Kauholo
Concert Date: 02/April/2021
To catch a show and stay up to date with the Kahilu Theatre’s new online platform Kahilu TV and connect with John Keawe, click on the links below.
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine. He occasionally contributes articles to West Hawaii Today.
Photo credit: Steve Roby