The Kahilu Theatre wrapped up its fourth and final fundraiser concert series on Sunday with a magnificent performance by Hawaiian singer Kainani Kahaunaele. In partnership with the Mauna Lani Resorts, the venue has featured Blayne Asing, Mark Yamanaka, and Brother Noland in the past few months with shoreline shows at the spacious CanoeHouse.
The popular and historic Waimea auditorium has been closed since March due to the pandemic and has only recently been offering public viewing of its gallery exhibits on a limited basis. An email blast announced that it would be launching its Kahilu TV platform in late November just in time for the 18th Annual ‘Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Festival. While there still won’t be a live audience in attendance, fans can stream performances by Sonny Lim, Mike Kaawa, Nathan Aweau, and other favorite Hawaiian artists. Gone is the onstage audience strum-along, but you can now do that in the comfort of your home.
Kahaunaele is from Anahola, Kauai. The musician/composer is a five-time Nā Hōkū Hanohano winner, including best female vocalist. She currently lives in Hilo and teaches a Hawaiian language course at the University of Hawaii.
After her afternoon soundcheck, we interviewed for an upcoming episode of the Song & Stories podcast. She told me she comes from a musical family, and traditional Hawaiian music was a staple in the household except when Top 40 hits got played on the radio.
“It wasn’t until college that I got serious about music,” said Kahaunaele during our interview. “I was working on a Hawaiian language degree, and we had students coming in from all the different islands. We would get together every weekend, of course, on school days, too, but every weekend we would get together and play music. Eventually, people started asking us to play at their parties and the Hilo community was very accepting of young Hawaiian musicians. One of my most beloved mentors is Larry Kimura. He’s one of the founding fathers of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement during the Hawaiian Renaissance period.”
Like all musicians, the pandemic affected Kahaunaele’s musical plans for 2020. “We had nothing, no gigs, and we were just dead in the water!” said the singer. “I had a full calendar of gigs, international travel, and festivals. And then everything got shut down. Some musicians are kind of getting back into now, you know, these smaller gigs, private gigs, social distancing gigs. I mean, all kinds of creative ways that we’ve been seeing. It’s slowly happening.” I then told Kahaunaele that her CanoeHouse performance was sold-out, and 90 people were looking forward to her concert. She was thrilled.
As the sun began to set, she was joined on stage by guitarist Sonny Lim and bassist Emma Coloma-Nakano. With social distancing in place, there was ample room for folks to dance under the stars with the occasional gentle sprinkle to keep everyone cool. The trio’s 90-minute set was filled with all originals, and the crowd cried out for a hana hou after the main set ended.
Three state-of-the-art stationary video cameras captured the show and the Kahilu plans to share Sunday’s concert shortly. They brought the equipment down from the theatre to see how it would perform at a remote location and the tech crew was pleased with the results. If you watched the recent Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards show on TV, the Hāwane Rios segment was shot with these new cameras.
Kahaunaele will release a new album called Waipunalei on November 27 (Black Friday). It’s her first in 10 years. “It’s a ‘mixed plate’ of music because it’s self-produced, but I brought on producers, and particular ensembles of musicians,” revealed the singer. “Every song kind of sounds different. I’ve also worked with top jazz musicians. Dean Tabla and Noel Okimoto helped out. They came to play one of my songs, and I also have an R&B kind of song on there with Hawaiian poetry inside.” The CD and a limited-edition LP (coming later) will be available on https://mele.com. Kahaunaele adds that the recording will also be on streaming platforms as well.
I was moved by Kahaunaele’s final remarks in our interview. “I enjoy doing what I do. It’s in my family. It’s in my genealogy. It’s what I call responsibility. And, yeah, I’m accountable for my work. As a teacher at the university, as a mom, you know, there’s only room for excellence. And I say that with humility, but that’s just the daily strive to do well and be a good citizen of Hawaii, participate, and help as much as possible with my gift of music.”
Connect with Kainani Kahaunaele on Facebook.
About the author. 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 Editor of Big Island Music Magazine and hosts the podcast Songs & Stories.
Photos: Steve Roby