Kahilu Theatre Views Its Future Through New Streaming Platform

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As the Big Island adjusts to the new reality of life during the coronavirus pandemic, the popular Waimea venue is taking the show online to share some musical joy during these trying times.

Much has changed at the Kahilu Theatre since it offered an afternoon concert with Makana last March. Within a few weeks of the show, Governor Ige announced that the entire state was under a stay-at-home order, and music venues closed for the foreseeable future. This would be the last indoor public event for the historic auditorium in 2020.

Over the summer, the Kahilu partnered with Mauna Lani Resorts for a series of successful outdoor fundraiser concerts. Following safety protocols for the public and musicians, the theatre showed how 90 patrons can comfortably gather for a live music event without any complications.

Artistic Director Chuck Gessert supervises a video playback session in the control room

Realizing it was time to leap into livestream concerts, the Kahilu upped its game and installed four Hi-Def PTZ (Pan-Tilt-Zoom) video cameras to use on their new online platform called Kahilu TV. The cameras are strategically placed in the theatre and controlled via remote from the tech booth upstairs. In a sense, they’ve converted the old theatre into a new broadcast studio. When the public can return to the venue, it will continue to stream shows for a worldwide audience.

“We’re looking forward to opening up our market to the entire world while primarily focusing on Hawaiian culture and music,” said Artistic Director Chuck Gessert in a recent interview. “What we’re ‘big picture’ looking at is identifying up-and-coming artists as well as some of our traditional favorites and helping them promote themselves all over the world.” The Kahilu has even adopted a new tag line – Your source for Hawaiian music and culture.

How it works
Concerts like the 18th Ukulele & Slack Key Guitar Fest are offered to the public on a monthly/annual subscription – $14.99/$99.99. It’s quite a deal if you consider multiple people can watch a show for less than the price of a single ticket, and the use of multi-cams/audio allows a better overall viewing and listening experience than sitting in the theatre.

To watch the two-day music festival on my TV, I logged into my account at Kahilu TV on my Mac laptop. I then opened up screen mirroring (via the control center in the upper right-hand corner) and then selected Apple TV. (Here are some tips.) This allowed viewing on a larger screen with better audio. I understand an app for the subscription service is coming in a few months so several steps mentioned here can then be skipped.

Night One
 Normally, the music festival comprises three concerts, including a Kanikapila show where the audience is invited on stage to strum along with the headliners. There was also an outreach program where the musicians visited local schools around the island and shared music and stories. For local players, of all skill levels, the theatre even offered intimate workshops where they could learn from the top talent on the bill.

This year, despite travel and self-quarantine restrictions, the festival prevailed. Instead of 8 musicians on the bill, it was expanded to 17. A majority of the performances were shot off-island in living rooms, backyards, and rehearsal spaces using cell phones, laptops, and DSLR’s. The rest were recorded at the Kahilu Theatre using their new camera set-up.

Paul Buckley, who normally serves as the venue’s audio tech, doubled as host for the two 80-minute pre-recorded presentations. The theatre has added new staff member Adam Palya as cam-op and video producer. Payla has a long list of media credits including production manager and associate producer while he was living in California. Chuck Gessert coordinates the entire production.

Friday’s show began with award-winning musician Makana offering a brief history of Hawaiian slack key guitar. He returned later with a performance of “Punahele.”

Mike Kaawa

There were several stellar moments from the slack key masters that made me want to see a second number from them before moving onto the next act. Legends like Ledward Kaapana, Sonny Lim, and Mike Kaawa played so effortlessly, I had to rewind and watch a second time to see how they pulled off some of their amazing fretwork.

Ukulele superstar Jake Shimabukuro added some fun and flash to the evening. Sporting a Santa hat, and standing in front of a hanging wood block art piece draped with Christmas lights, Jake did Jake. With his looper in fifth gear, Shimabukuro stunned us with a flashy cover of the Ka’au Crater Boys’ “Kawika.”

On the production side, I would love to have seen a few brief interviews with the entertainers instead of back-to-back music. Some of the fade-to-black transitions were abrupt, and just when I wanted to linger on a fading final note.

There was, however, a one-minute teaser from an upcoming Kahilu TV series called The Pueo, The Camera, And Me. It featured Brother Noland with Hilo musician Mark Yamanaka, who couldn’t make this year’s festival. The series will cover Noland’s travels around the State as he talks with various musicians.

Kimié Miner

Overall, I’d say the ladies were the true stars of the first night. Raiatea Helm, Kainani Kahaunaele, Brittni Paiva, and vocalist Kimié Miner had some of their best moments captured on video. Miner, also a Grammy Award-nominated producer, was pregnant at the time with her third child while performing “Make Me Say,” a #1 hit for her in 2013. When her hands were not grooving to the song, they were proudly cuddling her soon-to-be-born keiki. The talented Honolulu musician Evan Khay accompanied her on acoustic guitar. It’s a shame the closing credits came in too quickly and overshadowed the final minute of the song.

Night Two
On the final evening of the virtual festival, the entertainers returned (sans Kimié Miner) for their second songs. There were many highlights in the presentation, but three performances by Hawai’i island musicians stood out in particular.

Big Island-born John Keawe has been professionally entertaining for three decades and his recordings have received several awards. In 2005, Keawe was honored as a contributing artist on Hawaii’s first Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album titled Slack-key Guitar Vol. 2 by Palm Records. Oddly, as he noted on the first night, this was the first time in 18 years that he was invited to play the annual festival.

While Keawe’s first song on night one, “Hawai’i Island is My Home,” should be on regular rotation on local stations, I was struck by the beauty of his instrumental “Kauholo.” As he explained in his intro, the song depicts the journey of Kamehameha I as a young child traveling across Hawai’i Island.

Waimea’s own Sonny Lim is part of the famous musical Lim Family of North Kohala and carries on the slack key tradition born amongst Waimea cowboys over a hundred years earlier. Lim performed “Punahoa Special,” a song taught to him by slack key master Fred Punahoa, who moved in with Sonny’s family for several weeks.

Charles Brotman is a Big Island treasure. Not only is he a multiple award-winning artist and producer, but he also offers several educational programs for musicians including the Hawaii Songwriting Festival held here annually. From his Lava Tracks Studio in Waimea, Brotman performed the lovely instrumental “Hapuna Sunset.”

Saturday’s show closed with eight members from the bill joining in on a track that Sonny Lim started called “Noho Pai Pai,” a song made popular by the Ka’au Crater Boys in 1993. Recorded at different locations and times, Lim was joined by Peterson, Asing, Noland, Brotman, Chong, Kahaunaele, Paiva, and Kaapana. Everyone added their own special part to the tune and Kahaunaele sang vocals. It was quite a task to pull off from a production standpoint, but it worked perfectly.

There’s an old theatre custom to have a ghost lamp lit to energize the stage and keep it from growing completely dark when an auditorium is unoccupied. The Kahilu is in that famed group of tradition holders that kept a lamp burning bright especially when COVID closed things down.

Although it’s not time to return to our seats, remember there’s a theatre in Waimea that’s keeping the entertainment light glowing with new performances for us to enjoy.

I’m among those who long to hear shouts for a Hana Hou!, and don’t mind wading through a crowded lobby of fans after a show only to feel the chilly Waimea winds hit your face as you exit the theatre. The show is never pau, it’s merely an intermission until the next act begins.

Set List: Night One
Spoken intro by Makana |Jeff Peterson “Sonny” | Blayne Asing “Na ‘Ai Molokai” | Benny Chong “Satin Doll” | Mike Kaawa “Pa Mai Ka Makani” | Nathan Aweau “Iesu” | Kainani Kahaunaele “Mahinakauahiahi” | Charles Brotman “Haupia Slack Key” | Raiatea Helm “Kimo Henderson Hula” | Ledward Kaapana “Sanoe” | Brother Noland “Opelu” | Mark Yamanaka interview clip | John Cruz “Na Na” | Brittni Paiva “Gazing” | John Keawe “Hawai’i Island is My Home” | Sonny Lim  “Hi’ilawe” | Makana “Punahele” | Jake Shimabukuro “Kawika” | Kimié Miner  “Make Me Say” |

Set List: Night Two
Brother Noland “Nanea Kou Maka Le’a Le’a” | Raiatea Helm “Maile Swing” | Ledward Kaapana “Kolomona” | Blayne Asing “Poor Man Blues” | Benny Chong “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” | John  Keawe “Kauholo” | Nathan Aweau “me Ku’u One Hanau E” | Kainani Kahaunaele “Kiholo” | Mike Kaawa “Paliokamoa” | Sony Lim “Punahoa Special” | Charles Brotman “Hapuna Sunset” | Brittni Paiva “Friends” | John Cruz “Ka Ipo Lei Manu” | Makana “Pu’uanahulu” | Jeff  Peterson “Hawaiian Skies” | Jake Shimabukuro “Dragon” | all-star jam “Noho Pai Pai” |

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