Review: The Joy of Sonny Lim’s Musical Journey

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Last Friday, the Mike Luce Studio welcomed back slack key master Sonny Lim with open arms. Back in 2016, the intimate club zone section of the Kahilu Theatre was just getting started with three inaugural shows featuring Lito Archangel, Kohala, and Sonny Lim. You can see a video clip I shot of Lim’s show here.

The room feels cozier now, the sound is perfect, and the artists, as well as the crowd, are enjoying the space too. The Studio’s new Unplugged series has caught on, in fact, Lim’s show was not promoted on social or print media, and yet it sold out quickly.

Sonny Lim

In his first set, Lim focused on his early interest in music. He spoke about being born and raised on the Kohala side of Parker Ranch, and how music was an integral part of his upbringing since both his parents (Mary Ann and Elmer Lim) played music. His mother was also a hula dancer and some of Lim’s three sisters followed in her path. Lim said he danced hula until he was 14-years-old and liked all types of music before he played guitar. Lim started with upright bass, but it was a bit tall for him, so he compensated by standing on a kitchen chair so he could reach the neck.

At times, the friendly atmosphere of the Luce Studio made us feel like we were in Lim’s living room and he was sharing personal stories while playing guitar. Lim, a slack key expert who recently taught a workshop during the Kahilu’s annual Ukulele and Slack Key Festival, said he became fascinated with the genre’s history and tuning’s origins. He explained the musical journey began when the Mexican vaqueros (cow herders) came to Hawaii, but when they left behind their guitars, they didn’t bother to tell Hawaiian musicians how to tune them, so the “loose” tuning developed into what is popular today. Lim mentioned he enjoys all the different varieties of slack key tuning and showed the audience examples of taro patch and Wahine tunings. In a tribute to the Mexican visitors who left behind their guitars, Lim played “Vaqueros,” an instrumental he recorded with Jeff Peterson and Chino Montero that appeared on a CD called Slack Key Masters.

Anuhea Lim

Toward the end of his first set, Sonny brought up his daughter Anuhea who proved she’s a talented guitarist in her own right. She often travels and plays music with her dad. The two did a beautiful duet while trading solos.

Kevin Kealoha

After a brief intermission, Sonny returned to the stage with his bassist Kevin Kealoha. “We’ve done so much music together, my last name should be Lim,” joked Kealoha. The two have played together in the trio called Ekolu Mea Nui with Kunia Galdiera. Kealoha sang lead on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and played a four-string ukulele bass. Earlier in the evening, Lim played an instrumental slack key version of the song, and said he hoped it would be on his next solo album which might be out late summer.

Nāmakana Lim-Carvalho

Throughout the two-hour show, Lim featured his niece Nāmakana Lim-Carvalho, who danced hula, and won the title of Miss Aloha Hula in 2006.

Toward the end of the show, Lim explained his connection to Mike Luce. “When I was going to high school,” recalled Lim, “I had a substitute teacher, Ms. Luce, and later found out that when the Luce’s moved to Kohala they moved into our former family home.” Lim then dedicated the song “Kohala I Love You” to the late Mike Luce. Luce’s interest in films, lighting, and the performing arts prompted him to volunteer to help run the lights at Kahilu Theatre performances, which he continued doing for decades. In addition to live performances, the Mike Luce Studio doubles as a rehearsal space for a variety of educational programs including aerial silks classes.

The evening ended with everyone holding hands and singing along to “Hawai’i Aloha,” a revered anthem of the native Hawaiian people and Hawaiʻi residents alike.

If you want to see more of the Lim family performing, they will be part of Kalani Pe‘a’s special Valentine’s Day Concert at the Kahilu, Friday, February 14, 2020, at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at kahilutheatre.org, by phone at (808) 885-6868, or the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Waimea.


Steve Roby is a music journalist, 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

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