Father of Hawaiian Reggae honored with three-hour concert
It’s been nearly a year since Bruddah Walter Aipolani’s doctor diagnosed him with advanced liver cancer. “He gave me less than one year to live,” the award-winning musician sadly announced at last Friday’s benefit event at the Hilo Palace Theater.
“I tell everyone, I’m going till the wheels fall off, and on my gravestone, it gonna say, ‘The Wheels Fell Off.’”
The 67-year-old Aipolani, like many musicians, has no healthcare insurance and is faced with mounting medical bills. “They’ve been giving me some new medication for my chemo, and they want me to come in to do an MRI to see where the cancer is now. As a result, I’m experiencing rapid weight loss,” revealed Aipolani in our pre-show interview.
Two months ago, concert sound engineer Pepe Romero, Iwalani Kalima, a kuma hula, and Phillips Payson, the Palace’s executive director, began organizing the benefit show for Aipolani. The show featured local musicians Mark Yamanaka, Randy Lorenzo, Ben Kaili, Christy Leina’ala Lassiter, Kalapana Awa Band with Ikaika Marzo, and Russell Mauga. Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani E came out several times and Bruddah Waltah closed the show.
Everyone performed for free, and Payson donated the use of the theater and his staff. Guitarist Larry Dupio was scheduled to appear on the line-up but suffered a heart attack earlier in the week and was flown to Oahu for medical treatment.
Oahu-born Aipolani switched from playing rock music to reggae when his sister sent him a tape of Bob Marley in 1979. He eventually saw the reggae superstar at the Waikīkī Shell and said the moment changed his life. “It wasn’t so much the music, I mean the ‘chanka-chanka’rhythm, but his wild hair and that he was smoking a big fattie on stage. So, I wanted to do that too,” Aipolani said, professing his passion for pakalolo.
When the Palace doors opened at six, the 500-seat venue filled up rapidly with adoring fans. It wasn’t a typical sit-down concert. Instead, folks were dancing, singing, and cheering loudly when the warm-up entertainers praised Aipolina, who sat in the front row, and gave a standing ovation for every performer on the bill.
Ku’ehu Mauga, a morning personality on KWXX-FM, acted as MC for the evening and did a fantastic job keeping the audience’s energy level high while the stage crew set up for the next act. He cruised through the crowd looking for those that wanted to wish Aipolina aloha. When he reached the top row, a kānaka performed a chant, with the crowd joining in at various times.
While Mauga encouraged the audience not to shout out for hana hou’s after each performer’s designated 15-minute set, they couldn’t resist, and the musicians complied.
During a brief intermission, the venue played a video of Aipolina that was recorded during the pandemic for the Palace Theater’s “Live From the Empty Palace” series. It was followed by a heartfelt message and a song by Lehua Kalima who dedicated it to Aipolani. He later mentioned it moved him to tears.
When the house lights came up, Aipolani was invited to the stage to perform his two scheduled songs, but once he got warmed up and was joined onstage by members from the Kalapana Awa Band, he was in fine form.
“I did a few fundraisers on other islands, but it’s always nice to be shown the love and aloha from the people of Hilo. I’m overwhelmed and love you so much!”
Aipolani invited his sister Deedee and other ohana on stage to perform hula while he sang “Hula Lady” and four other songs before being given the sign to wrap it up with “Hawai’i Aloha.” At the end, Aipolani was gifted the concert poster signed by all those involved with the event.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Aipolani told me, “I not only wanted to play music and leave a legacy, but I wanted to be different.”
Aipolani’s Gofundme page to cover medical expenses has exceeded its $10,000 goal and is still active.
Listen to an exclusive interview with Bruddah Waltah.
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: ©2022 Steve Roby
Concert date: 29/07/2022