Sweet Sounds on the Shoreline From Mark Yamanaka and Son

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Kahilu Theatre’s Summer concert series continues at the Mauna Lani Resort.

“You might think this is a tan, but it’s really rust,” joked the multiple Nä Hökü Hanohano Award winner Mark Yamanaka. Many musicians this year had their performance schedules postponed or canceled, and Yamanaka was no exception. The singer had plans for an intimate show on April 24 at the Kahilu’s Mike Luce Studio (MLS), but the Coronavirus pandemic forced the theatre to close this spring.

Yamanaka’s Sunday shoreline show at the CanoeHouse restaurant on the lush, sprawling grounds of the Mauna Lani resort is a far better setting than the black curtained confines of MLS. The July 19 event was the second in this fundraiser series for the Kahilu, and judging by an informal audience poll, many in the crowd returned after attending last week’s Brother Noland concert.

Sunday’s audience had become accustomed to the routine now – come early, find an open table for two on the lawn, bring something to eat, and enjoy the music under the stars. The couple sitting next to me was appreciating the show in regal style: chilled champagne in a bucket, center stage seating, with an opportunity to directly connect with Yamanaka when he asked for audience participation.

Anna Akaka

I really treasure the traditional Hawaiian reverence to nature, history, and music that Rev. Danny Akaka Jr. and his wife Anna establish at the beginning of these outdoor events. It’s similar to their monthly talk/story gatherings called Twilight at Kalāhuipua‘a, which take place not far from the Mauna Lani. In local terms, it’s a “chicken-skin” experience. It reminded me of being a teenager on Oahu in the ‘70s watching the live Hawaii Calls radio show that took place at the Moana Hotel.

Yamanaka entered the stage shortly after Danny and Anna welcomed everyone. After removing his mask, a huge smile lit up his face. He was happy to be back on stage after the unplanned hiatus. Behind him, it was golden hour. The trade winds teased the wave tops that sprayed and reflected the many hues of the setting sun. It was like watching a live masterpiece being painted before our eyes with Yamanaka’s soaring falsettos as the perfect soundtrack.

Mark Yamanaka during golden hour.

Yamanaka is a humble man and it was evident in our podcast interview before the show. I wanted him to tell me what the experience was like after receiving so many awards. He was grateful, but that wasn’t why he became a musician. He even offered some sage advice to up-and-coming musicians on the island before we concluded our chat.

Jorden Kealoha-Yamanaka and dad

Yamanaka brought along his talented son Jorden Kealoha-Yamanaka to join him for the second half of his set. Jorden spent a year at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, and then decided college wasn’t for him. After hearing him play guitar and harmonize with his father, it’s obvious Jorden made the right career choice. Maybe there’s a father-son duo album we can look forward to someday.

Although Yamanaka didn’t rely on a setlist, there was a recurring ohana theme throughout his song choices. In the mix was “Kaleoonalani,” a song written for his daughter; “Grandma’s Love,” an original song penned for his paternal grandmother’s memorial service; and “My Senorita,” a Kachi-Kachi style tune dedicated to his wife because she is of Mexican descent. The Hilo-based singer said the song’s inspiration came after watching the Disney/Pixar movie Coco, and he added fake trumpet sounds with his lips to complete the vibe.

Toward the end of the show, Yamanaka pulled out an oldie-but-goodie for the crowd to join in.  With “Runaway,” Del Shannon’s 1961 classic, Yamanaka split the crowd into female/male parts for the famous line, “I wonder, I wa wa wa wa wonder/ Why, a why why why why why/ She ran away…” To my ears, the women singers nailed it.

The Kahilu Theatre fundraiser concert series resumes on Sunday, August 9, with a performance featuring Big Island musician Blayne Asing.


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 Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine and hosts the podcast Songs & Stories.

Photos: Steve Roby

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