The Kahilu Theatre’s annual signature event continues to be a thrilling experience.
For 17 years now, Waimea’s Kahilu Theatre has celebrated Hawaiian music with a three-day event called the Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Festival. From 2002 to 2014 it was known as the Waimea Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Institute and even caught the attention of The New York Times. On the original bill were Led Kaapana, the father-son team of Dennis and David Kamakahi, and others. Over the years, Jake Shimabukuro, Amy Hanaiali’i, Chino Montero, Raiatea Helm, and jazz bassist Victor Wooten have graced the Kahilu’s stage during the Festival.
In addition to three nights of concerts featuring some of Hawaii’s best musicians, there are also shows exclusively for local schools and workshops where beginners can learn anything from ukulele music theory to singing techniques from music legends. It’s by far the most comprehensive Hawaiian music-themed gathering that the Big Island offers.
This year’s line-up of talent featured Jeff Peterson, Sonny Lim, Led Kaapana, Nathan Aweau, Mike Kaawa, Brittni Paiva, and Benny Chong. They’ve all been playing music for decades. Chong, a ukulele virtuoso, is in his 65th year of playing. His younger colleague, Paivia, is a Na Hoku Award winner, and recently returned from Germany where she taught a ukulele class with 100 students. Familiar faces to the festival, Kaapana and Kaawa, both considered master slack key guitarists, returned for another year of distinctive entertainment. Lim’s playing is also unique and carries on the paniolo tradition of playing steel and slack key guitar. Peterson offers more of a contemporary style of Hawaiian music while adding in jazz and classical chords. Throughout the festival’s concerts, each got his or her moment in the spotlight as well as playing together as a group.
Thursday night’s interactive concert was a bit of B.Y.O.U. – bring your own ukulele! For the second half the show, those with instruments (even guitars) were invited on stage to perform with seven of the festival’s musicians. Jeff Peterson was this year’s designated “conductor,” and often turned around to make sure everyone was playing the right chords. Playing the ukulele sideways, Peterson demonstrated for the beginners how their fingers should be placed on the fretboard. Franz, a young boy, now nine, was a big hit at last year’s kanikapila, and returned with his grandfather for another round. Altogether, 35 players from the island were onstage strumming for a good half-hour during this memorable moment in the show.
Concerts for Local Schools
On Thursday and Friday, the festival’s musicians performed both school concerts and one at the Theatre. Kohala Elementary got a show in their cafeteria, and Kohala Middle School was also treated to an on-campus performance. On Friday morning, Waimea’s Middle, Country, and Parker Schools walked with their teachers to the Kahilu for a special one-hour concert, which included a Q&A session with the musicians.
The students had a variety of questions like, “How long have you been playing music?,” and “Why did you get into music as a career?” Bassist Nathan Aweau responded, “Whether it was through friends or family, there was something that we heard and fell in love with it, and it became part of our lives for a long time. When most people pick up an instrument or sing, there’s something about it that kind of ‘sparks’ you.” Guitarist Mike Kaawa added, “Most of us up here got it straight from home. We were fortunate enough to have friends, family, and neighbors that were all playing music. We continued playing music as a tradition, and for the next generation. It was one way for me to not work an eight-hour job! (laughs) We love to play music! It doesn’t get any better than that – especially when you gotta go to work, and you love what you’re doing – music!”
The musicians played a variety of songs that the keiki enjoyed including a jazzy version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Sonny Lim brought along his steel guitar and thrilled the kids with his take on Santo & Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk.” The concert ended with “Hawaii Aloha” with all the students standing and singing along.
In addition to the concerts, the festival also featured an intimate series of musical workshops. With the beginner and intermediate student in mind, a wide range of subjects was offered for different skill levels. Class sizes varied from two to 19, and the most popular courses were Brittni Paiva’s “Music Theory on the Ukulele,” and Nathan Aweau’s “Finding Your Voice and Singing Techniques.” The lessons were taught in the theatre’s Mike Luce Studio and an area backstage. Student’s fees were very affordable ($15-$25) for a ninety-minute session with an award-winning musician. Paiva’s class had a variety of students – from a CPA from California who visits the Big Island for two months out of the year and wanted to brush up on his ukulele playing to a local mom who wanted to learn how to play “the songs the kids hear on the radio.” Others had technical questions about strumming patterns, hammer-on’s and pull-off’s, and how to develop finger strength. Aweau started with having his students stand with a series of breathing exercises and did a series of demonstrations accompanying himself on guitar.
In addition to Thursday’s kanikapila show, there were two other festival concerts, a Ho’olaule’a on Friday evening and a Hana Hou on Saturday afternoon. Friday’s show featured all seven musicians, but on Saturday, Led Kaapana couldn’t make it due to a previous engagement.
Friday’s concert kicked off with Nathan Aweau, Jeff Peterson, Benny Chong, and Sonny Lim for the first half. Brittni Paiva opened the second half, and it was nice to see her on the bill this year. Last year, a broken thumb prevented her from appearing. Slack key legend Led Kaapana and 12-string master Mike Kaawa performed before everyone returned to the stage for a brief kanikapila-style set.
Saturday’s six-person line-up was shortened in the second half as Paiva had to catch a plane and couldn’t stay for the kanikapila set. There were many chicken-skin moments at this show like Aweau’s song “Mau Loa” which he dedicated to his late father Lemuel Aweau, who passed in 2017, and the Hana Hou, a touching rendition of “Hawaii Aloha.” Mike Kaawa led everyone to form “Mauna Kea Hands” before the final notes of the song faded. The wide view of the audience, with hands raised in support, was stunning.
Mahalo to the staff and hardworking crew at the Kahilu Theatre, and the talented musicians who assisted with this feature story. The Kahilu Theatre is definitely a place where community, creativity, and creation thrive.
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/video: Steve Roby