Back in 1972, Danny “Kaniela” Akaka and his wife Anna were Hawaiian Studies college students studying with Larry Kimura, a UH Hilo Hawaiian language professor. They were conducting oral history documentation of the language and lifestyles of people living in Kalāhuipua‘a. At that time, traveling on the Big Island was limited and the only way to get the area was by boat from Kawaihae Harbor, or over a curvy crushed coral road.
Professor Kimura introduced the Akakas to the Kihe family who lived in Kalāhuipua‘a with their children and grandchildren. Their original three-bedroom house was built in the 1920s and near the site of the Eva Parker Woods Cottage, now located on the grounds at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows. The Akakas were moved by the Kihe’s evening talk storytime where family values, passed down from their parents and learned over a lifetime, were shared with the visiting guests.
Eleven years later, Danny worked as a landscaper at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel’s Tennis Gardens. He had earned a degree in Hawaiian Studies and began formal tours of the area and shared his Kihe family experiences with hotel guests. Eventually, he was designated as the hotel’s official Hawaiian historian.
On September 13, 1997, on a Māhealani (a full-moon night), Danny and Anna Akaka gathered a small group of friends, family and hotel guests to watch Danny perform by the light of one lantern, and no sound system. Impressed by the heartfelt performance, the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel approved a regular schedule of these talk story/music events and ultimately called them Twilight at Kalāhuipua‘a. The intention was to offer guests an experience that they wouldn’t have anywhere else in Hawai’i, which still holds true to this day.
In the event’s early stages, Danny determined that he should expand the solo repertoire and invite others like his first guest Aunty Eleanor Makita, a pure Hawaiian native who sang, chanted and danced hula. In Danny’s opinion, she was the epitome of a true Hawaiian aunty and kupuna (elders). With a theme of “Keeping Hawai’i, Hawai’i,” Danny brought in singing cowboys from Parker Ranch and hula masters every month to entertain the expanding audience.
Last Saturday, at 4:30 p.m., a mechanical gate to Napua Restaurant opened for the general public to park and make the short walk to the Eva Parker Woods Cottage. Many return attendees had come prepared for the evening. With picnic baskets, lawn chairs, blankets, and wagons to haul it all in, the seasoned “Twilighters” strolled passed ancient fishponds on one side and the turquoise shoreline on the other. Chronological displays were set up near the cottage to show the list of entertainers who had graced the porch stage over the past 22 years.
When folks arrived at the Woods’ cottage, they quickly learned that prime porch-front seating, for about 100, had been roped off for Hotel execs, and friends and family of the performers. The majority of the general public, around 200, sat on the lawn to the far left of the stage. Viewing from there was limited. Maybe you could catch a glimpse of a face or two in the distance, but at least the sound system was decent.
Danny began last Saturday’s program the same way he did 22 years ago, by playing the ‘ohe hano ihu, a traditional Hawaiian bamboo nose flute. “On that first night,” recalled Akaka, “there was a lot of chanting, sharing of history, stories, and music.” He then followed with a special chant dedicated to the kūpuna who played on the Woods’ porch, but whose spirits “have headed toward the setting sun.”
Throughout the evening, Danny set the stage and would “invite” surprise entertainers who had previously performed at the historic oceanfront cottage. “Every time I do these events, I feel like they are close by,” reminisced Akaka with a dramatic pause, cueing his sound tech to play an archival recording from selected shows like a 2002 appearance by the iconic Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho. Ho, 72 at the time, was coerced into singing his big hit “Tiny Bubbles.” Afterward, Ho joked, “I hate that song. We still do it every night, two times a show. Half the audience is in their sixties and might drop dead before the end of the show, and the rest are so drunk they can’t remember if we did it before.”
Akaka brought up his first performer George Kuo, a Hawaiian slack key guitar master. Among his many accomplishments, like winning two Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, Kuo appeared for several years on the historic, weekly national radio broadcast of Hawaii Calls, with a legendary cast from the golden era of Hawaiian music. The guitarist was also a familiar face on Woods’ porch, and at Saturday’s gathering, he and Akaka (on ukulele) played several songs Kanikapila style. Kuo reminded Akaka that their friendship dated back to high school when they use to run in cross-country competitions.
The next performer was John Keolanui, who, like Akaka, was a former crewmember on the Hōkūle‘a, Hawai‘i’s treasured voyaging canoe. The two sailed together in 1985 through Tonga to Samoa. Akaka, Kuo, and Keolanui shared memories and music for the next twenty minutes. Keolanui, with ukulele in hand, joked with the general public crowd off to the side of the stage. “Hey, you guys can hear? You gotta turn up your hearing aid. They come from Waimea. The winds blow right through the ear – Sorry.”
The Akakas plan to keep the free informal monthly gathering alive, although it’s more of a word-of-mouth publicized event perhaps to control the crowd size and limited parking. They also keep the list of entertainers for each monthly show top secret. In the past, top stars like ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro have surprised guests with their prescience.
Danny Akaka’s goal for Twilight at Kalāhuipua‘a is to perpetuate the lifestyle of storytelling and Hawaiian music and offer it to the community. Saturday’s audience highly approved.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. 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