On a hot humid August night in Hilo, slack key master Ledward (“Led”) Kaapana filled the Palace Theatre with heartwarming Hawaiian music and dance. Kaapana was joined by his sisters, as well as the Kalapana Awa Band, and hula dancer Noe Noe Kekaualua. The two-and-half hour concert was also filled with stories that harkened back to a simpler time in the islands.
Opening the show was the Kalapana Awa Band. Every Wednesday the band the performs at Uncle’s Awa Club at the end of Kapoho–Kalapana Road (Highway 137) in Kaimū. The Kalapana Awa Band features Glenwood Tolentino on lead vocals and ‘ukulele, bassist and back-up vocalist Ipo Quihano, Sam Keli‘iho‘omalu on ‘ukulele, his brother Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu Jr. on lead and rhythm guitar, and their nephew Ikaika Marzo on guitar. Drummer Ka‘ulu Tolentino didn’t make the concert. Their weekly shows of friendly backyard Hawaiian style music have gained them international acclaim and they continue to draw a huge gathering of tourists and locals on a regular basis.
The quintet’s eight-song set included crowd favorites like “Come On Over” and songs paying tribute to Molokai and Kauai. The audience fanned themselves furiously, often seeming to follow the rhythm of ukulele and guitar players on stage. The extremely talented lead guitarist Ikaika Marzo acted a spokesperson and explained they don’t work off a structured set list but go with the flow and look to “uncle” Sam for what’s coming up next. Marzo managed to occasionally steer the band into playing something a little more modern, “like from the Michael Jackson era.” During a solo, he snuck in a few bars from the disco song “Funkytown” while looking around to see if any of his fellow players noticed. Marzo is also the co-owner of Kalapana Cultural Tours, which runs boat tours of the east side of the island.
Before bringing on Kaapana, the Palace’s Executive Director Robin Worley explained in her intro that plans have been approved to add a sprinkler system to the theatre in late summer with air conditioning to follow by the beginning of 2020. A loud round of applause followed. “It’s so nice to see everybody with their own fan,” joked Kaapana as he began his first set.
Led’s open-tuned finger-picking has been thrilling fans for over 40 years, and Saturday’s show was no exception. In fact, you could say it was so powerful that it made everyone smile and forget about the heat. Kaapana was joined on stage by longtime bassist and musical companion Jesse Gregorio. The bassist has played with numerous musicians over the years including Ramon Camarillo, Aunty Lei Aken, and Ke Kani Nahe.
About halfway through this section of the show, Led invited his niece and Hula practitioner Noe Noe Kekaualua on stage. He thanked her for always setting up things for him when he comes to Hilo and taking him up to the Mauna to visit the Protectors. Born and raised in Hilo, Kekaualua has a love and passion for Hawaiian culture that has taken her around the world. She began studying the art of Hula at age 4 and has been engaged ever since.
Led switched over to his “Moore Bettah” Ukulele. The “Jus Press” uke was designed exclusively for Kappana by Chuck Moore with an image of the old Kalapana Black Sand Beach on the peg head, and Led’s “Jus Press” slogan on the fretboard. Kappana held up the beautiful instrument with its koa body, an offset soundhole and side port. “This man came up to me after a show in Kona,” recalled Kaapana. “I want to give you this ukulele with no strings attached.”
During several songs, Kaapana talked about his younger days and growing up in Kalapana in the mid-1950s. “There was no electricity when we moved there,” remembered the musician. “We learned to live old Hawaiian style – hunting, surfing, fishing.” Although he listened to his mother and father play music, outside music influences managed to creep in via small transistor AM radio. Kaapana explained that the radio only picked up static in the daytime, but when his brother took some copper wire up to the top of a coconut tree, and used it as a makeshift antenna for the family radio, they were able to pick up Honolulu stations in the daytime. One of the songs that had a lasting impact on the guitarist was the 1968 #1 hit by Paul Mauriat “Love is Blue.”
After a brief intermission, Led returned to the stage with his bassist, and then introduced his three sisters Lei Kaapana Aken, Trudy Kaapana Kuilipule and Rhoda Kaapana Kekona, and let them take the spotlight. Rhoda’s rendition of the Sam Cooke classic “Bring It On Home To Me” was moving. I’d never heard any of Cooke’s music given a Hawaiian twist before, and I really liked it. If someone were to fill in Lou Rawls’ harmony parts, the song would be complete.
The evening’s Hana Hou was “Hawai’i Aloha,” during which everyone stood, held hands, and sang along to.
Led tours the US extensively and has also appeared in Belgium, Germany, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Tahiti. When home in Hawaii, Led can be found on Saturday evenings at Honey’s at the Ko`olau Golf Course in Kaneohe, where local talent and visiting musicians from the four corners of the globe drop in to join the “back yard” party.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, 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