Years ago, our family as visitors had the pleasure of hearing Iz, a victim of obesity known as a gentle giant, who has since passed away. We thought he was good, but we had no clue we were seeing a legend in the making.
These days, instrumentalists and vocalists are everywhere — in courtyards, restaurant lanai, even on the Baldwin Home lawn — and the same people in the know continually show up when one makes a special appearance. Many others, especially visitors and newcomers, often have no clue what they are missing.
Musicians have a rich history, and when they perform, they often tell interesting tales. My book, “Voices of Maui: Natives and Newcomers,” will soon beget another focusing on islanders’ love affair with music.
Here’s a preview based on interviews and research — a kind of guide to top musicians.
Succeeding the drum, ipu and other instruments, the classical guitar appeared in the 1800s, brought by cowboys from Spain and Mexico imported to round up cattle for King Kamehameha III.
More than a century ago, the ukulele made its way to the islands when two Portuguese instrument makers sailed here to work on the sugar plantations.
Soon, even Liliuokalani, Queen of the Hawaiian nation and beloved composer of songs still sung today, took the “uke” up and helped popularize it.
A hundred years ago or so, the steel guitar came along, invented when a bit of metal fell on some guitar strings and produced a unique sound. Electric guitars debuted in the 1930s.
But it was the steel guitar that brought us the distinctive Hawaiian music popular in the 1950s and beyond; songs like “Little Grass Shack” and “Sweet Leilani” played on 450 radio stations on a program named “Hawaii Calls” from Waikiki. The show popularized the music on the Mainland.
Next came the Hawaiian music renaissance, with hapa haole songs displaced by ones written and sung in the Hawaiian language.
And then ki ho‘alu (meaning loosening of keys for slack key guitar) has become so popular today that its players have won many Grammies.
Some of the state’s best musicians call this place home and others come frequently.
Keali‘i Reichel, a son of Lahaina, has won 31 Na Hoku Hanohano music awards, including four as Hawaii’s top male vocalist and four for best album. This singer, songwriter and kumu hula (hula teacher) whose dancers won at the Merrie Monarch festival helped pioneer the Hawaiian music renaissance. (Frequent venue: the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.)
George Kahumoku, a slack key master and Grammy winner who also keeps busy teaching school and planting taro, started as a child like many of his musical colleagues. He was not allowed to play family instruments, but he would sneak into the woods and strum when his parents weren’t paying attention after drinking potent, homemade “White Lightning.” (Venue: Wednesdays at Napili Kai Beach Resort.)
Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom began singing soon after she was one year old, flourished in Baldwin High School music programs, and has become one of the few contemporary Hawaii musicians to study music in college. This Maui girl — whose great, great grandmother was a dancer who taught hula to Hollywood stars for movies with Hawaii themes — has made 11 albums. She is a big believer in technology, often twittering off stage.
Willie K, also Lahaina born, wows fans on Maui, Japan, China, Germany, Israel and the Mainland. When not strumming, he sings opera and mimics a dozen vocalists, including Willie Nelson and Diane Warwick when he sings “We Are The World.” (Venue: Kimo’s on many Sunday afternoons.)
Richard Ho‘opi‘i, a Grammy-winning falsetto singer who still lives in his native Kahakuloa on the North Shore, is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Fellowship along with older brother Sol, his partner in the Ho‘opi‘i Brothers. Richard carries on since his older, legendary brother Sol passed away a few years ago. (Frequent venue: He often plays Hawaiian festivals.)
Henry Kapono, known as the “Wild Hawaiian,” is an award-winning singer/composer whose award shelf includes male vocalist of the year, song of the year and single of the year. (Venue: Dukes in Honokowai on the last Friday of the month.)
Melveen Leed, Molokai born and a former Miss Molokai, five times named female Hawaiian vocalist of the year, plays on her Yamaha and sings country (Paniolo Country), jazz and pop music in her fifth decade performing music. She has won numerous Hawaiian music awards for her albums and has been Hawaii vocalist of the year. (Venue: three-hour shows occasionally at Kaanapali Beach Hotel).
The illustrious list could go on and on, including Maui’s Eric Gilliom (Amy’s brother), Oahu’s Brothers Cazimero and ukulele genius Jake Shimabukuro.
The power of Iz, who initially played with his Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau and sold a million copies of his first solo album, goes beyond “the rainbow song.” Iz eventually broke away from singing tourist songs and pioneered singing about things Hawaiian. Ironically, his most famous isn’t Hawaiian at all. Iz is gone, but others carry on the tradition of singing in Hawaiian.
Do yourself a favor. Go and see them.
Melveen Leed, who loves to take her microphone into the audience, bestows a kiss on a fan at Kaanapali Beach Hotel.