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Hawaii mourns the loss of amazingly talented musician William Awihilima Kahaiali‘i

By Staff | May 28, 2020

One of the brightest stars in the Hawaiian music scene, William “Willie K” Awihilima Kahaiali’i passed away on May 18 after battling cancer for more than two years. His family said a celebration of his life will be announced at a later date.

WAILUKU – West Maui and the world lost an incredible musical talent with the passing of William “Willie K” Awihilima Kahaiali’i last week.

“Thank you to EVERYONE for all the love, support and prayers you have given,” his family noted on his Facebook page.

“We are sad to announce that Willie K has passed away on Monday night (May 18th) in his home in Wailuku surrounded by his ohana.

“Initially in January 2018, he was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. He fought hard for over two years while still performing. In mid-February of this year, he was hospitalized for pneumonia, which caused complications with his lung cancer.

“He was in positive spirits and doing okay, and he was looking forward to performing again. He then suddenly turned for the worse and lost his battle.

“A celebration of Willie’s life will be announced at a later time.”

He is survived by his wife, Debbie Kahaiali’i, and his four children, Karshaun, Max, Lycettiana and Antoinette.

Hawaii Gov. David Y. Ige commented on Willie K’s rare versatility as an artist.

“Willie K was a unique talent whose huge voice effortlessly ranged from Hawaiian music and the blues to opera – all in one performance. Recognized locally and nationally, his songs touched our hearts. Dawn and I extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” Ige said.

Born on Oct. 17, 1960 in Lahaina and raised in a family of musicians, Willie began performing with his father, Hawaiian jazz guitarist Manu Kahaiali’i, at the age of eight.

“My father was a great influence,” Willie K said in his biography on WillieK.com, written by Jeff Tamarkin.

“He groomed me to be where I am today. He was just as diverse as I am – the guy knew how to play everything: jazz, blues and Hawaiian.”

In the family band – he was the second of nine boys and four girls – Willie eventually mastered every instrument that might be needed in the show, from guitar and bass to ukulele.

And since audiences change each night, he learned how to play music in the various genres they might want to hear.

After graduating from Lahainaluna High School in 1979, he moved to San Francisco to perform with artists in a new music scene.

Back in Hawaii, he caught the eye of the music industry and released his critically acclaimed debut album, “Kahaiali’i,” in 1991.

This launched a career that saw him perform around the world, release multiple solo albums and collaborations, and earn 19 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards as a musician and producer.

Some of his best-known songs are “Katchi Katchi Music Makawao,” “My Moloka’i Woman” and “Ho’okipa Surf Song.”

Working with Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom, Willie K was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Music Album in 2005 for “Amy & Willie Live.”

The Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts, the organization that stages the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

He was a charismatic star, a blues guitarist compared to Jimi Hendrix and a pioneer in the Hawaii music scene.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said, “Willie K was not just a unique artist with diverse range; I also considered him a friend. Whenever we met, he would sing my favorite aria, ‘Nessun Dorma,’ which is not a song found on the set list of many artists. It’s not the only aria he performed, as people will also remember his renditions of ‘Ave Maria.’

“Willie’s talent allowed him to expand beyond Hawaii into national and international venues, but I think it’s safe to say he was most comfortable performing home in Hawaii,” she continued.

“Two of his most memorable performances, to me, were a sunset performance he held at a private residence on Maui, and his amazing show in Washington, D.C., with Amy Hanaiali’i at ‘Hawaii on the Hill’ in 2015. At both, his connection to the crowd was evident, and that connection made for great performances. I will miss Willie, his exuberance and his talent.”

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino extended his prayers and condolences to Willie K’s family.

“Willie remained positive as he fought cancer bravely for two years, still choosing to perform and entertain fans even while ill,” Mayor Victorino said. “He was generous with his time and immense talent that spanned musical styles from Hawaiian to rock, to blues and opera.

“Joycelyn and I extend our prayers and deep sympathy to Willie’s family, friends and countless fans and admirers. We mourn a great loss for our community. He will truly be missed but never forgotten.”

His Facebook page was full of tributes on Tuesday.

Donna Duncan Dowdy wrote, “Such a sad day. My condolences to Willie’s ohana and the Maui Tribe. Willie was part of why we fell in love with Maui. We will so miss his smiling face, beautiful voice, storytelling and the obvious love he had for music and performing. The world has lost an amazing and unique talent.”

Willie K knew his unique place in Hawaiian music. He told Tamarkin, “I am unlike any other Hawaiian that’s ever been seen or heard before.”