Wednesday | July 27, 2016
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The swing of things: Kahulanui to perform in Hilo

When Kahulanui backed Nathan Aweau playing “On Broadway” at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards last May, the statewide telecast made them a lot of new fans, albeit fans who hadn’t heard what they really do.

The nine-piece Hawaiian swing band from West Hawaii didn’t win any of the three Hoku statuettes they was nominated for, but could bag an even larger laurel. Their debut CD, “Hula Ku‘i,” has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category.

They’re up against three Louisiana acts: The Hot 8 Brass Band; Terrance Simien &The Zydeco Experience; and Zachary Richard. The other nominee is Apache artist Joe Tohonnie Jr. from Arizona.

Lolena “Lena” Naipo Jr., Kahulanui’s leader, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, said the band heard the news while onstage at Kona’s Four Seasons Hualalai Resort.

“We were playing a gig there for a big convention and they stopped us to announce that we were nominated for the Grammy,” he said. “All the guys, everybody went crazy because it’s once in a lifetime. You can go a lifetime as a musician and never, ever be nominated. And for some little tiny group out of Hawaii to be nominated for a Grammy is pretty outstanding.

“At the time, I just sat there and went ‘wow.’ I knew my job was just starting, because we’re not a band that has any money, we just play music. Nobody in the band has that kind of money.”

Naipo was thinking about how much it cost the band just to go to Honolulu for the Hokus and realized he needed to raise funds to fly to Los Angeles for the 56th Grammy Awards on Jan. 26. Naipo and a friend burned the midnight oil making lau laus to sell, and the stress “caused my blood pressure to go through the window,” necessitating a trip to the hospital, he said.

Enter Pua Tokumoto, wife of Kahulanui’s steel guitarist Dwight Tokumoto, and producer of Hilo’s Tahiti Fête. She organized a fundraising concert featuring Kahulanui and multiple Hoku winners Kuana Torres-Kahele and Mark Yamanaka. The show is Sunday, Jan. 12, 4-7:30 p.m. at Nani Mau Gardens in Hilo. Tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door. Advance tickets are available at Basically Books and The Most Irresistible Shop in Hilo, Music Exchange in Hilo and Kona, Parker Ranch Store in Waimea and online at

Kahulanui’s music is a throwback to the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when swing was king and Hawaiian music had horns and drums. Naipo is a third-generation professional musician whose grandfather, Robert Kahulanui Naipo, was an assistant director of the Royal Hawaiian Band who previously had his own 16-piece big band.

“The whole thing about our swing is my voicing and how I sing,” Naipo said. “Like ‘Noho Paipai.’ I’d listen to my grandfather sing and he’d go, like (starts singing in a voice that’s half chant). I was six years old and I used to copy him. I’d try to sing like him as a little kid. And now, I’ve got that style.”

The name, Kahulanui — which means, appropriately, “the big dance” — is a somewhat accidental homage to Naipo’s grandfather. Naipo, needing a name for the band, saw a group of family photos in an album with his grandfather’s Hawaiian name repeatedly written next to his photograph.

“When I started doing this, I didn’t know my grandfather had done the horn thing,” Naipo said. “I was too young to have seen him play with the band, and only saw him singing around the house with a guitar or ‘ukulele. My father asked me how I came up with it and I said I had watched Lani McIntyre and Ray Kinney on the Internet.”

Kahulanui has two configurations. One is the so-called “core four” of Naipo, Patrick Eskildsen on bass, lead guitar and vocals, Duke Tatom on ‘ukulele and vocals, and Tim Taylor on drums and percussion. The other includes Tokumoto, plus Jesse Snyder on tenor sax, Duncan Bamsey on alto and baritone saxes, Andrea Lindborg on trumpet and Frank Mussachio on trombone.

“Hula Ku‘i” was recorded at Grammy-winner Charles Michael Brotman’s Lava Tracks studio at Waimea, with Brotman producing and engineering. The CD was released on the Brotman family’s Palm Records label.

“Charles Brotman bugged me eight years ago when he heard me singing to come in to record,” Naipo said. “And I kept telling him I can’t afford it and I don’t want to come in and do it. And then, the guys in my band were bugging me. We need to do a CD. And (Brotman) told me to come in for free, just do it. And when I showed him the horn thing on the Internet, he was like, ‘You wanna do this?’ I said, ‘I wanna do that.’ He said, ‘That’s so 40s, what about the core four.’ And I’m like, ‘Charles, I’m telling you, we gotta have the horns.’

“And it became what it is today.”

Email John Burnett at


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