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Big Island Hawaiian Music Festival features all-star line-up


Tribune-Herald staff writer

The 24th annual Big Island Hawaiian Music Festival is Hilo’s signature summer music event.

The two-day festival of Hawaiian music, food, crafts and culture is from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 13, and Sunday, July 14, at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

As always, the lineup for this year’s edition is stellar. Featured artists include: John Cruz; Kani Ku Polu with Cyril Pahinui, Jeff Au Hoy and Peter Moon Jr.; Ben Kaili and Friends; Randy Lorenzo and Friends; and Bruddah Waltah Aipolani.

The festival has branched out somewhat from traditional Hawaiian music in the past several years, and closing out the festival at 5 p.m. on Sunday is Kahulanui, a nine-piece Hawaiian swing band from West Hawaii featuring vocalist and guitarist Lena Naipo, a third-generation professional musician. His grandfather, Robert Kahulanui Naipo, was the alternate bandleader of the Royal

Hawaiian Band and had his own 15-piece swing band. His father, Rodgers Naipo, played stand-up bass for the legendary Genoa Keawe.

Naipo said he’s drawn to the swing music that dominated Hawaiian music from the in the 1920s and ’30s.

“It moves me and it moves the band,” he said.

The band’s “core four” of Naipo, ukuleleist/vocalist Duke Tatom, bassist/vocalist Pat Eskildsen and drummer/vocalist Tim Taylor plays regular gigs on the Kohala Coast. The nine-piece ensemble also features a horn section: Jesse Snyder on tenor sax; Duncan Bamsey on baritone and alto sax; Andrea Lindborg on trumpet; and Frank Musacchio on trombone. There’s also a steel player, usually Hilo’s Dwight Tokumoto, but he’ll be out of town. An Oahu steel player, possibly Greg Sardinha or Paul Kim, will fill in.

The band’s debut CD “Hula Ku‘i” on Palm Records, was recorded at Lava Tracks studio in Waimea. The album garnered three Hoku nominations this year, and the band caused quite a stir playing at May’s awards show in Honolulu, backing Nathan Aweau singing “On Broadway.”

“We rehearsed the song once, five minutes and three seconds,” Naipo said. “I thought we’d go through it maybe a couple more times, but Nate is packing his bass guitar back in the case.”

Naipo said his informal music education came from his father and grandfather, and he learned to sing Hawaiian songs listening to his grandpa sing around the house while playing ukulele.

“I was only 6 years old but I’d sing along with him and I’d sing with the old voice, like he was doing. He’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh Papa, I sing like you.’ And he thought I was teasing him,” he recalled. “And today, when I’m singing it, you know, the old family members that are still around that hear me, they’d say, ‘You sound like Papa. You got your grandfather’s voice.’”

Naipo grew up on homestead land in Waimanalo, Oahu, two streets over from the large musical family of Gabby Pahinui.

“They used to have the jam sessions and I used to go down and hide in the bushes and watch them sing. I remember Bla Pahinui sing. When he sang, he sounded just like the dad. Just like him,” he said. He noted that at one point, Bla decided to go his own way and developed his own vocal style.

“I thought ‘how come?’ Because of all of Gabby’s sons, Bla was the one who sounded the most like him. He has that voice.”

“Growing up in Waimanalo, there were musicians on every corner,” he continued. “You had kids on the road at midnight, sitting there with their guitars, playing music. A lot of them was playing Kalapana and Cecilio & Kapono music. I didn’t want to play that. In fact, I only knew how to play slack key at the time. So you’d have some kids that only knew how to play Hawaiian, and some of them was the real tough kids. I wasn’t really one of those toughie kids, but they would accept me, and I didn’t have to fight.”

Naipo said he loves the band he has now, because everyone is in it for the music, not for their egos.

“I’m one of those musicians that love the old stuff,” he said. “I did this stuff 20, 25 years ago, and people laughed when they heard me and heard the way I sang. I kind of got torn away from it because I can do the reggae; I can do the other stuff. But it was just to make a living. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because there was nobody who believed in it, too. But the people that I play with now believe in it, that it’s good stuff.”

Tickets $10 advance, $15 door. Advance tickets can be purchased at East Hawaii Cultural Center, Basically Books and CD Wizard ($1 surcharge at CD Wizard) in Hilo; and Oshima Surf & Skate in Hilo, Waimea and Kona. For more information, call 961-5711.

Email John Burnett at


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