Right at 6:00 as the sun made its descent in Waikiki, throwing a golden glow on the volcanic crater known as Diamond Head--or Leahi in Hawaiian--three women strolled through the lobby of Outrigger Reef on the Beach
. They beelined--as best as the women, one using a cane, could beeline--for Kani Ka Pila Grille, and parked themselves at a particular table--a four-top with a direct view of the stage where Kawika Kahiapo was tuning his slack key guitar.
"They're here every week," Kawika would tell me at intermission. "They're not family," he said and, then, amended his statement. "But they are. And they sit in the same, exact spot every time."
Sometimes, too, Auntie Sylvia, the youngest of the three--and not the one with the cane--gets up to dance hula.
As soon as the three women got themselves seated, Sara, my waitress, who, it turned out, grew up on Kauai, the island where I live, buzzed over to give all three the hug-and-peck-on-the-cheek that is the standard greeting for women and men in Hawaii. And, then, the restaurant's hostess greeted the women in the same manner. As did another server. And another.
These women were clearly regulars at Kani Ka Pila Grille, where Hawaiian musicians perform seven nights a week. The presence of the "aunties" and the line-up of Hawaiian musicians posted on the inside cover of the restaurant's menu--Hawaiian music legends including Cyril Pahinui, Weldon Kekauoha, Brother Noland, Sean Naauao and Kawika himself--fulfill a vision dreamed up when the entire hotel was renovated more than five years ago. And that was to re-create the feel of the backyard jam session out of which Hawaiian music grew. To that end, the restaurant is open-air, situated right beside the hotel's pool. There are palm trees planted throughout and a running waterfall and stream. And the restaurant was named, "Kani Ka Pila," which translates to English as, "Let's play music."
"What I love about playing here is that Hawaiian music isn't an afterthought," Kawika said. "When you walk in, you feel the Hawaiian culture--from the restored canoe to the sounds of music to the food." A big grin spread across Kawika's face, splitting open his beard. "It's not Hawaiian if there isn't food."
Kawika opened the night with a number celebrating the neighbor island of Molokai. From that, he rolled right into another number from my own island--Hanalei Moon. As is typical of Hawaiian music, Kawika's choice of songs took us on a tour of the Hawaiian Islands--and his soothing voice went well with the red wine I sipped.
It wasn't long before the first person dropped a bill in the tip jar at the edge of the stage--and it was a boy not much older than 10. He and his family sat at a long table, arriving about the same time as the aunties and not leaving until shortly after 9:00 when Kawika finished playing an original song that would be my favorite.
Kawika introduced songs as, "This is a throwback to the 70s." Or, "For our friends on Maui." Or "Here's a song for the 50 and over crowd." He sang about the mountains, the ocean and the voyaging canoe Hokulea. He recognized one of his mentors, Gabby Pahinui and called out to the bartender for an orange juice and hot tea with honey. "There's a frog creeping up in my throat," he explained.
"Oh, but you sound good," Auntie Sylvia responded.
All the while I enjoyed my wine and a flat-bread pizza with vegetables, and long about the time I was thinking of making my exit, a Japanese woman sitting at the table next to me called out a request, which a few people had started doing. "Do you dance?" Kawika asked the woman, and she jumped up and took center stage, a wide smile on her face as her hands and feet told the story of the song.
After that, Kawika called on his daughter Shawna, sitting with a half-dozen family members, to dance. Then, his wife, Laurie performed a hula noho, a sitting down dance.
"And that is what we call a hula jam," Kawika said.
All the while, visitors strolled through the lobby. Others filled chaise lounges by the pool. Still others shopped at Martin & MacArthur. And it was just another night at Outrigger Reef on the Beach.
Kawika finished his evening with an original song--an ode to Waimanalo--with lyrics that intoned, "where blue meets blue" and "where the mountains and sea call out to me" and "Waimanalo. No other place to be. Waimanalo. Loved by all who come to see."
You could easily insert your favorite Hawaiian place in this song, be it Waimanalo or Waikiki or Hanalei. And they would all be true. But, for me, in that moment, hypnotized by the melodic voice of a man with a frog in his throat and entranced by the words of his story, the only place I wanted to be was at Kani Ka Pila Grille and bathed in the music of Kawika Kahiapo.
When the last chord was strummed, Kawika turned to his bass player, and both men reached out and gave each other a fist bump.
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