Story by Sheila Sarhangi
Photo by Richard A. Cooke III
Considering that this place is dubbed “The Friendly Isle,” I shouldn’t be surprised that the one hundred or so faces in the audience— of locals and visitors alike— look like they’ve just discovered where somewhere over the rainbow actually is. Their bliss isn’t (only) the work of stiff cocktails. It’s because of the dozen kupuna (elders) singing old Hawaiian songs, dancing hula and strumming ‘ukulele.
This is no typical get-on-stage-and-perform kind of show. Kupuna are sitting around two fold-out tables, drinking piña coladas and snacking on Maui Chips and peanuts between songs. It’s as if we all just stumbled into tutu’s backyard and she invited us to stay— and even join in.
For nearly fifteen years Na Kupuna Kanikapila has taken place on Fridays at 4 p.m. at Hotel Moloka‘i. I’d heard about it long before I flew over from O‘ahu, and even if I hadn’t, nearly every kama‘aina I met on Moloka‘i made sure I did: “You going Friday?” “You know about the ‘elder jam,’ right?” “My mom plays, you come see?” It’s the kind of experience every traveler hopes for: friendly people talking story, living their culture and taking things slow, like the sign in front of the Moloka‘i Airport says we should.
The musicians don’t rehearse and there’s no set list, just thick binders of sheet music lying open on the table. “We just pop a song up,” says 76-year-old Vivian “Vani” Ainoa. “Could be rascal song or mellow song.” Traditional mele, especially songs about Moloka‘i like “Ho‘opono ia Moloka‘i” and “Hele Pohaku” tend to be the top picks. Contemporary Hawaiian songs like “It’s Aloha Friday” also make the cut, as does any sing-along, like Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’” and just about every Beatles tune.
“To tell you the truth, I never did entertain,” says Vani, leaning closer and looking at me over her glasses. After retirement she wondered, “What am I going to do?” She learned to play ‘ukulele in her early 60s; singing followed. “I was nurtured and then it came natural,” she says. These days she hardly needs more to do—she serves on the boards of multiple nonprofits, including one that’s restoring an ancient Hawaiian fishpond on her oceanfront homestead land. “I keep trying to slow down,” she says. “I just want to be a tutu!”
Lono, who forgoes a last name à la Prince or Madonna, started playing with the kupuna two years ago. Though he’s a professional, a Grammy and Na Hoku Hanohano Award nominee, his main job is to keep the group coordinated. “I like to make sure they’re having fun and they’re happy,” he says. “The show is packed with mana, and it’s from the heart.” His groupies are in the front row, wearing black T-shirts with cut-off sleeves, like his own.
Vani’s cousin Hattie Silva, 77, is one of only a few original members left. “We started right around a table like this. We never stop yet.” It’s true: Even after an electrical fire destroyed Hotel Moloka‘i’s Hula Shores restaurant in June 2012, the group kept going. “People go to a lot of trouble to come here,” says Hattie. “We give them hospitality. We share with them.”
Around 6 p.m. a couple of the aunties ask everyone to stand and hold hands. We circle around the bar tables and sing “Hawai‘i Aloha,” all of us swaying back and forth, and raising our hands at the end, as the song is traditionally to be done. The finale is “God Bless America,” and from what I’m told, it’s played to honor the veterans who have passed.
A couple more hours go by. It’s dark now, and most of the kupuna have gone home— except for Vani and Hattie, who are sipping margaritas in fold-out chairs. “You know, after each show,” says Vani, “we just sit here and say to each other, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’” Both born-and-raised Molokaians look toward the ocean and smile as if it were their first time here.