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Riding the Wave

Riding the Wave

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Our publisher’s recent trip to Maui uncovers the funky sound of “ukulele-powered Hawaiian reggae fusion rock.”

Welcome to the world of Kanekoa, the band of limitless possibilities. 

Kanekoa is one of Hawaii’s premier live music experiences. Their sound is based on the untapped potential of the electrified Hawaiian ukulele. Guided by the culture and land of Hawaii, Kanekoa is right at home playing any type of genre, from traditional Hawaiian to ’80s pop to jam band blues, uniquely offering their signature sound to everything they play.

Playing what’s described as “ukulele-powered Hawaiian reggae fusion rock from Maui,” the band is riding the wave of renewed interest in the instrument most closely associated with the Aloha State. Though Kanekoa has been at it for close to 25 years, the band continues to surprise and delight unsuspecting audiences, pushing the envelope of this four-string instrument. Wherever this band plays, people are mesmerized, as they’ve never heard anything like Kanekoa before.

Kanekoa was founded in the early 1990s by soulful and soothing singer/rhythm ukulele player Kaulana Kanekoa, ukulele virtuoso Vince Esquire, and the talented pace-maker percussionist Travis Rice. Uncle Don Lopez, a virtuoso on the U-Bass, is a more recent addition and completes a full-flavored sound to round out the band. This four-piece has uniquely taken the ukulele sound into new territory—just like local legend (and occasional collaborator) Jake Shimabukuro.

“At first, I thought it was just the novelty of the ukuleles,” says Kaulana about Kanekoa’s appeal. “People loved us on the mainland. I would meet musicians, and they’d say, ‘It’s astounding what you’re doing on the ukuleles.’ People see Vinnie and ask, ‘Is he the only one in the world playing like that?’ And I say, ‘There are a couple of guys.’”

When the guys are flying high, it’s easy to imagine Kanekoa as a Grateful Dead-inspired jam band with eclectic roots and a sound that embraces flavors of reggae, blues, funk, jazz, and island music. Esquire’s fluid, liquid runs on the ukulele sometimes recall Jerry Garcia’s tonal lyricism. Some fans have even wondered if he channels Garcia.

Esquire was exposed to music at an early age by his father. He picked up the uke at 7, and by 15, was blazing on guitar. Vince was so good, he was invited to play with the Allman Brothers Band in New York by mentor Gregg Allman. “I started on ukulele and I transmitted that to the guitar, and it evolved, and then I went back to the ukulele,” Esquire says.

Kaulana first learned the violin, then switched to trumpet. Inspired by the beauty of Hawaiian slack-key music, he eventually turned to guitar. “I loved ki ho‘alu,” Kaulana says, using the Hawaiian phrase for the slack-key style. “My dad was a great slack-key player. Eventually, I started playing the uke all the time. To me, it’s yoga—a release. Absorbing a diverse range of influences, from Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon (of Sunday Manoa fame) to Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley, Kaulana began composing his own songs. “Then I got together with these two guys, and it grew from there,” says Kaulana.

Percussionist Travis Rice was inspired by the Grateful Dead’s improvisational approach. “We started going to Dead shows,” Rice recalls. “I had never heard a band that would purposely lose time and play with that.” Rice eventually gravitated to the cajon (which interestingly has four strings inside). “The cajon is perfect for what we’re doing,” he says.

Uncle Don Lopez has been a staple on the Maui music scene, anchoring Hawaiian legend Willie K on bass for years. One unforgettable time, he even ended up on stage playing with Prince and the New Power Generation. Don also played and toured with Vince’s blues band for many years, which created a musical bond between the two. Don is a virtuoso on the bass and can play anything. His fretless Kala U-Bass adds a dynamic groove to the ukes, rounding out the Kanekoa sound.

You can download Kanekoa’s music from their website, kanekoaband.com. 

Taken from kanekoa.live.

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