A jamming luau
Kaulana Kanekoa was born in Hawaii but grew up here in Reno. As a young adult, he moved back to the family homestead in Maui. He and fellow Reno transplant Travis Rice began playing the Hawaiian coffee shop scene as a ukelele and percussion duo. And Kanekoa, a “Hawaiian Reggae Fusion Rock” band, grew from there.
The band’s current incarnation—including Kanekoa on lead vocals and rhythm ukelele, Rice on drums, Vince Esquire on lead ukelele, bassist Sean Loughran and percussionist Bret Nelson—has become one of Hawaii’s top-drawing local acts. Their music might be what you’d want to hear while dancing with a good-looking hippie and enjoying a fruity cocktail after a long day of surfing. They combine traditional Hawaiian folk music with elements of reggae, rock and jazz, all wrapped up in a jam-band mentality.
“I’m influenced by a lot of American folk, Hawaiian folk. I’ve listened to reggae since I was a little kid. And, in Reno, I was exposed to a lot of classic rock,” says Kanekoa, the band’s principle songwriter and lyricist.
Like any self-described “jam band,” they have plenty of open-ended Grateful Dead-inspired improvisations, but it’s unusual to hear those sorts of flashy jams played on that distinctly Hawaiian-sounding instrument, the ukelele. The ukelele has a high, crisp sound that moves high above the driving rhythm section. Even on quick, up-tempo songs, the instruments sound clearly differentiated and melodic. Ukeleles may be diminutive in size, but, properly amplified, the high, open sound they make, matched with the right rhythm section, is perfect for dance-friendly jams.
“People love it,” says Rice. “They dance—and that’s kind of what we’re all about: getting everybody going, dancing, moving and having a good time.”
Much of the flashy musicianship comes from lead ukelele player Esquire, who joined the band seven years ago, at age 13, already a virtuoso. Esquire is also a blues guitarist who has performed with Willie Nelson and Los Lonely Boys, but his high-energy blues licks sound quite different played on a ukelele in the context of a laid-back Hawaiian jam band. Some of Kanekoa’s songs, notably the dreamy “Coconut Sky,” have been top-requested hits on the Hawaiian radio stations that specialize in “Jawaiian” music, contemporary Hawaiian sounds influenced by reggae and R&B.
In addition to the originals, Kanekoa perform a wide variety of covers, ranging from traditional Caribbean and Hawaiian folk songs to nearly unrecognizable versions of songs by bands like The Doors and Men at Work.
For their first shows on the mainland, Kanekoa are coming back to Reno, their second home. They’ll be playing four shows within the space of a week, so interested Reno fans can quickly become as familiar with the band as some of their Hawaiian fans. After all, this is probably the only Hawaiian band out there tainted by Reno classic rockers.
“We’re excited to see the reaction in Reno, because people won’t be expecting it,” says Rice. “We’re not Don Ho music.”