By Dan Collins
The roots of tenacious local band Kanekoa stem in Reno, Nevada with two high school football players. Two and a half decades later, the stout linemen, Kaulana Kanekoa and Travis Rice, never imagined they would be longtime partners in an award-winning ukulele band.
Discovering a similar interest in music and attending Grateful Dead shows together, the two became fast friends. “We were these two jocks in tie-dye T-shirts,” Riced recalled with a laugh.
After attending college, Rice moved to Maui in 1997, reuniting with Kaunekoa who had returned to his home island. The pair began attending open mic at Sir Wilfred’s Coffee Company in the Maui Mall. There, they met Vince Esquire, then a 14-year-old who had just been booted from a traditional ukulele group for improvising and putting effects pedals on his ukulele. At his mother’s insistence, Vince sat down and jammed with the duo. He was quickly adopted as a member.
In 1999, the band was formally established. Choosing Kanekoa’s family name, which means “warrior,” was the obvious choice for the band’s moniker.
The group’s furious live shows gained a local reputation. Esquire soloed at every opportunity and put effects on everything. With a full drum kit and electric bass, they were a raucous band. “We were more concerned about blowing up the joint than making money,” Rice admitted.
Improvisation on stage has always been a benchmark of the Kanekoa brand. “It’s super organic. You’re going to see us try stuff on the spot and sometimes we’ll trainwreck it right in front of you,” Rice said. “A lot of musicians can’t hang with that, but for me, that’s what keeps it fun.”
Over time their performances became more refined and the band billed their style as “ukulele-powered Hawaiian reggae folk-rock.” One night while playing at the Mint, one of the Farrelly brothers (the band does not remember which one) was thoroughly impressed. He drunkenly announced it was the best performance he had seen in a decade and planned to put them in a movie. “We were like, ‘whatever, drunk dude,’” Rice recalled.
A week later, Farrelly called the band’s manager and the boys were hired to portray the wedding band in The Heartbreak Kid with Ben Stiller. To this day, the band continues to collect residuals.
Rice returned to the Mainland, leading to a short hiatus. Once he returned to Maui, the original lineup reunited in 2012 and adopted a more acoustic approach—largely out of necessity. Small bars and cafes could not accommodate a full drum kit. As a result, Rice swapped his traps for a Cajon, a wooden box percussion that originated in Peru. Today’s lineup was completed with the addition of Don Lopez on bass ukulele.
Rice finds it ironic the band has actually found more success as a seated acoustic group than they ever did as a dance band. He credited the authentic, unplugged, intimate experience that they create for an audience. Those elements stand out in a world saturated with overproduced pop music.
But when COVID-19 pulled the plug on countless local musicians, Kanekoa was also no longer able to perform. For members of Kanekoa, this time inspired new collaborations and a solo release by the band’s ukulele and guitar prodigy, Esquire.
Already planning to record new material, the band reached out to fellow musicians in music purgatory. The result is an eclectic collection that reveals the depth of the band’s multi-genre talent. Released this December, the album is appropriately titled Songs from the Great Disruption.
The first single released from the forthcoming album, “Don’t Let Go,” is a Cumbia reggae collaboration with John Cruz. “Morning Sun” features G Love and is evocative of Marvin Gaye’s Motown soul. Tavana joins the band for “Dos Amantes,” a tragic Chamorro love song. Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro is featured on a reimagined rendition of the Led Zeppelin classic “Going to California.”
However, Rice is most animated discussing an original Hawaiian song by hula kumu, Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett. The track features Amy Hanaialiʻi Gilliom and her brother, Eric, as well as George Kahumoku on slack key, and Jerry Valdez on steel guitar.
“It’s got all the elements that people associate with Hawaiian music—the slide guitar, the rippin’ ukulele, the Grammy-winning slack key player,” he said. “Plus, you’ve got the queen diva of Hawaiian music and Eric on an acoustic guitar to give it that sort of ‘hapa’ sound. It’s all very dramatic.”
Hinting at the band’s ambition to add to their accolades, which includes a Na Hoku Hanohano award for Best Reggae Album in 2016, Rice said, “The fantasy we had was to storm the Grammy castle under the roots Americana category.”
The same circumstances that allowed for this innovation also enabled Esquire to spend time writing and arranging songs for his own solo project, The Vince Esquire Band. Esquire is able to pursue his passion for playing the electric blues guitar. Their new six-song album, Don’t Let Up, was released exclusively on his website on Sept. 16 and it is full of original songwriting and heavy blues licks. He’s currently on tour with blues rocker Chris Duarte until early November.
“I just love playing the blues, so I can’t stop doing that,” Esquire said. “I’ve gotta scratch that itch.”
Photo credit: Dan Collins