So, four guys with a box and three ukuleles walk into a room. …
People seeing Kanekoa for the first time don’t know what to expect. And after the show they don’t know how to describe it. But they are smiling and wondering how so much sound can resonate from the small instruments, and maybe they’re feeling that they’ve just been to Hawaii.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who does what they do, the way that they do it,” producer and Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin said.
“It’s just beautiful music. It’s kind of like my band. We spend literally zero time defining what we do.”
The Maui quartet, which is on a tour of California with a stop in Alaska, is named for rhythm ukulele player and lead singer Kaulana Kanekoa. The lead ukulele player is Vince Esquire, who was once was hired by Gregg Allman to play blues guitar. Travis Rice, who grew up seeking out drum circles and going to Grateful Dead shows, plays cajon. “Uncle” Don Lopez is a sage with a witty sense of humor and a U-bass. Each member sings.
Kanekoa’s debut in the Crystal Bay Casino left the audience smiling and calling out for more: “Hui hou!. The final song before before the encore, the Allman Brothers’ “Revival” which segued to a “One Way Out” medley, concluded with a roar from the crowd that was a loud as this music journalist has heard in the Crown Room.
“The venue was fantastic, the sound was amazing, and I was glad we had the amount of people there that we did,” Esquire said. “There is just an energy about that place. The people who have walked the plank of that stage make it something different.”
Saturday’s Crystal Bay Casino appearance was a home-away-from homecoming, of sorts. Esquire was born in the Bay Area before moving at age 4 to Hawaii. Lopez played in South Lake Tahoe bands (Tight Squeeze, The Bad Boys, Freehand) from 1973-81. Kanekoa and Rice are Reno’s Wooster High School alumni, where they were offensive linemen for the Joe Sellers’ powerhouse football program.
“We wore tie dye underneath our football pads,” Rice said. “Kaulana and I got together for a love of music. He moved back to (his native) Maui. That was always his plan. I was going to go to Korea and he said stop by. That was 1997. Everyone liked big people and they like to feed me, and I met my wife and we met Vince playing and that was that. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
The musicians have been together 25 years, with Lopez joining about seven years ago.
“Their bass player had moved to mainland,” Lopez said. “It was fun because what they do is what I’ve always done and that’s improv. People think I know a lot of songs. I don’t. I just play. I just try to keep my mind as empty as possible so it’s kind of fresh. It fit in with what they were doing. They were calling themselves the Make Any Kind Trio. I asked, ‘What do you want me to do?’ ‘I don’t know, just play.’ ‘OK, let’s go.’ ”
The original trio first collaborated at an open mike at Sir Wilfred’s Coffee in the Maui Mall.
“The whole approach, then and today, was to play whatever you want,” Rice said. “If you train wreck, you train wreck. Every time we play, it’s not like we’re playing a song for the first time, it’s almost like we’re allowed to play it for the first time the way we want to. Vinnie would call audibles from on stage. Most bands don’t call audibles, but that’s our baseline.”
When Kanekoa toured with Los Lobos, the bands bonded.
“I think we reminded them a lot of them,” Kaulana Kanekoa said. “I remember David Hilgado walking up to Don and saying, ‘You sound just like (Cream’s bass player) Jack Bruce.’ ”
Lopez added: “It was just good vibes with him. After the show, they were just laughing and smiling and said, ‘Hey guys, let’s sit and talk and have a beer.’ Brothers’ stuff.”
Los Lobos won the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, “Native Sons,” which Berlin said was “love letters to Los Angeles. It was for the bands that inspired us and the people like the Blasters that were integral to our development and us to want to make music and be musicians.”
“Native Sons” brought Berlin his “seventh or eighth” Grammy (“I don’t want to overstate it.”) Berlin also is uncertain of the number of albums he’s produced, estimating more than 100. “I don’t really stop and keep score,” he said. “I just keep going.”
He offered to produce Kanekoa and the work was about to begin when the pandemic shut down shows and travel. Instead of a potential working vacation in Maui, Berlin remotely produced “Songs From The Great Disruption,” eight originals and covers. The songs are like a Kanekoa performance, Rice said: “A wide range” of styles with Island rhythms. Guest artists include Oahu’s famed ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, Tavana and G. Love. Esquire and Lopez were the recording engineers.
“Nobody else was doing anything and we have all these friends and connections in the music world,” Lopez said. “It provided us this opportunity. We wanted to keep busy. We realized we can kind of sit here and get loaded and go crazy or we can stay constructive and do something.”
Berlin plays sax on the album’s second tune, “Don’t Let Go,” which has a Los Lobos vibe.
“It started out more reggae and I suggested more cumbia,” Berlin said. “They are very easily amenable to any changes. We found a groove in the middle between cumbia and reggae.
“There is a very similar dynamic (to Los Lobos),” Berlin said. “The guys have been together a long time, and they were friends first. I see a lot of parallels, musically, as well. Their ability to go far afield in many different directions I would like to say is similar to us. It was all very comfortable being around them.
“I had to figure out a different way to do what I do. Had anybody asked me if it was possible, I probably would have said no way. We figured out a methodology. They set up cameras in the studio. It was really healing to me. I didn’t know if there was going to be a music business or a live show ever again. Three times a week, in my mind, I was going to Maui for a little while.”
Berlin and Kanekoa are working now on another album, a redux of “Coconut Sky.”
“They felt like they were rushed and they didn’t do it the way they wanted to do it,” Berlin said. “I don’t think I’ve done anything quite like this before, taking a record that’s existed and try to make it a different way.”
Unconventional is the Kanekoa way.
“We had many chances to jump off and go to acoustic guitar but ukulele is what keeps the sound central,” Kanekoa said. “Our whole sound comes from the ukulele and our sound becomes singular. There are not any other quartets, quintets or even trios doing what we are doing.”
Rice described how he learned the culture of the rhythms.
“We’d sit on porch with ukuleles with cousins or go to coffee shops,” he said. “We learned by hanging out with elders, watching how they played a song and how loose they were.”
Esquire, 37, started on Ukulele, but he picked up an electric Stratocaster guitar after he discovered the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan. He soon became a sensation and was in a blues-rock band that included Lopez on bass guitar.
“I started playing with Vince when he was just 15,” Lopez said. “We had a trio playing in a little bar in Wailuku. I had to be his legal guarding, sign him in and out and get him the hell out of there before midnight. We played several gigs like that until he was 21.”
The trio opened a concert for the Gregg Allman Band at the Maui Cultural Center.
“After the show this big scary guy comes up to me and says, ‘Gregg would really like to meet you backstage.’ I said, ‘OK, sure, just don’t eat me.’
“I didn’t have a whole lot of time because I had another gig to get to. We had a quick handshake and exchanged information. He said he may have somebody reach out. I didn’t think much about it. But later I got a call from Georgia, and I didn’t recognize it. He says, ‘Vince, this is Gregory.’
Esquire was a bit confused and the two went back and forth until the caller said, “Gregory. Gregory Allman. I have a couple of shows with the Brothers in New York and I wanted to see if you could fly out. It’s at the Beacon Theatre, just fly out. I’ll have all the arrangements made. He could sense the youthfulness of my playing at the time and the vigor and fire at the time because I was 21. He could sense the potential.”
Esquire continues to play guitar along with lead ukulele with Kanekoa.
“When those guys get those ukes going, playing a pretty fast-tempo song it sounds like this weird banjo-esque, hoedown kind-of something. It gets this hum going,” Rice said.
During the Zoom interview for this article Kaulana Kanekoa’s audio faded. Rice, who said, “I’m the drummer who talks a lot,” continued the conversation.
“What I’ve noticed is when we’re on the mainland and we start playing, it just kicks in Hawaii for people,” he said. “You realize that everybody on this planet knows Hawaii. Twelve years ago, I got to work in Southern Africa for the summer, and people there living in mud huts knew what Hawaii was. When we play on the mainland, it kicks in whatever positive memories and vibes people have of Hawaii. It makes everything palatable. We get going and it’s sort of new-grassy but it’s not. It has that twang. It has enough twang where you can understand it, but it seems like it’s pretty fresh for most people most of the time. It’s a brand-new-thing experience. It makes them feel happy.”
“The rhythm of Hawaii is infused in our music,” Lopez said. “We’re not playing Hawaiian music or Hawaiian rhythms, per se. Elements of Island fusion of what we’re doing.”
The musicians appreciate providing live music now more than ever.
“It brings people together,” Rice said. “You will see it at Crystal Bay. We have friends and family who are across the political spectrum. Once we walk in that room, that separation disappears. The pandemic for me is what makes us human. It took away all the fun stuff. Being around each other, listening to music and live events and art. We’re meeting makers. That’s what humans do. You can just see how important live music is for people.”
“That’s the No. 1 reason I started playing music,” Lopez said. “It wasn’t for girls, it wasn’t for attention. It was because I know that for a few minutes people actually forgot their problems. They forgot their bullshit and they smile and got transported and I thought that was one of the most beautiful prayers that anybody could give without being denominational whatsoever. It’s a completely nondenominational form of worship. It’s the beauty and energy of music. I can see people transport when we play.”