HONOLULU – Every few songs it would happen: The ukulele launched into a furious strum, the bass began to gallop, the guitar jangled to life, and the three powerful voices behind those instruments erupted into a harmonious whirl. Then someone danced.
There was no telling which songs would send a he or a she into a barroom spin to a roomful of cheers. At least there was no telling for a visitor from the mainland venturing out of Oahu's tourist bubble to catch some authentic Hawaiian music.
"Oh, someone's going to dance to this one," said Cody Pueo Pata as we sat in a booth at Chiko's Tavern, a dim dive bar where the band had just launched into "Pua Ahihi," a slow country burner sung, like much of the evening's set, in Hawaiian.
Sure enough, a woman with a long brown ponytail glided to the front of the room and began spinning slowly, arms raised in the air, smile affixed to her face. When she finished, she kissed each of the four band members on the cheek and returned to her table.
Pata, cradling a bottle of Heineken, explained: "This music has never changed through four or five generations. It's our comfort."
The thought of Hawaiian music might evoke images of men in leis gently strumming songs for sun-baked tourists in Waikiki, and, well, it is sort of that. But on intensely musical Oahu, live Hawaiian music can be found nearly every night of the week and in all directions: the coastal resorts, the small-town bars, the dives of Honolulu and, yes, Waikiki, for the tourist masses.
A little bit of Hawaii to take home
Hawaiian music is a lush, languorous sound wholly its own — hear it and you know it — but it also bears obvious ties to the folk, bluegrass, country and even mariachi genres. Its appeal is both in reflecting and fitting so seamlessly into the islands from where it comes. It is beautiful, peaceful music for a beautiful, peaceful place.
Waikiki supplies some of the most traditional renderings of Hawaiian music, such as slack-key guitar master Cyril Pahinui, whose gentle strums can be found every Wednesday at the waterfront Outrigger Reef Hotel. (His father, Gabby Pahinui, also a slack-key player, had music prominently featured in the film "The Descendants.")
The Wednesday I found Pahinui, he wore a red button-front shirt and white lei, as did his fellow players — men on steel and acoustic guitar — at a small stage near the hotel pool on a warm January evening.
Between sets, I approached the stage, where Tom Campbell was buying Pahinui's latest CD and telling him, "We can't get this back in Minnesota!"
"I'm sitting over there listening to that steel guitar, thinking, 'Oh my God, I have to take that home,' " said Campbell, of the Twin Cities. "I can't take the flowers back, and I can't take the smells back, but I can take the music back."
Waikiki hotels do an admirable job of supporting traditional Hawaiian music; the Outrigger Reef is among the hot spots, with nightly concerts.
But to find the music played by locals for locals, head into town to a place like Corner Kitchen, the self-billed "musician's playground." Corner Kitchen features live music several nights of the week, and virtually all of the players have won a Na Hoku Hanohano award, the Hawaiian version of a Grammy. The restaurant sits just outside Waikiki but is a local haunt.
The evening I visited, Hoku Zuttermeister, who plays ukulele and guitar, strummed through a series of gentle Hawaiian classics with a bass player at his side. Every other song or so, Zuttermeister's vocals would reach into a looping falsetto, a tenet of Hawaiian music.
After the show, Zuttermeister told me that, like many Hawaiians, he grew up surrounded by traditional Hawaiian music. But early in his career, it was difficult to play publicly.
"At one point you couldn't find Hawaiian music anywhere," Zuttermeister said. "Then the clubs came in, and it's starting to come back a little bit."
Where it has come back strongest are in the bars of Honolulu. Those bars are home to a fluid scene of musicians — mostly guitar, ukulele and bass players, virtually all of whom sing — who swap in and out of multiple bands.
The night after Corner Kitchen, I visited Imua Lounge, a bar tucked into a strip mall about 2 miles from the heart of Waikiki. It's the kind of place you could find only by seeking it out, and it was culturally riveting.
I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Guinness. There wasn't an open booth in the house, and if there were any other tourists there, I couldn't pick them out.
Joyous freight train
Then the music began. There were just four instruments — ukulele, upright bass and acoustic and steel guitars — but the musicians' frenetic strumming created a positively huge sound, like the joyful rumble of a musical freight train.
Between songs, the players caught their collective breath, and the ukulele player, Ho'o, would issue the occasional plea for another rum and Coke.
The next night I met up with Pata, a semiretired musician now focusing on Hawaiian arts education, at Chiko's, another delightfully dim Honolulu bar. That night's band also featured Ho'o, this time with different guitar and bass players, though the same steel guitar player sat in with them.
It was another gloriously raw and festive scene, the band plowing through its set and the crowd taking turns twirling to the jangly roar.
The Hawaiian song catalog is hundreds of songs deep, and most of the players know most of the songs. Hence, they're able to create fluid set lists that sound almost like one long song.
"We all know the songs," Pata said. "We all love the songs."
And, with that, he got up to take his turn on the dance floor.