It was a year ago when renowned slack key guitarist Makana performed a sold-out Sunday matinee at the Kahilu Theatre. A week later, the global pandemic paralyzed the entertainment industry, and the popular Waimea venue shuttered its doors.
Although the Kahilu remains closed to the public, last Saturday it offered a private shoreline concert at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel to nearly 100 Makana fans and later livestreamed the event to a global audience.
“This is the only concert I’ve agreed to do since the pandemic started because the Kahilu was willing to do it to my standards of proper public safety and quality sound,” said the musician.
Makana’s 90-minute performance was filled with an array of styles including Hawaiian slack key, folk, classical, and even venturing into rap territory. The guitarist dazzled the crowd with his banjo-like fingerpicking and forceful strumming, admitting to the audience that he didn’t need a back-up band since he could play bass, rhythm, and lead parts with both hands.
At times he displayed a few popular stage antics like fanning the fretboard with his forearm, or gently rocking his prized Takamine guitar to generate a tremolo effect — think T-Bone Walker meets Eddie Van Halen.
In between songs, Makana tuned his guitar while explaining the benefits of playing slack key.
“You’ll never get bored,” revealed the guitarist. “Every time I play a song it sounds slightly different each time because I change the tuning.”
Using a glass bottle-neck slide for demonstration, he connected the dots between Delta Blues music that came out of the Southern U.S. to slack key songs performed at sugar plantation camps on the Big Island.
One of his most unusual song choices in the evening’s set was “Aloha Means Goodbye.” Makana mentioned that he has several real estate agent friends who sponsor his concerts, and one dared him that he’d never play this song live.
“Don’t ever dare me,” was the singer’s reply.
The controversial number is about the recent influx of rich mainlanders to the islands during the pandemic buying up property, who in this case, encounter unwelcoming locals. One line goes, “You gotta lot of money/wanna go where it’s sunny/so you fly to Hawaii/but you’re acting like a dummy/fly back to where to you came from. Beat it!”
Makana added he was going to be doing an interview with KAPA-FM’s morning crew but wasn’t sure if they’d play this slightly infused rap song.
On “Shells” Makana said it was the first time he played the tune in over a decade. The song comes from his yet-untitled musical that’s been in the works for fifteen years. At last year’s pre-pandemic Kahilu concert he played another selection from the musical called “Somewhere on the Ocean Floor,” but he offered no indication when the complex project would be finished.
Several times throughout the concert, Makana invited Miss Aloha Hula 2006, Namakana Lim-Carvalho to the stage to augment songs like “Hi’ilawe” and “Waika.” You’ve probably seen her perform at the Kahilu with Sonny Lim and Kalani Pe’a.
For those watching the livestream at home, the concert was followed by a 30-minute segment where Makana interviewed himself with a split-screen effect. Dressed as an upcountry paniolo and speaking fluent pidgin, Makana’s would-be journalist asked Makana the musician how he’s coped with the pandemic so far.
“This time has been the greatest blessing for me,” replied Makana. “I’ve been touring the world, doing hundreds of gigs, and just being able to stay put, root down, remember who I am and rediscover myself, makes myself whole and able to write songs beyond what I’ve written.”
Missed the show? Don’t despair. You still can catch Makana’s livestream concert and interview on Kahilu.TV.
Editor’s note: Steve Roby is a music journalist, author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.