(HILO, HAWAII) — When COVID-19 hit Hawaii, it shut everything down, including live music.
And for a culture that’s rooted in togetherness and celebration, the lack of it hit many local residents and musicians hard.
For the past 15 years, Ben Kaili has been playing with his band “Kanakapila” at the Hilo Town Tavern. Kaili and his brother James, along with bandmates JJ Ahuna, Dwight Tokumoto, and former member Victor Chock, never missed a show, until COVID-19, that is.But they’re back now, and on Nov. 2, they were jamming live at the Hilo Town Tavern to their usual crowd of Hawaiian music lovers. The guests were the typical local Hilo group, with aunties dressed in nice jewelry and hats while being accompanied by their dates. They danced hula, laughed, sang — it was almost as if COVID-19 never happened, but the socially-distanced seating, mask-wearing, and smaller-than-pre-COVID-lot was a reminder that the pandemic continues.
Hawaii’s shutdown started in March of 2020 when state Gov. David Ige issued a “stay-at-home” order along with a mandatory 14-day quarantine order for visitors and residents returning to the islands. Limiting residents to essential outings only — it put many of the islands’ musicians out of work.
“When the COVID came, we didn’t do anything. The reason why we didn’t do anything is because everyone was on lockdown,” Kaili said. “For myself and a couple other musicians, we only work music. So we had no job for about a year.”
So when the local bar and restaurant announced they would be reopening to the public after the state eased their gathering restrictions in the fall of 2020, Kaili said he and his bandmates decided to lend a helping hand.
“We came back to help the place because this was our home base,” he said. “We didn’t come back to make money, but just to help because this is like home to us.”
And slowly but surely, people started to show up, socially distanced, of course.
One of the challenges Kaili said he and his bandmates faced was dealing with the elderly, who were eager to gather and listen to their beloved Hawaiian music again.
“When we came back, we were more concerned about the kupunas (elders). It was pretty hard at the beginning. But once things started to loosen up, then it wasn’t so bad, and then the kupuna would come and dance,” he said.
Today the weekly show continues to maintain popularity, with a mix of mask-wearing, elderly and young, although it’s not as large as it used to be, pre-pandemic.
“The management keeps it a lowkey music thing right now,” Kaili said.
Kaili and fans say the music is helping people regain some type of normality on the islands, a much-needed relief during a difficult time.
“It is very enjoyable to be surrounded by good people in the community while watching a group of amazing musicians play music once a week,” said Jacob Rouner, 37, of Hilo.Issa Hilweh, the owner of the Hilo Town Tavern, says it’s “bringing life back to Hilo.”
“If it wasn’t for the members of Kanakapila and their aloha for music and Big Island, we would not have been able to make it happen. They play for the music, and we are honored to be able to provide a safe venue for them to share their artistry,” he said.