Travel to the end of Kapoho–Kalapana Road in Kaimū on a Wednesday night and you’ll find the weekly night market at Uncle’s Awa Club in full swing. Long communal picnic tables are packed with folks enjoying all manner of fresh cooked food from the nearby farmers market. New age vendors ply their wares offering hand-crafted jewelry, tarot readings, and crystals, while farmers sell organic produce.
The soundtrack to this weekly festival of sights and smells is the sweet melodies of the Kalapana Awa Band. United by a love of music and strong family ties, every week the band shares Hawaiian culture through its music, performing for hundreds of visitors from around the globe, and local residents alike.
For many, the music reminds them of old Hawai‘i. One of the reasons so many people come to hear the band play is that the music represents authentic Hawaiian music.
“It’s not the touristy version of Hawaiian music,” says Glenwood Tolentino, lead singer of the group.
Since Uncle’s Awa Club, formerly known as Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar, is situated on the eight-acre Keli‘iho‘omalu family compound, it’s not surprising to learn that the Kalapana Awa Band involves several members of the Keli‘iho‘omalu ‘ohana. (See Ke Ola Sep–Oct 2012 issue for the Uncle Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu story.)
Officially, the Kalapana Awa Band is comprised of Glenwood Tolentino on lead vocals and ‘ukulele; drummer Ka‘ulu Tolentino, who is Glenwood’s nephew; bassist and back-up vocalist Ipo Quihano; Sam Keli‘iho‘omalu on ‘ukulele; his brother Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu Jr. on lead and rhythm guitar; and their nephew Ikaika Marzo on guitar. While these are the core members, you can find any number of musicians joining them on stage from week to week.
Indeed, the Keli‘iho‘omalu family is well known for their musical ability. Uncle Robert’s wife Philmen, affectionately known as Aunty G Girl, is widely known for her singing and songwriting. Many of their 11 children inherited the couple’s musical talents.
Sam and Robert Jr. recall growing up in Kalapana with a house filled with music and musicians.
“We used to have parties at our house and we had all these different musicians come play with my mom,” says Sam. “We used to have a great time and enjoy the weekends.”
During their youth, the Keli‘iho‘omalu boys could also be found on Sunday mornings singing at the Star of the Sea Painted Church in Kalapana (the church was subsequently moved to Kaimū after being threatened by a lava flow in the 1990s). (See Ke Ola Nov–Dec 2015 issue for the Star of the Sea Painted Church story.)
In the early 1980s, Robert Jr. and Sam moved to Hāna, Maui after they each respectively graduated from high school. Sam and Robert Jr.’s mother, Aunty G Girl, grew up in Hāna. Glenwood’s mother and Aunty G Girl are sisters, making Sam, Junior, and Glenwood first cousins.
“We’re all real close,” says Sam.
Glenwood, who was born and raised in Hāna, had played in front of audiences for many years by the time his cousins moved to Maui.
Born into a musical family, Glenwood recalls singing at events across Maui from when he was just a young boy. “I used to go with my grandmother when I was six years old,” says Glenwood. “She was in a group and would sing all over the island. She would take me along and slap me up on stage.”
With the three cousins all living in Hāna and Robert Jr. and Glenwood working together at Hana Hotel, it was only natural that they started performing together. They teamed up with one of Glenwood’s uncles, Jonathan Tolentino, and formed a band.
“When we were in Hāna we had a group called Hui Eha Ohana (four families), with Glenwood Tolentino, Jonathan Tolentino, Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu and me,” says Sam.
“We played weddings and all kinds of events all over the island,” adds Glenwood.
The group performed for about seven years before Sam and Robert Jr. returned to Hawai‘i Island. A year later, in 1989, Sam moved to California where he lived for more than a decade.
While the young men went about pursuing careers and starting families, Glenwood, Robert Jr., and Sam continued playing with various musicians.
“I played for years with Keani Kaleimamahu, who’s a master slack key artist, and Ipo Quihano in the Sons of Kaimu,” says Robert Jr.
Sam and Robert Jr. also released a handful of albums performing with family and friends. The two brothers played on three albums released by their mother: Aloha Kaimū, Aloha Kaimū Part II, and Kalapana I Ka Wa Kahiko: Imua Kakou. Robert Jr. was also featured on Slack Key Traditions.
The brothers started performing together again when Sam returned to Hawai‘i Island.
“When I moved back to Waimea in 2001 we started the group again,” says Sam. This time around the band was comprised of Ipo Quihano, Sam, Robert Jr. and Ikaika, a well-known slack key artist in his own right. Sam says the group didn’t have a name.
Then in 2004 Glenwood moved to Hawai‘i Island. He jokingly says he came for a baby party and never left. “Prior to Glenwood coming back we were playing music but we never had a name,” says Sam. “We got back together like we were on Maui but we added Ikaika and Ipo,” says Sam.
“When Glenwood got added to the band that’s when we became the Awa Band. The Awa Band is fairly new,” says Sam, noting that the current band has been together for six years.
Uncle Robert had created Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar many years earlier on the family’s property and since the place was a well known gathering spot in the community, it made sense for the guys to play there even though the awa bar had a tiny stage at the time.
A couple years later, lava from Kīlauea volcano started entering the ocean in nearby Kalapana and thousands of visitors a day were flocking to the area to watch the lava.
Sam says they never set out to create a weekly event, which has gained international acclaim, drawing thousands of people to their door. It just evolved that way naturally, with the Kalapana Awa Band playing front and center.
“We [Ikaika and my nephew] were doing lava tours of Kalapana when the lava was coming down,” says Robert Jr. Sam, who recently moved back to Kalapana, decided to expand the awa bar area with a large covered outdoor pavilion and much larger stage.
“The place was too small,” says Sam. “We built the building out before we did the farmers market and playing on Wednesday nights was a natural progression of that.”
“It just happened, it grew organically. There were tourists coming and after a while one of our good friends came up and said we should have a market on Wednesday night. It just happened that the music started playing.”
“The first week was only a handful [of people],” recalls Glenwood, of when they first started performing as Kalapana Awa Band. “And the next week was a little more, and it started to get busier and busier until what it is now, which is pretty busy on any given Wednesday.”
For a time, the band played on Friday nights as well. These days the entire band performs on Wednesdays. Robert Jr., Sam, and Glenwood also play during the Saturday morning farmers market at Uncle’s Awa Club from 8am–noon.
The band is also invited to perform at events across the island on a regular basis in addition to their weekly performances in Kaimū, such as the annual Big Island Slack Key Festival.
“We play weddings, anniversaries, birthday parties, retirement parties, and we do a lot of funerals too,” says Glenwood.
Sam and Glenwood each noted that the group is considering making an album, although they admit that finding the time to do so can be difficult since many of the members are involved in different side projects. Robert Jr. and Sam also said the band is currently exploring opportunities to perform on the mainland and in Japan.
In the meantime, the band can be found every Wednesday night center stage at Uncle’s Awa Club.
“Everyone’s here to have fun and relax in the middle of the week,” says Glenwood.
Having played music together for more than 30 years, band members say they still have a lot of fun performing every week.
“It’s good fun,” adds Sam. “We know each other already. We know what each other can play. We like to put good music out there for the people.”
“We like to make people feel like this is old Hawai‘i, says Robert Jr. “We love music. When we play, it’s all from the heart. We play because we love to play music. ”
Sam and Robert Jr. say they see their performances at the weekly market as a larger extension of the musical parties they grew up with in their youth.
“We were always entertaining people,” says Sam, reflecting on the times they played music with their parents as youngsters. “From there, we look at it now and that’s what we do. But now we entertain the world.”
“We went from a small gathering at our house every week to a huge gathering every week.” ❖
Contact writer Denise Laitinen