Waikiki still a magical place
By David Shapiro
"Over the Rainbow" was one of those old tunes that had been done too often by too many lounge singers and deserved to be locked in the dusty place where moldy oldies go to die.
Until Israel Kamakawiwo'ole made it his own, with a version so original and so fresh that it gave us all hope as he neared the end of a big life that finished too soon. His song was featured in a couple of movies and never failed to lift my spirits.
Then I heard the tune wafting from a downtown restaurant as I passed. I couldn't tell if it was live or recorded music, just that it wasn't Kamakawiwo'ole.
A performer was trying to cover him note-for-note with a voice that wasn't as good, intonation that was identical in everything but its heart and an electric guitar backing the singer instead of the wistful solo 'ukulele that punctuated Kamakawiwo'ole's "Rainbow."
The experience sent me to Waikiki to take up Mayor Jeremy Harris and Waikiki merchants on their offer to see what the tourism center has to offer local people. Specifically, I needed to hear some really good tourist music, and I thought I knew where to find it.
I went to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's Mai Tai Bar to see my old high school friend Leon Siu, who plays the sunset show on Fridays with his son Koa and does a solo show Saturday nights.
I've been listening to Leon sing and play guitar since the 1960s, when he was developing his unique style combining Hawaiian sounds and folk music.
Leon's musical partnership with ex-wife Malia helped fuel the renaissance in local music in the 1970s, which was the last time I had seen them perform.
I knew I had come to the right place even before Leon came out to play. The bar sits on one of Waikiki's finest stretches of beach. There's nothing better than a Hawaiian sunset to help the local or tourist unwind at the end of a long week and no better place to experience it.
Leon's husky voice and sparkling guitar were as elevating as ever as he played Hawaiian standards and original compositions that captured the old style.
But an even nicer treat awaited. A few songs into his set, Leon invited Malia to join him. Their son Koa was on the Big Island celebrating his second wedding anniversary and Malia, the dutiful mom, was filling in.
Leon and Malia still collaborate, mostly on children's music, but rarely perform together in public anymore.
The serendipity of the moment didn't go unnoticed. People from a retirement party on the adjoining hotel lawn approached to request tunes from L&M recordings. A group of local people heading to the restaurant for dinner stopped to listen for a long while.
Leon and Malia gave me what I came for. Whether singing solo or in harmony, originals or standards, they put their own signature on every tune. My upset over the uninspired cover of Kamakawiwo'ole's masterpiece was blotted.
Passing other bars and restaurants on my way back to the car, I heard good music coming at me from every direction. There were wailing pedal steel guitars, ringing 'ukuleles and even some Hawaiian funk.
Harris and the Waikiki merchants have it right. Waikiki is still a magical place for locals as well as tourists, with many treasures to be found if you take the trouble to look.
David Shapiro can be reached by email at email@example.com.