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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 4, 2007

Back in tune after hard times

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Michael Nakasone

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The crowd is mostly tourists, mostly older, mostly appreciative. A few stray office workers come with their bentos and lattes and hunker down under the trees like the sun hurts their skin.

Some intermediate school kids out on a field trip sit in the shade and pretend not to listen, but more than a few have their heads bobbing in time to the band. Small children spin in happy orbits to the music and even the Downtown pigeons are well behaved.

The Royal Hawaiian Band is chugging along like that train engine in "Kaaahi Kahului", a song they play with a sassy beat. Two years ago, the historic band was in the throes of unrest and upheaval.

One of newly elected Mayor Mufi Hannemann's first official acts in office was to dismiss Royal Hawaiian Band director Aaron Mahi, who had led the band for 23 years. It was as though a coup had broken out and a new regime had wrested unstable control of the only full-time city-funded band in the country.

Hannemann replaced the venerable Mahi with a high school band director. Michael Nakasone was beloved in his high school band realm but relatively untested. He could make a bunch of kids from Pearl City look dazzling in the Rose Bowl parade, but could he lead grown-up musicians frustrated with union issues, bored with the music selection and grumpy about having to play in the hot sun?

The band played on, and two years later, at least by the looks of it, they've moved on, too.

Nakasone almost never stops smiling a rare feat for a guy who worked with high school kids for so long.

Former ASUH President and Miss Aloha Hula Piilani Smith is the featured hula dancer. Former Miss Hawaii and clarinet player Denby Dung serves as emcee.

The "Glee Club" members make up the comic relief in the show. During an instrumental piece, one of them runs off to answer his cell phone. His conversation, held under a distant tree but in full view of the audience, is timed perfectly before his next song.

Even though the show is geared toward malihini, there's none of the cellophane skirt, man in a mu'umu'u, poi-tastes-like-wallpaper-paste schtick that makes Hawai'i residents cringe.

The show has a kind of decorum befitting of the 'Iolani Palace grounds, and even the Don Ho tribute song is graceful. Grab your Bento Man bento and head out to 'Iolani Palace grounds at noon on Friday. It's a nice respite.

And it is nice to see that the Royal Hawaiian Band as a whole came through a thorny time, navigated some changes and got their groove back.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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