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Royal Kona pumps up the volume on Hawaiian musicians

Credit: Tovin Lapan, Travel Weekly

After six years of attracting growing crowds for seaside performances by Hawaiian music legends, the Royal Kona Resort has expanded its live entertainment programming.

The spark came from singer-songwriter Henry Kapono, who rose to fame on the Islands as a member of duo Cecilio and Kapono in the 1970s before going on to a multi-Grammy nominated solo career. Kapono performed at the first Mai Tai Festival at the Royal Kona in 2009. Then, a few years later, as he was looking to cut down on his tour schedule and spend more time with his wife and twin children, he started looking for regular Aloha State gigs.

“They looked into some venues and because we had a relationship already, they asked if we’d be interested,” said Jeff Isbister, Royal Kona director of food and beverage. “It all started from there with Henry playing the third Thursday of every month. He set up with an acoustic guitar and an amplifier, like a garage band would have, and stood by the pool. It all grew from there.”

Kapono and his wife, Lezlee Kaaihue, started a management company and helped expand the concerts from monthly to weekly.

“It was a little hit or miss at first, but once it was every Thursday and people knew just to show up on that day, it really took off,” Isbister said. “All of the sudden we had to scramble to move around furniture and make more seating for people.”

Today, the resort now hosts a free music series with a rotating cast of award-winning Hawaiian musicians that regularly draws crowds of 500 or more, bringing out guests and locals alike. The roster of regulars includes: Brother Noland, recipient of the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award; Mike Love, an Oahu-born reggae artist; and John Keawe, a Grammy -winning slack key guitarist.

“These are some Hawaiian music icons. They are touring all over and some have really international followings,” Isbister said. “One of our guests recently had lived in Honolulu in the ’70s, and when she saw the poster she just couldn’t believe that Henry Kapono was playing here. She came down at least an hour early to put herself in the chair right in front of the stage.”

The Henry Kapono Foundation also helps foster music education in Hawaii and supports budding musicians, and last summer the Royal Kona hosted concerts with Kapono’s handpicked rising stars.

Now, in addition to the weekly Thursday night “Legends of Hawaiian Music” series, there is a Saturday evening lineup dedicated to the state’s next generation of talent.

“We were having a hard time finding steady Saturday night entertainment locally that we could rely on,” Isbister said. “So we thought it would be great to work with Henry and Lezlee on something to help promote the young people, the up-and-comers. … We got it going for a month or two in the summer last year, and it went so well we decided to keep it rolling.”

The concerts are hosted at Don’s Mai Tai Bar from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursdays and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and the venue received updates in 2019 to enhance the experience.

“We upgraded the sound and lighting systems,” Isbister said. “It used to be hard to hear if you weren’t directly in front of the stage, but now there’s no place you don’t hear the sound really well.”

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