Willie K’s music doesn’t drift in with the breeze.
A guitar virtuoso with an expansive vocal range, the Hawaiian performer incorporates Italian opera and Middle Eastern influences into his live shows.
Between songs, he entertains with lively tales drawn from a 40-year career that started at age 10, alongside his father, musician Manu Kahaiali’i.
Reached via telephone at his home in Maui, Willie K. discussed his career and what "Hawaiian music" really means.
Question: Your music incorporates so many different influences. Some older songs are so reggae-influenced …
…Answer: Back in the time when I started in my career, reggae was the movement of the people. The influences of reggae for me go way before Bob Marley or anyone of that nature. That was what all that was about: the music of the people.
Q: Is Hawaiian music more diverse than people think? More complex?
A: I would say it is more contemporary than complex. Basically, Hawaiian music in its natural format is only explained through hula. If you listen to Hawaiian music today, (you can hear) Spanish music, missionary gospel music. … Influences come from other cultural backgrounds. The only reason why it is Hawaiian is the language.
A lot of people — the masters and teachers — don’t explain this to the regular Joe who loves Hawaiian music. Because the falsetto (has) all kinds of stories. If you listen to ranchera music done by a Mexican man, or yodeling from someone from Switzerland — we took that. We never had that in ancient times.
A lot of (Hawaiian) artists hate that I tell the truth (about that), but you have to give thanks where thanks is due. … I spread the truth, (but) they take it out of context, and they don’t understand why I do that.
Q: But you are just trying to educate about the music’s origins?
A: Most of them don’t think that is what I am trying to do. But no, I am. People think "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (repopularized by Hawaiian legend Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) is Hawaiian. … (But) don’t step on Judy Garland, because she is the best.
Q: We have talked about reggae, and you also sing Italian opera. What other influences can be heard in your music?
A: Well, I sing the Israeli national anthem, if that helps. (laughs)
Q: Do you teach music history formally?
Q: But you try to educate people while you are on stage?
A: I educate them about Hawaiian music, in a comedy sort of way, because some people get very uncomfortable when you talk about certain things that are in relation to their ancestral history.
That is the secret of my success. I open up people’s minds and hearts at the same time, in a way they can laugh about it, and not get too emotional or stressed about it.