Last year, I was invited to participate in a media trip to the Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, in Ko Olina on Oahu. I loved the energy of the place, but what really stood out was the many ways it faithfully and respectfully embraced Hawaiian heritage.
Hawaiian elders roamed the grounds and led ceremonies, native artistic touches were reflected in everything from exquisite architectural design to colorful paintings, and most importantly of all, the welcoming aloha spirit made everyone feel that this indeed is a special place.
The visit was filled with wonderful experiences, including outstanding dinners, an enjoyable snorkeling expedition and a bevy of Hawaiian cultural experiences. On the final night, we attended a dinner on the beach that included entertainment. We weren’t informed who would be performing, but were told that we would be in for some special surprises. It turned out that the show featured some of Hawaii’s top performers, including DeAndre Brackensack, a talented young Michael Jackson-like singer who was a former American Idol contestant; and Tahiti Ray, an accomplished acoustic singer. We were all buzzing about their performances when the final act took the stage—no less than Hawaiian legend Willie K.
Born on Oahu and raised on Maui, Willie K (aka Willie Kahaialii) is an amazing guitarist, ukulele player and singer whose repertoire basically covers the whole gamut—from Hawaiian folk tunes to blues, soul, rock, folk, reggae—even Italian arias. This marked his first appearance at Aulani, and it was pretty amazing to have him there, performing under the stars for a group of only about 30 people!
When I found that Willie K was performing for two days this past weekend at Rancho Nicasio, located about a one-hour drive north of San Francisco in a rural setting, I couldn’t wait to hear him again. Bob Brown, who, along with wife Angela Strehli owns Rancho Nicasio, was celebrating his own birthday, and arranged for Willie to travel from Hawaii to perform at the club. I attended his Saturday night indoor show, which featured a guest appearance by prominent blues-rock guitarist Elvin Bishop. Willie K was in top form, playing mainly blues, funk, rock, reggae, and yes, an aria (Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”). My favorite was his heartfelt interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Waterfall.” All the while, Willie K connected with the audience in his own completely relaxed style, telling humorous stories as he revealed a good deal about his personal journey. He has a soul as deep and wide as Kauai’s Waimea Canyon, and creates a beautiful intimacy with audiences that cannot be described in words.
I returned the following day for another Willie K performance, this time outdoors on the lawn and featuring a barbecue and luau. Backed again by his extraordinary rhythm section (Brown called it the best he has ever heard in his 47 years at Rancho Nicasio), this time Willie K added more Hawaiian and folk tunes to the mix, all played in his own imitable style. He was joined on stage by Strehli, an immensely talented and influential performer dubbed the “Queen of Texas Blues.”
It was an unforgettable day, and as Willie K’s concert wound down, most of the crowd got out of their seats and moved closer to the stage. He’s known as “Uncle Willie” and I can see why: People of all ages—children through the elderly—simply wanted to be closer to Willie, who had bared his soul while displaying his musical wizardry. It felt as if we were all Willie’s children, and he had created an intimacy not only with us, but among us. As Willie played his final songs, former strangers had their arms around each other and shared hugs. After the show, Brown said, “I never know what to say after a Willie K performance.” Brown also intimated that Willie clearly transcends music, calling him “one of the world’s great people.”
Willie K performs on the U.S. mainland around once per year. He frequently performs at clubs and other venues in Hawaii, particularly on Maui.