Our Waikīkī: Here’s Where You Can Still Listen to Live Music in Waikīkī
Remembering Waikīkī as a venue for Hawai‘i musicians of today and yesterday.
Catch Hawaiian music performances every night at Halekūlani’s House Without A Key.
photo: courtesy of halekūlani
Melveen Leed remembers a time when you could hear music on every street corner in Waikīkī. “There were clubs and places playing music everywhere; it was coming out of the woodwork. I remember Eddie Kekaula singing on the sidewalk right outside the Princess Ka‘iulani [Hotel] wearing his red lei and it was beautiful,” Leed says.
The award-winning vocalist recalls singing jazz at Gauguin’s in the former International Market Place, then running across the street to the Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian and jumping on stage for a set. Everybody knew each other and everyone would play everywhere.
For Leed, Waikīkī was a training ground. First inspired by performers Emma Veary and Marlene Sai, whom she saw by sneaking into clubs in Waikīkī at age 18, Leed learned by visiting different performers’ shows. She watched Sterling Mossman in the Barefoot Bar at Queen’s Surf and studied his humor, how he handled the audience. She visited Don Ho at Duke Kahanamoku’s Polynesian Restaurant and Supper Club, who told her she had the talent and people skills to entertain in Waikīkī. “One time, I performed at the Royal Hawaiian Center on a stage by the street and when there was a red light, I went in the middle of the street with my cordless mic and sang to the cars,” says Leed. “They clapped and cheered and then I went back on stage and finished my song.”
“Most musicians would like to play Waikīkī. It’s a place to show their skills,” says entertainer and promoter Cha Thompson, CEO of Tihati Productions, which has provided Hawaiian and Polynesian shows in the Islands for more than 50 years. “We have to push Hawaiian music, which I think speaks the loudest about our Islands. Many of the kumu hula I grew up with are gone, and it’s our turn to step up to the plate.”
One of Waikīkī's newest entertainment venues, Blue Note Hawai‘i, continues the tradition of live music in the Outrigger Waikīkī Beach Resort.
photo: courtesy of jackson ink
Thompson considers Waikīkī in the 1960s and ’70s her favorite time, “when Don Ho reigned supreme and when locals flocked to Waikīkī.” She commends the talented local performers of today who still regularly bring music to the neighborhood, such as slack key guitarist Jeff Peterson and versatile music man Willie K. But back then, countless musicians packed the clubs, playing contemporary local music of the time, as well as ragtime hapa haole songs of the past. “That’s a genre of an era gone by,” says Thompson.
Live music in Waikīkī today may not waft through the open the way it did in the past but there are still plenty of venues around town to catch traditional Hawaiian melodies, a casual jazz trio jamming away or local singer-songwriters testing new material.
At the restaurant House Without A Key in the Halekūlani Hotel, Hawaiian music and hula are still performed every evening under the century-old kiawe tree—which survived falling down after a heavy downpour last August—as well as poolside at the Kani Ka Pila Grille in the Outrigger Reef Waikīkī Beach Resort next door. Duke Kahanamoku’s original restaurant is gone, but the famed waterman’s spirit lives on at Duke’s Waikīkī, with music nightly from artists such as Ellsworth Simeona and Haumea Warrington, as well as Henry Kapono on Sundays.
Local rock and cover bands find audiences at Kelley O’Neill’s and the Irish Rose Saloon, sometimes until as late as 4 a.m. Other hot spots include Tiki’s Grill & Bar, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Lulu’s Waikīkī, Splash Bar at the Sheraton Princess Ka‘iulani and the Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian. Sky Waikīkī and Búho Cantina both offer live music with sweeping views of the city. You can also take in music by the water at RumFire and Edge of Waikīkī in the Sheraton Waikīkī.
“We can never have enough live music in the hotels and other places throughout Waikīkī,” Thompson says. “Hawai‘i culture is a host culture. It’s aloha, and that doesn’t mean you have to be Hawaiian to play. The point is that we’re multiethnic, and we’re all people of Hawai‘i, and we bring out the best from one another.”