Relive the Vibrant String and Brass Music of Kalākaua’s Reign This January

Award-winning musicians perform “A Night of Sovereign Strings” at the Honolulu Museum of Art on Jan. 12 and 13.
Master luthier Kilin Reece.
Photo: Courtesy of Kilin Reece


Have you ever imagined what it would be like to listen to the Royal Hawaiian Band—the oldest and only full-time municipal band in the nation—during its heyday in the late 1800s?


You’ll have a chance on Jan. 12 and 13, thanks to musician and master luthier Kilin Reece. Reece and Hawaiian language professor Noah Ha‘alilio Solomon will guide audiences through the influential string ensemble styles of the King Kalākaua era and pay tribute to legendary musician and conductor Mekia Kealaka‘i in an event called A Night of Sovereign Strings: Celebrating the Musical Legacy of Mekia Kealaka‘i. In addition to readings (in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and English) of the letters Kealaka‘i and his fellow bandmates sent home while on their global tours, there will be performances by award-winning musicians such as Jeff Peterson, Aaron Mahi and Ian O’Sullivan.


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During this musical journey, guests will learn how Kalākaua, along with Kealaka‘i and his counterparts, heavily influenced the modern global soundscape—and that’s not an understatement. In 1915, the C.F. Martin Guitar Co., one of the biggest guitar manufacturers in the world, recognized Kealaka‘i’s work by naming an acoustic guitar after him. His guitar went on to become a direct ancestor of the iconic steel string guitar known as the Martin “Dreadnought,” instrument of choice for Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and Cyril Pahinui. (By the way, Reece and the C.F. Martin Guitar Co. collaborated to re-create the “Kealakai” guitar model for this event.)


This historic event is near and dear to Reece, who spent about five years doing extensive research for it. Born into what he calls a “very musical family,” he apprenticed until he got a job at the Santa Cruz Guitar Co. When his father fell ill 18 years ago, Reece came to Hawai‘i, where his brother lived, to take care of their dad. During that time, he worked at Ko‘olau Guitar and ‘Ukulele Co. and fell in love with the renovation side of the business, which he said “landed [himself] in the middle of the music community of Hawai‘i.” He then founded KR Strings, a restoration house for “fine vintage stringed instruments.” All in all, he is the perfect host for the concert.


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Mekia Kealaka‘i (far right), 1915.
Photo: Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art


Kathleen Wong: What inspired this project for you?

Kilin Reece: Through conversations with legendary people [such as Roland Cazimero and Kapena], I started to just catch little glimpses and hear little stories about the history of Hawaiian music. The more of these little stories I would hear and the more instruments that would come through my repair shop—old Martin guitars and Kamaka ‘ukulele and guitars—it started to seem like there was so much history here. And the real contributions of Hawaiian musicians from the 19th century and forward had never really been researched and celebrated the way I started to feel like they should be, so I started to look into that history and track down some of these stories and, yeah, that’s been my life for the last few years. I really feel like it’s the largest untold chapter in the evolution of modern music. Hawai‘i has been the epicenter of string instrument innovation for the last 150 years.


KW: Tell me a little about the musical landscape under Kalākaua.

KR: The Hawaiian Kingdom of the 1870s and ’80s into the ’90s was one of the most diverse cosmopolitan, educated music communities in the history of the world. You have all the influence of the western classical tradition with Henry Berger and the Royal Hawaiian Band of this young gang of Hawaiian musicians whom he recruited through [a reformatory school for boys], basically like juvenile hall at the time. Within a very short time these guys were playing piano, flute, all the brass instruments and all the string instruments that were in the kingdom, and that gang of musicians became the core of Berger’s band. They synthesized all of these cultures, communities, string traditions and brass band traditions into a style of music that, when it hit the Mainland … it was a style of music that no one had heard before. It was a new take on traditions that had been shared around the world, passed through sailors and churches. It was familiar, but this introduction of this guitar-driven sensibility about string band instruments really traces its origin to Hawai‘i and the world of David Kalākaua and his siblings.


KW: Can you tell me a little more about what audiences should expect from this concert?

KR: I’ve been working with the Library of Congress and we just released a reissued CD of a Hawaiian string band traveling in 1904—it’s the earliest recording of a traveling string band in the world. It’s a time in Hawaiian music when they featured two violins, a flute and a cello, playing the songs of Kalākaua, Lili‘uokalani and Mekia Kealaka‘i. We’ve been able to take these recordings and work at the musicology program at the University of Hawai‘i and transcribe these recordings, the violin and flute parts, and that’s what we’re using to inform the concert. So Aaron Mahi, legendary leader of the Royal Hawaiian String Band and legendary Hawaiian musician, is writing the string section parts … to reimagine the Kalākaua dynasty string band tradition, and that’s what this concert is going to really deliver through the songs of Mekia Kealaka‘i. It’s an opportunity for the musicians of today to reconnect with the monarchy-period musicians who changed the world with their music.


KW: Who are you listening to right now?

KR: The music of Johnny Almeida, virtuoso mandolin player and musical director for the 49th State Records label. I’m a mandolin player myself so my next hope is to reissue all of his recordings and bring attention to the mandolin tradition in Hawaiian music, which is just amazing.


This event is part of the programming for Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era, which will be open to guests at 5 p.m. on Jan. 12. Concert starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 12 and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 13. This event costs $45 for museum members, $55 for general admission. Find more info and buy tickets here.


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