Friday, June 18, 2004



The Hawaiian music group Maunalua performs at Duke’s in Waikiki. From left, Bruce Spencer, Bobby Moderow Jr. and Kahi Kaonohi.

Maunalua Magic

DURING LAST Saturday's "Take a Walk in the Country 2" at the Waikiki Shell, the buzz among concertgoers wasn't about which aloha shirts the Makaha Sons would wear on stage, who would end up making special guest appearances that evening, or even the high prices being charged for food and drinks.

'AT&T Wildest Show 2004'

With Maunalua

Where: Honolulu Zoo stage lawn

When: 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, gates open at 4:35

Admission: $1

Call: 926-3191

Instead, the subject this writer overheard folks talking about the most was Maunalua's set to open the show.

"What you mean they wen play already?" was one individual's remark after arriving an hour late to the Shell.

"They only played three songs!" someone else lamented to a friend as Three Plus jammed on stage.

For Kahi Kaonohi, Bobby Moderow Jr. and Bruce Spencer, playing with the Makaha Sons was an honor they wanted to take advantage of, even if they already had booked a previous engagement.

"That was real good that they allowed us to be part of it," said Moderow last Sunday of their appearance at the Shell as the guys took a break from a gig at Gordon Biersch -- their sixth performance of the weekend. "They were Hawaiian when (being) Hawaiian wasn't cool."

Even though the trio had to be at a VIP party on the Leeward coast by six o'clock, they found a way to play three songs for the voting public who picked them as "Entertainers of the Year" at this year's Na Hoku Hanohano Awards before hightailing it out of Waikiki around 5:30 p.m.

They were a few minutes late, but chalked it up to being on Hawaiian time.

"Sometimes it can get really brutal," said Kaonohi of accepting so many engagements. "(But) if we can shift around schedules, that's what we try to do."

Maunalua's Kahi Kaonohi.

WHILE THE group's first album, the self-titled "Maunalua," made its debut in 2000 (and won the Hoku for Best Hawaiian Album in 2001), the trio had already been together for almost five years before stepping into a recording studio.

Much like the type of Hawaiian music they play, the guys knew to take a traditional approach towards developing their own unique sound.

"We firmly believe in playing the gigs, understanding the inner connection within the group," said Moderow. "You have to hone the craft."

For Moderow and Spencer, it all started on Saturdays at Roy's in Hawaii Kai. The two were playing regularly at the restaurant, and ended up getting hired to play at Kaonohi's wedding in 1995.

But things didn't work out with the group's original bass player, and it looked like they would have to pull out of the ceremony. "I called him up to say we couldn't play," said Moderow.

"And he said, 'hey, can try out for the band?' "

Kaonohi ended up getting married that Sunday with another group providing the music, and the very next day he was at Moderow's house to meet with him and Spencer for an audition. The band's current lineup was solidified right then and there, and the three immediately set out to develop a sound that would set them apart from other groups.

Soon, they went from performing as "just three guys at Roy's," to becoming recognized as Maunalua, a name suggested by Moderow's wife as a homage to the area where they first started playing together (Maunalua was the original name of what's now called Hawaii Kai).

On the cover: Hawaiian musical group Maunalua, from left, Bruce Spencer, Bobby Moderow and Kahi Kaonohi.

WITH THREE Hoku Awards to their credit, the three have seen their popularity rise not only among audiences in Hawaii, but also among fans on the mainland and even in Japan.

"I really believe that there's still a lot of Hawaiian music to be played," said Moderow. "We're seeing such a resurgence in Hawaiian music."

For someone who has played with the likes of Gabby Pahinui, Palani Vaughn and Dennis Kamakahi, it's comforting for Spencer to see renewed interest in the music and culture of the islands.

"It's something that has its place -- it's always had its place," he said. "As generations change, you hope that there are people who continue with the music."

Maunalua's critical and commercial success has also allowed the band to establish its own label, Lokahi Records, they released the group's sophomore album, "Kuleana."

All three members of the group, however, continue to hold down full-time jobs -- Kaonohi is an air conditioning technician at Honeywell, Moderow works in landscape construction with his father, and Spencer is a ramp agent with Aloha Airlines -- and they also understand that success will only continue with a lot of hard work.

"As the group matures, we're finding more of our voice, musically (and) technically," said Moderow. "People really enjoy the music and we're very fortunate to have the public support us."

"The kupuna is the ones who actually kept the music here," adds Kaonohi. "We're here to maintain it."

And how does the elder statesman of the group weigh in on their prospects for the future?

"We're just enjoying the ride right now," Spencer said. "We're so blessed to be working, and that people accept us."

Visit for more information about the band and a performance schedule.

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