Taking the high road


POSTED: Sunday, October 12, 2008

It's Open Mic Night at the hipster coffee shop, and the very concept is fraught with potential cliche. Sure enough, a couple of people have barrels of self-delusion rather than musical talent—Leadbelly, what hath thou wrought?—but, by far, those brave enough to face the crowd range from interesting to fabulous. And all of them face a 15-minute limit.






        Higher Ground generally features open mic on Wednesdays, jazz on Thursdays and featured artists on Fridays and Saturdays.


» Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays


» Location: 70 Kukui St.; if you can see Jack in the Box, you're close. It's in the same small mall as Hawaii Music Supply.


» Call: 622-0000 or visit www.highergroundhawaii.com



Those having the best time are the musicians. And that's the way venue owner Andrew Kitakis designed it. The spot is the Higher Ground Coffee & Music Cafe, tucked away in a little strip mall in Wahiawa, a few doors down from Kitakis' Hawaii Music Supply shop, but to Kitakis there's no distance at all between the two.

“;We took over the space for storage for the music store, but there was enough left over for a cafe,”; said Kitakis, a quiet young fellow with a slow smile. “;We wanted to be different from the average music store, to create a space that was music-friendly, a hub for performing, a place for cool people to get together. And I always liked making coffee!”;

He didn't waste any time. The space was leased in March; by April, construction was completed and the first coffee was being brewed. Unlike many small venues—and the reason musicians have started hanging out in Wahiawa—the design is performer-friendly, from the small stage with clear sightlines to the well-mixed PA to the live-recording CDs and YouTube promo videos created on the spot.

“;We're making a Higher Ground compilation CD, and we can record bands to make demos. Video—we're still getting our feet wet,”; Kitakis said. “;Making our own DVDs is the ultimate result. We only go as fast as we're able to fund it. This isn't a million-dollar project!”;

Are they profitable? “;Not yet,”; Kitakis said. “;But a little better each month. Maybe by the end of the year. The coffee shop and stage isn't really about making money, but we can't be naive, either.”;

  A couple of escaping babies are on the floor, making for the stage. It adds to the family atmosphere. A guy named Mike, a GI, plays a Tracy Chapman-esque acoustic guitar, doubling the sounds with a sequencer, building up layers of crystalline harmony.

When Mike finishes, a large group of reggae musicians churn into proud-lion rhythms, a trio of embarrassed-looking teenage girls providing the Bob Marley choruses. The keyboard player and drummer are on fire, and we hear that they are also GIs, shipping out next week.

Then it's Bobbie Ramones, a teenage girl in a beret, performing for the first time in her life in front of people, and with a song she wrote about her mother, no less. She turns out to have a sweet, genuine voice—kinda Lisa Loeb—as well as a stage presence many professionals would envy. Still, when the applause comes, she blushes mightily. She's forced into an encore, playing “;Leaving on a Jet Plane,”; which she pronounces as “;a CLASSIC!”;

One of the last up is Otis Schaper, who, amusingly, given his name, makes surfboards. He writes his own songs, which are clever, and he sounds like Neil Diamond singing James Taylor's catalogue.

Schaper is nuts for Higher Ground. He lives a few blocks away, but claims he'd travel far to be there. “;Look at the turnout, on a Wednesday night!”; he beams. “;This area was just SCREAMING for a place like this! The sound quality is unreal, and they let guys like me play! Hawaii has so many talented musicians. In any other profession, they'd make a living at it, but that's why hard.

“;My wife and I, we never drank coffee, but now we drink lots. Got to support this place!”;