Who Is Willie K?
And why do some call him the only active volcano on Maui?
May 25, 2006
It was about three years ago. The bar was dark and nearly empty, except for a couple of old guys mumbling to each other over a watered-down Scotch and a Silver Bullet. The bartender stood under a television set, drying a glass and looking at no one in particular.
In another corner, an imposing, brown-skinned man sat hunched over his beer can, his thick, wiry black hair held back in a ponytail. His posture begged anonymity, yet his very presence was magnetic. Weary and guarded, he had a solemn expression and barely peeked out under the cap shading his eyes.
And then a group of boisterous club-goers ambled inside.
"Oh my God, it's Willie K!" exclaimed a young blonde in a fetching, off-the-shoulder turquoise ensemble and dangling gold earrings. She turned to grab her male companion.
"Wow! I just saw you on stage!" the man told Willie. "You were awesome!"
Willie smiled wanly and stood. He shook the hand of the effusive young man, and then the girl. Noticing his audience was quickly expanding, Willie seemed to force himself to stand taller and smile wider. He took in the praise, nodding and saying "thank you" before he turned and sat back down at the bar.
Then he sighed.
I told this story to Willie recently, at his home in Lahaina. It was only one of many thousands of experiences such a highly regarded musician as the infamous Uncle Willie K would face everyday in his nearly 40 years of entertaining.
"You gotta take all the bad shit with the good," Willie said. "I knew I was gonna have to face that when I got into it. Most local musicians aren't prepared for that."
And it's true; most local musicians do not have to deal with the amount of fame and pressure to succeed as a man of Willie's talent has—or especially, the amount of pressure facing a young boy of Willie's talent.
Willie comes from an honored family of musicians. His father was the famed Hawaiian jazz guitarist Manu Kahaiali'i. His mother was a singer. There were nine boys and four girls in the family.
"I come from a family of so many kids," said Willie. "When it came time to eat, you better eat or you'll get the crusts of bread."
All the Kahaiali'i kids were encouraged to pursue music, although Willie was immediately singled out as having more than his share of the talent gene pool. At eight, he began performing with his father, who kept a close watch and strict reign on Willie's burgeoning musicianship.
"It's always pressure when it comes to family," said Willie. "Any kind of family business. I never had a chance to think [outside of] that."
Aside from performing with his dad, Willie also played in various bands throughout school—R&B, salsa, country, Hawaiian—no genre was left untapped. After school, he headed the popular Westside rock band Da Buggahs.
But he started getting restless. He felt that the local music scene was uninspired. He wanted to be a better musician and do something different than the same stuff he was hearing on the radio and seeing on TV. So in 1987 he went to San Francisco.
"Everything people see about my entertainment, it's all from San Francisco," he told me. "San Francisco has uniqueness, individuality. What you desire to put out and have people feel passion, you do."
When he came back to Maui a few years later, his popularity skyrocketed with the release of his first solo album, Kahaiali'i. In 1992, it received four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, including Album of the Year, Male Vocalist, Most Promising Artist and Contemporary Album.
A couple of record label changes and a growing disillusionment with the local music industry led him to focus on producing other artists, rather than record another album of his own. Along came Amy Gilliom. The first album from their resultant alliance garnered Gilliom three Hoku Awards.
And their subsequent success as a duo is legendary.
One professional witness to Willie's prodigious talent is Jim Linkner, a prolific producer of Hawaiian music and Keali'i Reichel's business partner. Among other things, he recorded Gilliom and Willie's live album on tour.
"Willie would listen to something, run it through one or two times and boom! He's got it," said Linkner. "I've made 300 albums but I can't think of any better musician than him. He does anything: slack key, jazz, blues, 'ukulele—he can sing Italian arias, to rock and roll. He is boundless."
It's this commitment to diversity that has earned Willie both praise and skepticism. As a Hawaiian artist, infusing rock and other genres, and playing national tours opening for acts like Santana, has opened doors for other musicians from Hawai'i—but at the same time, it's also put off some in the Hawaiian music community who may consider Willie's eclecticism as too radical.
He was constantly battling record execs wanting to pigeonhole his style or people who needed him to be the "Hawaiian Jimi Hendrix." But he's a musical chameleon; he can do and play anything he wants.
"If you let Willie be Willie, and let him do what he does best," said Ed Carson, Willie's manager and longtime friend, "he'll do his best."
This may explain the attraction of Willie's unbelievably long-standing Hapa's gig. For the past 11 years, Willie has consistently packed the dance floor of this Kihei venue. And no one, especially nightclub owner Gus Hoeft, wants to see that change anytime soon.
"He's the number one entertainer in the state," said Hoeft. "There's no comparison. He's a one-man band, an awesome singer, hilarious. I think he should be one of the Top Five things to do in Hawai'i."
"Hapa's has always been good to me," said Willie. "I'm able to express myself in a different light. They don't care if I wrote a 9/11 song or a love song. Maybe the stage is small but it doesn't mean your understanding should be. Open up—open your mind. People stay closed-in, they have nothing to blame but themselves."
Willie's musical curiosity and experimentation is partly what draws people to him. And there's no definitely no denying his onstage charisma. But offstage, Willie struggles to be a private man. The public attention he gets can be daunting. It's no accident some have called him the only active volcano on Maui.
"People always want a piece of him," said Carson. "Whether it's an interview or to talk story, they always want something more than the performance. People can get too personal; people feel like they know you. They yank on his hair. Just last week, he bent over and this woman started patting him on the butt. People get so overwhelmed by his music, they just get caught up in the moment and lose their minds, literally.
"He has this gift and knows not to keep it to himself, so he has to share a little bit of himself, too. It's a balancing act. And it extends to his playing golf, walking down the street—not just here. In Tahiti, a woman asked him to sign her baby! Wherever we go, there are very few degrees of separation now between Willie and the rest of the world. No matter where we are, chances are there's someone who's heard his music."
It can be tough, but Willie says he knows it's part of the life he chose.
"If you take this move to being a public figure," said Willie, "you better be prepared for the outcome of both sides. Otherwise, it's gonna slap you hard. Look at Tiger Woods—he can't even go into a public bathroom. The reason I'm an 'asshole' is so I can go to a public restroom. People say, 'Oh, there's Willie K, no bother him.'"
"Musicians are treated differently," said Carson. "That's the beauty and the mystery of music—more so than with a movie star or an athlete—you take it with you through your life. 'That was the song I did this or that to.' It's a bookmark on a certain part of your life, and people hold that dear."
Willie has been practicing martial arts for 25 years. He holds a black belt, and has been running a martial arts school for kids for several years in Lahaina.
"I'm basically teaching people how to not be insecure with themselves," he said. "[Some kids] want to fight but I say you need to know how to stand first—how to breathe."
Lately Willie's been busy with other projects, so he's set up conditioning equipment at his house for the kids gearing up for the international karate competition, Festival of the Kings. The event happens in July at the Lahaina Civic Center, and is veered toward teaching kids camaraderie and teamwork.
While I talked to him one day, some of these kids stopped by. Willie greeted each one with a beaming smile.
"These guys are the superstars of my school," he said.
As the kids set up to work out, he pointed out the various equipment strewn throughout his backyard, including an intimidating wall of bricks that yes, he can break with his bare hands. But he also told me the most effective martial arts move: walking away (or running, as the case may be) from violent confrontation.
"I had the crap beat out of me and had to learn the right answer," he said. "I'm a lot more mellow these days."
Willie doesn't drink or smoke anymore. He says he loves to watch people get drunk and crazy but cannot stand it when someone lies to him about it.
"You can never tell an ex-drug addict when you're not high," he said.
"When these kids first started with me, they were persistent," he added. "They would wait outside my house in the morning. They would train every day from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every summer."
Willie began watching the kids training in his backyard.
"He's a gentle soul," he said of one, then pointed to another. "They both are."
But he balked when I suggested that, perhaps, he's one, too.
Willie is currently undergoing training of his own. About a year and a half ago, right after his country tour with Amy Gilliom in which her brother Eric had joined, Willie had an idea.
"I had fun playing with Eric so I called and said, 'Hey, you wanna do an album?'" said Willie. "'Let's do a Hawaiian album together."
The duo formed the Barefoot Natives. They spent about a year in the studio. They released the album this past week; next month, they'll hit the West Coast, from San Diego to Oregon, for a couple weeks.
"I cannot handle the mainland for more than a month," said Willie.
After the tour, the Barefoot Natives have plans for more projects, including a TV show, movie and another album. "I like the buzz it's creating," said Willie.
Just last week, the duo performed in Europe for concert promoter Marek Lieberberg's 60th birthday. Gilliom and Willie fronted Billie Joel's band, along with other heavy recording artists. But the boys from Hawai'i kept a game plan to do a righteous performance and represent.
"After that gig, we made a lot of friends," said Willie. "We did what we set out to do. We let people know there's a new sheriff on Maui and it's the Barefoot Natives."
Willie had just come back from Germany before he hopped back on a plane to go to Kauai, where he performed solo for an annual Humane Society Convention. The show was a hit and the Humane Society people want to book him for the next decade.
"It was huge—there were about 2,000 people—and I walked out and said, 'Wow, you guys really like me!'" said Willie. "And I got a standing ovation just for saying that."
At this point in the conversation, Willie's 10-year-old daughter Lucetiana suddenly peeked her head through the window above us.
"Hi honey," said Willie. "You do your homework?"
She mumbled something, then disappeared. Then Willie told me that he took her with him to Europe and she fell in love with Italy.
"It was basically an educational thing," said Willie. "I'm giving her everything my parents gave me."
One way to relieve all the stress of his hectic life is golf. Willie loves golf. If he could, he said he would play everyday.
"I'm a fiend, a groupie, an addict," said Willie. "It's a challenge, and it doesn't take its toll on me physically—it's mentally challenging. It's like trying to solve a great big puzzle, to get that hole-in-one once in a while. I'm a lover of the game."
He golfs mainly in Ka'anapali and Maui Lani, hasn't yet golfed in Pukalani but has almost everywhere else on the island.
It's not simply an idle pastime. When his father entered the oncology unit at Maui Memorial Medical Center, Willie met Karey Oura, who also had a cousin in the same unit. When both family members passed, Willie and Oura agreed to incorporate his love of golf into a charity tournament for cancer.
Now in its fourth year, the Willie K. Charity Golf Tournament raises funds to support Maui Memorial's oncology unit, as well as raise money for the treatment of cancer patients and families in crisis.
"Some families—when someone gets inflicted—have no money for rent, flights," he said. "We've given so much money for research and still no cure—nothing concrete. It's important that this money is for patients."
"Willie has a huge heart," said Oura. "That gets missed a lot but he really is an asset to our community."
"I enjoy doing what I do," Willie said. "I have a beautiful home, a happy family, my wife and daughter. Everything's all set—I need nothing else."
That's a lot. And yet, there was something missing from the collection of details I'd gathered about Willie's life. I sensed an imbalance, perhaps a darker side he hadn't spoken of, some skeletons left unrattled in the closet that would complete the cycle of growth and betterment that Willie has chosen to undertake.
I wondered if an abusive childhood or a past addiction to drugs and alcohol fueled his current quest to be a better father, an "uncle" to the community and a "local boy" with an active volcano of talent to unleash upon the world. Didn't most star musicians have pasts like that?
Either way, many people rightly admire and respect his beneficent deeds and extraordinary musicianship. But I still felt I was missing something. A quick call to Carson found me making the drive to Hapa's late one Monday night, in an effort to catch Willie during a set break.
He was patient but pointedly evasive. There was stuff he didn't wish to rehash. He didn't consider it relevant anymore—it'd been discussed to death in past interviews. Instead, he wanted to talk about the existence (or lack) of aloha spirit.
His passionate speech warmed me but I worried about finding the missing piece to my puzzle. It was now very late and Willie had to get back on stage so we said goodnight. Then Carson took me aside and tried to explain how layers of complexity make Willie so hard to define. He referred to the word "kaona," which is most frequently used in describing the hidden meanings and subtle nuances—both light and dark—that give beauty to the poetry of Hawai'i.
I can't think of a better word to describe Willie K.
Willie K. performs every Monday night at Hapa's, 879-9001. His Barefoot Natives CD is available at music stores island-wide. For more information about the Willie K. Charity Golf Tournament, visit www.williekgolf.org or call 870-5171. MTW
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