Interview with Grammy-nominated Hawaiian Swing Band Kahulanui

One of the best things about working in American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities is having the opportunity to see and experience the cultural traditions of our clients. A big part of those traditions is music. As someone who has always been involved in music in one way or another, I enjoy discovering new artists and musical styles. As I explore the music of Native musicians, I’ll be sharing those discoveries on Travois’ blog. Stay tuned!


Just last month, the Grammys announced that the album “Hula Ku’i’” by the band Kahulanui had been nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album within the American Roots genre. I had the opportunity to chat with Lena Naipo Jr., guitarist and bandleader of Kahulanui, and the band’s tenor saxophonist, Jesse Snyder.

Kahulanui, a nine-piece band, began as a dream of Lena’s about 30 years ago. He remembered, “I was listening to a lot of the contemporary music on the islands, but was in a predicament — everyone was doing that. Everyone was pretty good at what they were doing.”

Instead of doing the same, Lena recalled advice he had received. “My father always taught me, ‘If you’re going to try to do something, do it your way’.”

So, Lena decided to do something different and tried his hand at Hawaiian Swing.

For the uninitiated, Hawaiian Swing is a combination of swing jazz and Hawaiian folk music. In the 1920s and ’30s, American jazz was popular on the islands.

Jesse Snyder remarked, “In order to promote Hawaii as a tourist destination, they incorporated jazz elements to make it more palatable.”

During the World War II era, American servicemen and entertainers in Hawaii brought with them a love of the big band swing music popular at the time. Hawaiian musicians melded the sounds of the ukulele, steel guitar, and Hawaiian language with the brass, drums, and syncopated rhythms of swing.

Lena found inspiration from his grandfather who had been a part of the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra before he was born.

“By the time I came around, my grandfather was retired,” Lena said. “I had no idea what he did. I only heard him playing a little ukulele. As a retired person, he stayed home and was busy with all of us. I was a ‘kolohe,’ which means ‘rascal’. But as long as he played, I stopped and listened. And then I would try to mimic him. As the years went by, it kind of stayed in me.”

When asked if Kahulanui had any aspirations as a band, Lena emphasized the love of playing.

“My goal was just to play the music and see if anyone would like it,” he said.

Contemporary audiences haven’t always been sure what to make of the band’s style, but it looks like things are coming around. Recently, Hawaiian Skies Airlines engaged Kahulanui to record a music video for its in-flight video magazine.

And a year ago, Kahulanui was nominated for the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards for Hawaiian musicians in three categories: Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Most Promising Artist. Though the musicians didn’t take home an award, this December they received word that they had been nominated for a Grammy Award.

The first song on the track, “Ku’u Home I Waimanalo” (“My Home at Waimanalo”), exemplifies the Regional Roots category. It’s a “mele pana,” a song of celebration about a certain place.

Waimanalo, situated near the southeastern coastline of Oahu, is Lena’s hometown.

He added, “My grandfather wrote the song. It’s about the beauty of Waimanalo back in the day when everything was a bit simpler. It talks about the ‘ko’alu’s’ — the mountains that start at a place called ‘makapuu’ and end at the ‘pali’. It also talks about the ocean and the breeze that blows and keeps the nights cool and the laid-back lifestyle.”

Currently, the band is focusing on selling CDs and fundraising to cover its travel expenses to the awards ceremony in Los Angeles later this month. More information about Kahulanui can be found at or on Facebook. The 2014 Grammy Awards ceremony airs on Sunday, January 26.

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13 thoughts on “Interview with Grammy-nominated Hawaiian Swing Band Kahulanui

    • It was great to learn more about Kahulanui. The next time our team is in Hawaii, we’ll be sure to connect. Good luck at the Grammys!

  1. Was in Hawaii in feb. 2014. I saw these guys on flight in. I was instantly in love with the style. I looked everywhere to see if we could see them while there. Disappointed. But I listen for them on Pandora radio. I can’t wait to go back and see them play live. 3rd time will be a charm. Keep it up guys and wait for me. Hope sept. 2017. Good luck. luv ya

  2. Hi, Thanks for dropping by our table at the HGVC in Hawaii to give me some tips on chords and song endings. Love your harmony in the songs.

  3. We saw this group perform at the Kings Row center and we were very impressed by their unique style and energy. It was obvious they love what they do. Thanks for the great entertainment. I wish them luck with the Grammy pursuit.

  4. I went to San Francisco in November 2018 to see Patrick Makuakani’s hula halau at the Palace of Fine Arts. I was fortunate to see Lena Nainoa and Kahulanui performing with The dancers of Nalei Hulu. What a show stopper. It was such a fantastic show! I’m now a a FAN.

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