The Willie K Experience
Got the bad news about Willie K last week. I brought up “You Ku‘uipo” on my laptop and cried like you do for family — oh, boy, he was gone, somewhere else, on another journey of his.
Willie was an amalgamation of the purest traditionalist, the great improviser, vocal power unmatched, and a master instrumentalist. He could blend many styles into the only true style he knew — the “Willie style.” Now, we gotta carry on that style in our own ways.
He embraced so many of the greats, passed along their legacies and also became a beacon for the young generations to focus on Hawaiian traditions and blend it with the best of modern times.
If you knew, you could listen and hear Gabby Pahinui, the Sons of Hawaii, the classical Hawaiian trios and quartets of long ago; there was the Moon of Peter in him, and then there he was alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana.
And if that was not enough to wow and simply blow you away, he could be the epic jazz stylist, with Hawaiian as well as Christmas music. His unique delivery of the national anthem, accompanying himself on the ‘ukulele, is an experience that lasts forever.
The man was so much more than a musician, such a magnet of attention (good and bad), and had an ego to match. He earned that, and more. In the end, he always was what stayed deep within him: being humble and appreciative.
I lean to accentuating the positive of his life; there will be those in days to come who will offer testimony to the man’s complexity. My experience is just that of one of his fans.
I met him a few times, shook his hand, looked him in the eye and told him, “Mahalo, bruddah.”
Maybe I should have told him more often. Did I ever tell him that I loved him?
Shoo! Scuse … need Kleenex.
Here’s my personal favorite Willie K story.
A friend and I went to see Willie perform at, of all places, the Kona Bowl, on lanes 9 and 10. It was early in his first set, and he was tearing it up and astounding those who were being initiated into the Willie Experience.
He’d launch from Stevie Ray to classic Santana, then do a revved-up rendition of an old doo-wop standard. Part of the Willie Experience was simply awaiting what he was going to play next, and in what style.
He could play “My Dog Has Fleas,” and the way he’d pull it off was half of the fun.
The first set was coming to a close as our distinguished guests made their way to their seats for the upcoming second set. Here were our tutu-wahine and tutu-kane, in their finest Hawaiian attire, making themselves comfortable in their seats and anxiously sitting in rapt attention, listening to the electric presentation of one of their favorite sons.
They applauded respectfully, being patient while awaiting the songs, the leo ki‘eki‘e, and their cherished memories of a long-ago Hawaii.
Bruddah Willie concluded his first set of fantastic music, eclectic and electric. He thanked the crowd, paused, and said in such a nahenahe-revered delivery, “No worry, Tutu, the next set of music is all for you.”
I’m glad I had the chance to be part of the Willie Experience.
Al “Alalpa‘i” Abreu