Singing the blues: Musical gigs almost nonexistent for island musicians

  • Lehua Kalima Alvarez

  • Mark Yamanaka (Tribune-Herald file photo)

Since COVID-19 changed life as we know it in March, entertainment has generally meant sitting in front of the TV at home or watching videos on a computer or mobile device.

It’s been a tough time for theaters, concert venues, bars and restaurants that present live music — and it’s been a tough time for the entertainers, as well, whether locally or nationally.


Hilo’s Mark Yamanaka has become an A-lister statewide and for those who love Hawaiian music on the mainland and in Japan. The falsetto vocalist and guitarist has cleaned up on almost a yearly basis at the Na Hoku Hanohano awards.

But despite his 14 Hoku statuettes, live performances are the income-providing lifeblood for local entertainers, and gigs are difficult, if not impossible, to come by in the midst of a pandemic.

“I’ve literally lost everything I had from March through the end of summer. I started getting the emails, saying they have to cancel,” Yamanaka told the Tribune-Herald recently. “I’m really considering 2020 a wash for live performance. Granted, something could occur at the last minute, but at this point, I don’t have anything set up.”

Yamanaka and his wife, Leilani, are proud parents of a beautiful baby daughter, Ellie. He has a day job selling cars at Aiona Car Sales, but business is tough there, as well, with prospective buyers unemployed or underemployed and lenders tightening the purse strings.

Like most of his musical brothers and sisters, Yamanaka has taken to social media, performing live online with a virtual tip jar.

“I’m very grateful for the followers on social media that bless me with whatever they can,” he said. “Every bit counts as an entertainer, nowadays, so I graciously accept whatever comes through the virtual tip jar.”

Entertainers feed off the energy of a live audience, and for Yamanaka, “to put yourself in a mood for entertaining is tough in front of a camera.”

“I’ve done many filmings in the last 10 years, whether it’s for a live newscast or pre-recorded stuff and, to be honest, I hate cameras in my face when I’m performing,” he said. “But that’s kind of the reality now, so I’m facing my fears and putting myself in sort of a vulnerable spot, in front of the camera, performing.”

In addition to solo work, Yamanaka, who is part of kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua band, also plays gigs with fellow musicians Bert Naihe, Eddy Atkins and Sean Naleimaile.

“I really miss the camaraderie of performing with others, with Bert, Eddy, Sean and whoever I’m playing with,” he said. “I miss collaborating on stage with my friends. That’s a huge part of what’s missing with me.”

Brandon Nakano is a Hilo singer-guitarist who plays performances, usually solo, on both sides of the island, and has a recording studio.

His wife Emma Coloma-Nakano, also is an entertainer, a bassist and vocalist. Both have day jobs at Waiakea Elementary School, but with three keiki at home, they depend on the income they receive from music.

“It’s been a real struggle, definitely,” Nakano said. “Six months of no work. I’ve depleted a lot of my savings and whatnot. The biggest struggle is not having the income from playing, because all the gigs went away in Waikoloa, and even Hilo is suffering.

“I’ve picked up on trying to do lessons to supplement, but that doesn’t help as much. And then, there’s some recording going on. The financial hit has been huge for many of us, I think.”

Keaukaha native Lehua Kalima Alvarez is one of Hawaii’s best known singer-songwriters, as a member of the popular female trio Na Leo Pilimehana, as a duo with Shawn Pimental, and as a solo performer. While she’s stayed close to her Hawaii Island roots, she lived for years in Honolulu but recently moved to Las Vegas, where her husband, Tommy, is employed.

And while there are enough Hawaii people in Las Vegas for it to be called the “Ninth Island,” and Hawaii entertainers of her stature can usually find work there, the story in Sin City is the same as in Honolulu.

“There were no gigs there and there are still no gigs there. Not one. And then, there’s no gigs here (in Las Vegas) either. They’ve just opened the bars here, but there’s still no live music,” Kalima Alvarez said.

Like the others, she’s performed online with a virtual tip jar, but has one live engagement booked in the near future.

“Shawn and I got asked to do this gig in California on Oct. 9 at the Alameda (County) Fairgrounds, where they usually have the hula competitions, up there in Pleasanton,” she said. “So he’s going to fly up, I’m going to meet up with him, and we’re going to do a drive-in concert there. That’s something. I’ve got to go practice. It’s been awhile.”

Kalima Alvarez, like many Hawaii musicians, is popular in Japan. She said she was recently part of an online panel consisting of a group of ukulele players that included Jake Shimabukuro, Bryan Tolentino and Kama Hopkins.

“We started talking about Japan, because they go there all the time, too,” she said. “It’s just killing us — monetarily, because there’s no gigs. Usually, there’s a lot of gigs in Japan, especially for the kumus and the people who play music for all the halau up there.

“We miss the food; we miss the gigs. It’s strange to not have that trip to Japan every couple of months for all of us. We had a big conversation about that, for sure.”

Like the others, Kalima Alvarez has no idea when she’ll be able to perform before a live audience on a regular basis.

“We had a bunch of stuff this fall — they all postponed ’til next spring. And all of those are starting to postpone again; they’re all falling through,” she said. “They’re calling them postponements until next year. It’s a little bit defeating. We were hoping it would happen, I don’t know why, but we thought that a new year, it would all happen.


“You know, I’m thinking positive, and I’ve been hopeful about things opening up in January. But I don’t think it’s reality, at this point.”

Email John Burnett at

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