Celebrating a legend: Palace presents star-studded benefit for Bruddah Waltah

  • Photo by Tracey Niimi/TN Photography “Bruddah Waltah” Aipolani flashes a shaka during the recording of “Our Kuleana.” The Palace Theater in downtown Hilo is presenting a benefit tribune concert July 29 at 7 p.m. to help the ailing singer pay for mounting medical expenses.

Astar-studded lineup of Big Island entertainers are coming together to put on a benefit show for one of their own, Bruddah Waltah Aipolani.

The concert line-up to celebrate “The Father of Hawaiian Reggae” — who’s suffering from liver cancer, has mounting medical expenses, and like many full-time musicians no health insurance — is impressive: Mark Yamanaka and Friends; Randy Lorenzo; Ben Kaili and Friends; Iwalani Kalima and Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani E; Christy Leina‘ala Lassiter; Kalapana Awa Band with Ikaika Marzo; Lightning Larry Dupio; Russell Mauga — and, of course, Bruddah Waltah.

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Ku‘ehu Mauga is the emcee.

The concert is 7 p.m. Friday at the Palace Theater in downtown Hilo. General admission tickets are still available on the Palace’s website at hilopalace.com. All proceeds go to Aipolani.

Despite undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, the 67-year-old Aipolani continues to perform and leaves everything on the stage, night after night.

“I had to tell him, ‘This is for you. We would just like you to do a couple of songs if you’re up for it,’” said Pepe Romero, a Hilo promoter and concert sound engineer. “He was talking about doing 45 minutes, an hour. But we want him to just enjoy the show and the love coming from his friends onstage and the audience. We’ve got him and his family set up with seats right down front.”

Romero, Phillips Payson, the Palace’s executive director, and Kalima, a kumu hula, are the driving forces behind the benefit show.

“I told Phillips about Waltah’s situation, and Phillips is the one who said, ‘Hey, let’s use the Palace.’ I said ‘How much?’ And he said, ‘No charge. Let’s just do it.’ He said, ‘You put it together. So Iwalani and I put it together,’” Romero said.

“Everybody I talked to said ‘yes.’”

Aipolani recorded two songs for the Palace Theater’s video series “Live From the Empty Palace”: “Church in an Old Hawaiian Town,” a 1938 hapa-haole tune by Johnny Noble that Aipolani re-popularized with his band, Island Afternoon; and “To Love Somebody,” the evergreen Bee Gees love ballad from their first album in 1967.

“Bruddah Waltah is such a pleasure to work with,” Payson said. “I’ve had only a limited scope of working with him, but so many people have come out to pay their respects and lend their talents, and we’re so excited.

“This event is really going to be a heartwarming, community-centric celebration.”

Yamanaka, one of Hawaiian music’s brightest stars, described Aipolani as “just a legend.”

“It’s amazing to get to know someone on a personal level you grew up listening to,” Yamanaka said. “That I can call him a friend is, like, wow!”

Asked what makes Aipolani an artist who has enjoyed three decades of staying power, Yamanaka replied, “Some artists shape themselves to amuse the public, but Bruddah Waltah stays true to himself and the music he loves.”

Added slack-key master Kaili, “Bruddah Waltah is a good man. His passion is for reggae, but he’s Hawaiian, all the way.”

Aipolani, who was born on Oahu, but spent much of his youth in Keaukaha, said his sister danced for Hawaiian legend Edith Kanaka‘ole, and there was always Hawaiian music in their house, but he expanded his horizons with rock ’n’ roll and reggae.

“I had my sister make a cassette tape of Bob Marley,” Aipolani said. And he was in the audience on May 6, 1979, when Marley played at the Waikiki Shell.

“That changed my life,” he said.

During the 1980s, reggae became the music of Hawaii’s youth, and Bruddah Waltah and Island Afternoon were in the forefront.

Their hits included “Keep Hawaiian Lands in Hawaiian Hands,” which was sung to Marley’s tune “Waiting in Vain,” “Sweet Lady of Waiahole,” “My Hawaiian Car,” Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” with localized lyrics, and even a reggae version of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”

“With a full band and his voice, they sound just great,” Romero said.

Aipolani’s music still receives airplay. Asked what it’s like to hear his music on the radio, he replied, “Before, I would get all excited and stop what I was doing to listen. But now, I don’t know.”

Ever the trouper, Aipolani performed last month in Tacoma, Wash., and returned to the mainland Friday for the 4 Days of Aloha Festival in Vancouver, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. He also played with Ho‘aikane at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards ceremony Thursday evening in Honolulu.

“I tell everybody, ‘I’m going ’til the wheels fall off,’” he said. ” Then, on my gravestone, it’s going to say, ‘The wheels fell off.’”

Aipolani’s love for music is obvious. Equally obvious is the love he has for his wife, Denise.

“I couldn’t do this all without her, because she’s a big help. Especially when I’m traveling,” he said. “I don’t tell her often enough.”

Aipolani said he’s looking forward to the Palace extravaganza.

“I’m overwhelmed by the love, the monetary donations, everything.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.