Every few songs, it would happen: The ukulele launched into a furious strum, the bass began to gallop, the guitar jangled to life, and the three powerful voices behind those instruments erupted into a harmonious whirl. Then, someone danced.
There was no telling which songs would send someone into a barroom spin to a roomful of cheers. At least there was no telling for a visitor from the mainland venturing out of Oahu's tourist bubble to catch some authentic Hawaiian music.
"Oh, someone's going to dance to this one," said singer-musician Cody Pueo Pata as we sat in a booth at Chiko's Tavern, a dim dive bar where the band had just launched into "Pua Ahihi," a slow country burner sung, like much of the evening's set, in Hawaiian.
Sure enough, a woman with a long brown ponytail glided to the front of the room and began spinning slowly, arms raised in the air, smile affixed on her face. When she finished, she kissed each of the four band members on the cheek and returned to her table.
Pata, cradling a bottle of Heineken, explained: "This music has never changed through four or five generations. It's our comfort." The thought of Hawaiian music might evoke images of men in leis gently strumming songs for sun-baked tourists in Waikiki, and, well, it is sort of that. But on intensely musical Oahu, live Hawaiian music can be found nearly every night of the week and in all directions: the coastal resorts, the small-town bars, the dives of Honolulu and, yes, Waikiki, for the tourist masses.
Hawaiian music is a lush, languorous sound wholly its own -- hear it, and you know it -- but it also bears obvious ties to the folk, bluegrass, country and even mariachi genres. Its appeal is both in reflecting and fitting so seamlessly into the islands from where it comes. It is beautiful, peaceful music for a beautiful, peaceful place.
But to find the music played by locals for locals, head into town to a place like Corner Kitchen, the self-billed "musician's playground." Corner Kitchen features live music several nights of the week, and virtually all of the players have won a Na Hoku Hanohano award, Hawaii's version of a Grammy. The restaurant sits just outside Waikiki but is a local haunt.
The evening I visited, Hoku Zuttermeister, who plays ukulele and guitar, strummed through a series of gentle Hawaiian classics with a bass player at his side. Every other song or so, Zuttermeister's vocals would reach into a looping falsetto, a foundation of Hawaiian music.
After the show, Zuttermeister said that, like many Hawaiians, he grew up surrounded by traditional Hawaiian music. But early in his career, it was difficult to play publicly.
"At one point, you couldn't find Hawaiian music anywhere," Zuttermeister said. "Then, the clubs came in, and it's starting to come back a little bit." Where it has come back strongest are in the bars of Honolulu. Those bars are home to a fluid scene of musicians -- mostly guitar, ukulele and bass players, virtually all of whom sing -- who swap in and out of multiple bands.
I again met up with Pata, a semiretired musician now focusing on Hawaiian arts education, at Chiko's Tavern, another delightfully dim Honolulu bar. That night's band also featured Ho'o, this time with different guitar and bass players, though the same steel guitar player sat in with them.
It was another gloriously raw and festive scene, the band plowing through its set and the crowd taking turns twirling to the jangly roar. It was difficult to imagine mainlanders singing and dancing to the songs that also mattered to their grandparents.
The Hawaiian catalog is hundreds of songs deep, and most of the players know most of the songs. Hence, they're able to create fluid set lists that sound almost like one long song.
"We all know the songs," Pata said. "We all love the songs." And, with that, he got up to take his turn on the dance floor.
IF YOU GO: Hawaiian music is scattered across Oahu but can be found primarily in Honolulu, including at the following bars and restaurants (where up-to-date performance schedules can be found): Corner Kitchen (477 Kapahulu Ave.), Chiko's (930 Mccully St., chikostavern.com), Imua Lounge (815 Keeaumoku St.) and Kona Brewing Company (7192 Kalanianaole Hwy., konabrewingco.com), as well as hotels such as Pacific Marina Inn (2628 Waiwai Loop, pacificmarinainn.com) and Outrigger Reef (2169 Kalia Road, outriggerreef.com). Pulse (honolulupulse.com), a free entertainment newspaper produced by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, offers current music listings.