Both men have extraordinary talent and illustrious careers of their own. Eric Gilliom is a prolific Hawaiian entertainer covering the realms of television, stage and music; the multi-Hoku Award-winning Willie K. is something of a legend in Hawai’i, creating an indefinable genre that joins the sacred and profane of rock, reggae, blues, funk and Hawaiian music.
But together, the alchemic effect from their brotherly bond creates real magic as they blend their traditional Hawaiian with contemporary rock, pop and world music. Their live musical performance takes on a vaudevillian feel as they interject wry observations, poignant storytelling and hilarious characterizations, often involving props and costume changes, between their songs.
With just a few informal performances and the official release of their self-titled album May 23, a near-palpable anticipation is spreading throughout the islands. Willie and Eric are gearing up for a series of tours—both Hawaiian and abroad—as well as another album, variety TV show and a movie.
The cavalcade of activity begins with their first annual Barefoot Bash June 11, which they claim is the first mega-concert of all-Hawaiian music to come to Maui in several years. But before the heyday actually starts, I joined them for lunch.
The two men are sitting at a large round table looking over menus. A waitress comes to take their order. The men briefly discuss the options but have a hard time deciding between their usual favorites.
“You wanna try the multi-culti chicken?” the waitress suggests.
“He likes lemon chicken,” says Willie. “We’ll have the chicken chow fun, with the gravy…”
Willie turns to Eric. “You wanted the egg foo young with gravy,” he says. “You want shrimp or vegetable? You want kau youk?
“No,” says Eric.
Willie continues ordering. “One rice… and hot tea.”
“Five this is, yeah?” says the waitress. “Lemme repeat your order—“
She goes down the list.
“And one cake noodle,” adds Willie.
Willie tells Eric how he was videotaping his daughter’s hula dancing at school, on the same day they were giving out various school awards. Senator Roz Baker even made an appearance.
“Yeah, there’s the Presidential Fitness award,” says Willie, “and awards to kids who’ve never been absent—there were a lot of ‘em!”
“Did you perform?” asks Eric..
“Nah,” says Willie. “But do you remember elementary school sound systems? Well, they had it rigged—all you have to do is plug in the CD and go—and they still had technical problems! My daughter had the classic look like, ‘Don’t make me stand here all day.’ They did ‘Ulupalakua’—you know that song?”
Eric starts singing it.
“My daughter is such the thespian,” says Willie, laughing. “She’s your protege.”
The waitress sets down a plate of food.
“Your father still eat here?” asks Willie.
“Oh yeah. You know, we still haven’t had the old lady come around and say, right in my ear, ‘Where your father?’ She make you feel guilty you only order 10 things. ‘What? You no eat?!’”
“I heard they retired two years ago,” says Willie.
Another plate appears.
“So what—are we heading back to Germany?” asks Eric.
“In September,” says Willie.
They talk of potential future dealings with the music producer who commissioned their last European trip for a private party.
“That would put us in the company of Madonna,” says Eric, “Billy Joel…”
“Eric Clapton,” says Willie. “Yep, all that.”
Eric suddenly gets out of his chair to inspect the next table’s bowls of rice soup.
“If they want us in September,” says Willie. “What do we got in September? We should figure that out now. I think we should do New York City, D.C., Augusta, Georgia…”
“What’s in Augusta?” asks Eric.
“A lot of Hawaiians,” says Willie.
“Oh, that’s where they went,” says Eric.
“Yeah, and then we fly from the East Coast to Germany,” says Willie. “And then it’s only five hours.”
“You know, we should set up the entire tour around golfing,” says Eric. “And food.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” says Willie.
The waitress drops the rest of the food. Willie claps happily, Eric oohs and ahhs. Then the men are quiet for a few moments as they load up their plates.
“So I’m thinking you gotta do ‘Oh Tahiti,’” says Willie, between bites. “That song is really hot.”
“Yes, master,” says Eric, chewing. “Then let’s do an arrangement.”
“You don’t wanna do the album version?” asks Willie.
The last plate of food arrives. Willie deems it the “Holy Grail of Chow Fun.” The lazy Susan is now housing Honey Walnut Shrimp, a huge mountain of rice, another plate of steaming shrimp and vegetables and another yet of something green.
“We’re trying to get into Iraq,” says Willie. “We got friends trying to get us to go. But I don’t think you’d call ‘em friends for wanting us to go—and get shot.”
The men laugh.
“So we get this Barefoot Bash thing,” says Willie. “What else do you think would be a good idea? What else do you want to be connected with it?”
“I think you should do a Barefoot Natives Golf Tournament,” says Eric. “And everybody has to be barefoot.”
“Mmm hmm…” says Willie. “What’s the insurance coverage for people who get stung by bees?”
More silence as the men eat.
“But this Barefoot Tournament,” says Willie. “We should raise funds for… what?”
“Well,” says Eric. “Something cultural…”
“A lot of private companies over here want to sponsor,” says Willie. “You know, to raise money for the cause. I wanna do something for abused children.”
“There’s the homeless thing,” offers Eric.
“You can’t do the homeless thing here,” says Willie. “You got all that ocean and you can’t do something with it? You got opihi, you can make one fishing pole—you got the biggest shopping mall out there floating in the ocean! Don’t talk to me about homeless here.”
Willie is quiet for moment.
“I was homeless in San Francisco myself,” he says.
“I was homeless once,” says Eric. “For a week…”
“No, I mean I was in the streets—homeless,” says Willie. “But I pulled through.”
“Well, I guess I’ve never been homeless,” says Eric. “But I’ve been house-less.”
“Most of the homeless here come from the mainland,” says Willie. “The state where they come from pays for them to come here, ‘cause we don’t have seasons.”
“I didn’t know that,” says Eric. He pauses. “So what’s our strategy for Japan? Can you call your sumo wrestler friend?”
“He was more your sister’s friend,” says Willie. “But yeah, I can call him.”
“What if we recorded a Japanese song?” asks Eric.
Willie shakes his head.
“If you’re from Hawai’i,” he says, “they want you to do Hawaiian.”
“I think we should have a showdown between the Barefoot Natives and two of their best sumo wrestlers!” says Eric, excitedly. “Then you get in there and I’ll… coach from the sides. It’d get major publicity.”
“Yeah, sure, major publicity,” says Willie, laughing. “But what about insurance?”
“Hey, you’ve got your black belt,” says Eric.
“Yeah, but against a 345-pound sumo wrestler who’s 22 years old?” says Willie, still laughing.
“Oh, I know you can take him,” says Eric, serious.
“I know I can but I’m not gonna say I’ll win!” says Willie.
“Mmm… chow fun… mmm…” says Eric, shutting his eyes and mumbling delight with mouthfuls of food.
“Told ya!” says Willie.
The men turn the discussion to their weekend cruise performance.
“So are we dressing up as Gilligan and Skipper for the press conference?” asks Willie. “Is it formal?”
“What—like we wear slippers?” replies Eric. “White slippers for formal occasions.”
“Will there be people from the mainland, too?” asks Willie. “It’s not all Hawaiians?”
“Don’t know, man,” says Eric. “But it’s a thousand people! And at 3 p.m. we’ll have a meeting with 18 members of the press on the boat. One thing I learned is to refer to the thing as a ‘boat’—that really pisses the crew off. ‘It’s not a boat, it’s a ship.’ Okay, thanks for giving me a ride on your boat!”
“So our show on the ship—“ says Willie.
“Boat,” says Eric.
“Are we doing one or two shows?” asks Willie.
“Just one,” says Eric.
“And then we cruise?” asks Willie. “Is there a bar?”
“Yeah, bars, gambling, all that,” says Eric.
“What organization is it?” asks Willie.
“Office of Native Advancement,” says Eric. “Or something.”
“What department is that under?” asks Willie. “OHA?”
Talk turns to their recent trip to Europe.
“I like what you said about the culture shock in Italy,” says Willie.
“Oh yeah, that there’s a sense of culture there,” says Eric.
“You hit it on the head,” says Willie. “There isn’t any here, unless you go to some cheesy luau. Granted, you got the Hawaiian immersion program. But when you walk around, you don’t hear Hawaiian spoken. But in Italy, you do. That’s culture.”
“And they speak other languages, too,” says Eric. “They reference other cultures but still maintain theirs.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” says Willie.
“Back to the rehearsal,” says Eric.
“What about it?” asks Willie. “What’s happening today?”
Eric rests his head on his hand.
“I feel a nap coming on,” he says. “I gotta call my stock broker real fast.”
While Eric’s on the phone, Willie tells me they were golfing at Plantation course in Kapalua earlier. Eric gets off the phone.
“What’s wrong, man?” asks Willie.
“Tired,” says Eric. “Hawaiian paralysis.”
“Oh, you’re full,” says Willie. “Don’t be bitching. You’re always bitching.” MTW