Standing in the Hula Grill men’s room on a recent Thursday, listening to the music piped through the restaurant’s speakers, I suddenly thought to myself, “This band is really good.” What I didn’t know yet was it wasn’t a band I was hearing; it was Ernest Puaa, a.k.a. “Da Barefoot Warrior,” playing live on the oceanfront stage. Just one voice, a guitar and some prerecorded backing tracks was all it took to completely change my view of the Maui music scene.
I walked through the open-air restaurant, noticing the juxtaposition of laid-back, lava flow-sipping visitors and the young, attractive servers and bussers, one careful step at a time across the hot sand floor (that sand literally melted a pair of my shoes long ago when I was a humble Hula Grill bus boy).
It felt good to see Puaa, a big, consistently smiling man, beaming down from the small stage. Combining good taste in songs, an enormous and beautiful voice and impressively understated guitar work, Puaa ripped through a selection of songs including “Over the Rainbow,” Bob Marley’s “So Much Trouble in the World” and Men at Work’s “Down Under.”
Slogging through the quicksand to speak with him between songs, I decided I didn’t much miss bussing tables. I waited my turn behind Puaa and some of his newest fans, lined up before him to offer gratitude and praise and get copies of his CD signed.
“You’re amazing!” one woman gushed. “You seem so happy, so relaxed!”
“With that background,” Puaa said, motioning to the tranquil oceanfront setting, “How could I not be?”
A humble and spiritual man, Ernest thanked each well-wisher with a big smile. Born on Oahu and raised on Molokai, Puaa has been honing his craft at the Hula Grill since its opening 12 years ago.
“I play what makes me feel good spiritually,” Puaa told me. “Six years ago this was turning into a job. Then I asked God to allow me to reach into people’s hearts with my music and my soul. People try to thank me, but I’m the one who’s blessed.”
A little while later I took a leisurely stroll down the beachwalk to the Westin’s Tropica restaurant, where there was yet another smiling, honey sweet-voiced musical entertainer. Brian Haia, who has also been performing music on Maui for years, played his own interpretations of classics like Jerry Garcia’s “Sitting Here in Limbo,” Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” and for the second time in the day, “So Much Trouble in the World.”
“My husband and I go to Mexico and the Caribbean but always prefer Hawai`i,” one woman in the audience told me. “These songs and musicians always make you feel so relaxed.”
By now it was nearly sunset—time for the Ka`anapali Beach Hotel’s nightly free music and hula show.
No stranger to KBH’s hospitality (I’ve visited the hotel’s famous Tiki Bar from time to time) I was pleased to find frontman Rudy Aquino and his band in fine form. Aquino, who used to play with Don Ho on Oahu, paid tribute to his late friend while blasting through a long set list with his usual charisma and flair, working the crowd like Bill Clinton on ecstasy.
On classic songs such as “Island Style,” Little Grass Shack” and “Lahainaluna,” Aquino dazzled the adoring throng with his vocal and ukulele talents. But it was on the set’s highlight, the theme from Phantom of the Opera, that he really shined, playing four vibraharp keys at once with two mallets in each hand, all while flashing a toothy smile to an adoring crowd of at least 100 people.
As a hula dancer lit nearby tiki torches and the day’s sun dropped into the sea, I looked out at the faces smiling all around me. Everyone seemed perfectly content. Many had come thousands of miles to experience what Maui residents can take for granted—a life surrounded by soulful musicians sharing their passion and talents with an audience that always seems to appreciate the island’s sunshine, sunsets and music. MTW