Leader of the Band

Proud skipper Kalenaku DeLima charts a course for her music school, intent on improving the educational wellness of Hawai‘i’s youth while doing “good work for our community.”

Captaining a ship can be a daunting task for just about anyone, but especially for those feeling a bit nervous behind the wheel.

Consider the recent travels of Kalenaku DeLima, who has admittedly experienced notions of self-doubt while skippering her own vessel. Eight months into her maiden voyage as a nonprofit founder, the president of the christened Kapena School of Music & Creative Expression in Kāne‘ohe still shakes her head every now and then, surprised at her good fortune in keeping the fledgling operation afloat in turbulent times.

But steadied the ship and maintained its course she has. Despite the constant beatings of waves against her bow from pandemic regulations and pauses to “a lot of intricacies of business that I had to figure out,” the 30-year-old company leader and professional musician has held on to the wheel while navigating her way through the ebbs and flows of her startup. Maybe her finest moment thus far has been in overcoming her one-time greatest worry: “that every single month would be this train wreck of tracking everything happening financially!”

Aside from being the founder and president of Kapena School of Music & Creative Expression, Kalenaku DeLima is also its vocal instructor.

Her success can be credited to her sticktoitiveness, an often underappreciated quality of hers. But it could just as easily be attributed to a highly dedicated crew, a well-respected family name and brand that she hoists proudly on her sails, and timely words of encouragement and support from loved ones, including her anchor in life, fiancé Kala‘e Parish.

“One of the things I learned is there’s no handbook, no manual on how to do any of this,” confesses De-Lima while moored inside her school with its symphony blue walls (“I read that the color blue helps calm you so that you’re more willing to learn”) at Windward Mall. “I want to say a majority of businesses learn how to run things once they’ve messed up … so there’s been a lot of troubleshooting we’ve had to do along the way. “But looking back in retrospect, I find myself saying, ‘Oh, my gosh! I can’t believe I figured out how to do all of this!’”

Student Jaxon Saavedra follows along as instructor Bowe Souza leads a piano lesson. LAWRENCE TABUDLO PHOTO

Astonishingly, this brave soul decided to launch her venture right in the middle of the pandemic.

“I guess it was the scariest time to open a business,” admits a chuckling DeLima, whose school began offering private and group lessons in vocals and instrumentation (‘ukulele, bass, guitar, piano) last July within the mall’s 2,500-square-foot space previously occupied by BedMart Mattress Superstores.

“But for me, I thought it was also the best time because it seemed like we were just coming out of COVID, and I was thinking that it would be the perfect time because all of this was going to go away and everything was going back to normal.”

Kelly Boy DeLima supervises an ‘ukulele class for youth with the help of several teaching assistants.

Of course, when the conventional didn’t return immediately, she wisely adjusted her sails. To help her student vocalists learn proper singing techniques, for example, De-Lima had large plastic barriers installed in private rooms so that the students’ masks could be briefly removed and “we could see how their mouths were moving.”

“For vocalists,” she continues, “how your mouth moves is very important in how you sing.”

Today, the school boasts an enrollment of about 250 students while registering six new pupils each month — impressive numbers when considering that DeLima and staff perform almost no marketing other than through word of mouth and “promoting and boosting posts” on Instagram and Facebook.

“What we learned in this process after such a short time is how worth it this all is. The school has a mission to enrich the emotional, mental and educational wellness of the youth in our community,” says DeLima, noting that most of her students range in age from 9 to 17, but she also has pupils “in their 70s or 80s” who take part in the school’s kūpuna ‘ukulele class on Saturday mornings.

DeLima’s younger sister Lilo Tuala, left, is the school’s bass instructor. Here, she works on a bass progression with Abigail Wright. LAWRENCE TABUDLO PHOTO

“I’ve heard so many of our teachers say, ‘Wow! When you see that you taught them something and then they actually learned how to do it and that you literally changed the trajectory of their life just from taking 30 to 60 minutes a week with them, that makes this all worth it.’”

Raised in the town where her school is berthed, DeLima is the second of three children born to musicians Kelly Boy and Leolani DeLima. Her father is the founder and front-man of the well-known island music outfit Kapena (meaning “captain” in Hawaiian) and growing up in such an atmosphere naturally brought with it expectations of being exceptional in entertainment.

“We were all called up on stage from when we were really young,” she recalls. “In the third grade, I danced Ulupalakua for May Day and I also learned how to sing it. Every single performance after that, my dad would call me up on stage to sing that song.”

Kelly Boy DeLima listens as keiki raise their hands and ask questions. Currently, the school has about 250 students with the majority falling between the ages of 9 and 17. PHOTO COURTESY KALENAKU DELIMA

The pressure only mounted when Kapena’s other original members — brothers Teimomi and Tivaini Tatofi — left the band, thus providing her father with the opportunity to chart a new course for the group, one featuring he and his children.

“It is true that there was a lot of pressure to succeed,” DeLima admits. “I think a lot of people expect that because you come from two parents who are musical, and because my older brother (also named Kapena) is so talented — he’s a recording engineer, he can play any instrument, you give him anything and he’ll figure it out in 10 minutes … he’s that guy! — that you’re expected to be really good really quickly.”

To her credit, DeLima chose to stick to her strengths — singing, and playing keyboards and ‘ukulele — despite being capable of backing up her brother on drums and percussion (“I’ll keep the beat, nothing fancy. Just don’t give me a drum solo!”) or younger sister Lilo Tuala on bass (“I don’t usually like to tell anyone that I play bass because it’s nowhere near what Lilo can do; I mean she’s one of the best”).

“I can dabble in other things,” continues the school’s voice instructor, who began her classical training at age 10 under acclaimed coach Eunice DeMello and counts several local songstresses — Raiatea Helm, Aunty Genoa Keawe and Amy Hanaiali‘i — among her strongest influences growing up.

“But when you’re in this family, you don’t dabble. You’re either good at it or you don’t play.”

If she and her siblings have been particularly exceptional at something beyond music, it’s been in their willingness to support one another in all tides. But that familial reliance also left DeLima feeling a bit adrift when she chose to set out as a solo pianist at The Moana Surfrider a few years back.

“When I stopped performing with my siblings and I started performing solo, my first instinct was, ‘Oh, my gosh! I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be on stage by myself,’” she explains. “There was this fear of, ‘Are they going to like me? Am I any good without them?’”

When similar doubts surfaced just prior to and immediately after starting her school and left her in desperate need of a blast of wind in her sails, DeLima found strength in knowing that support would be there — and not just from her parents and siblings, but from extended family and friends as well. Many of her employees, in fact, are ‘ohana.

“I have aunties and cousins who still work in the school,” she shares. “One of my cousins is a teaching assistant in the ‘ukulele class, and my cousins run the front desk and are the managers.”

All of which means that the tightly run ship called Kapena School of Music & Creative Expression remains in good hands.

If DeLima appears a bit anxious these days, her nerves probably have less to do with the school and more to do with a new adventure she’s about to embark on. Come this time next week — St. Patrick’s Day, March 17 — she and Parish will officially tie the knot.

For DeLima, she won’t be marrying just her best friend, but one of her staunchest advocates and wisest counselors, too. When she briefly considered pulling the plug on the school early on due to “cold feet,” it was Parish whose reassuring words convinced her to stay the course.

“He was the one who was pretty much like, ‘I don’t know why you’re worried about it. You’re going to figure it out; it’s going to be all good,’” she recalls. “I guess you always need that one person in your ear.”

In recent years, the two have made beautiful music together, performing at private weddings and Big Island resorts such as Auberge at Maunalani and Waikoloa Marriott.

“Our date night has turned into a duo,” explains a grinning DeLima. “But it’s kept me busy — doing solo, duo and full band work, and then, of course, the school.”

In recalling how their ships first crossed paths about a decade ago, DeLima notes, “I like to tell everyone the mail lady dropped him off. But really he was at my house and doing a song, Lost In Your World, with my sister. My sister and his cousin were good friends in high school and Kala‘e had written a duet that he wanted to hear a female vocal on.”

Somewhere along the way, however, DeLima found herself pulling into port next to Parish, who was seated at the piano, and lending her voice to his lyrics.

“I don’t know how I booted my sister out of that position, but she has forgiven me since,” quips DeLima.

Now, with her hands (and his) comfortably placed on the wheel, they appear ready for the horizons that await. So says the captain of her ship and leader of the band.

“This school has been a journey of ups and downs and we have a long road ahead of us,” she says in closing. “I’ve heard that marriage is a similar kind of journey, but I’m grateful to have found a partner who supports and encourages every dream I have.

“There’s a lot more work to be done, but we’re both ready and determined to do good work for our people.”