Picking Up Steam

Heu‘i Bandmann on ‘ukulele (left) and Ginger “Kamalei” Hillard on Hawaiian steel guitar enjoy a jam session.

Hawaiian steel guitar, which has been experiencing a surge in popularity in recent years, will be the instrument in the spotlight at this week’s Kaua‘i Steel Guitar Festival.

For local musicians, Hawaiian steel guitar is more than just an instrument. It’s the only modern-day stringed music-maker invented in Hawai‘i, and it remains an integral part of the island’s culture. For many, their Hawaiian steel guitar is part of the ‘ohana, a piece that is passed down from one generation to the next. Few understand this purpose more than famed musician Alan Akaka and his Kaua‘i haumāna (students) who will be performing at the fifth annual Kaua‘i Steel Guitar Festival Feb. 28-29 at Sheraton Kaua‘i Coconut Beach Resort.

It’s an exciting event for Akaka, who began playing steel guitar in 1971.

“When I started, many of the players were older, and interest in the steel guitar was on the decline,” he explains.

Yet, Akaka was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and play with many legends, including Jerry Byrd, Barney Isaacs, Billy Hew Len, Harold Haku‘ole, David “Feet” Rogers and David Keli‘i, all of whom made a lasting impact on a young Akaka.

“All this information was passed down to me by the players of the past, and it is time for me to pass it on to the next generation,” he says.” I am doing what I (do) to perpetuate a musical art form that almost faded away a few decades ago.”

For nearly 50 years, Akaka continues to pay forward the legacy that was left to him. He started the “STEEL the ONE” program on Kaua‘i in 2009, which offers steel guitar lessons to Garden Isle residents. Two of his first students were Kilipaki Vaughan and Kapono Lopes. Later, a young Heu‘i Bandmann joined the program in 2015.

It’s a fun family affair at the annual Kaua‘i Steel Guitar Festival, this year slated for Feb. 28-29. DON TOUCHI PHOTO

Bandmann vividly remembers her first class with Akaka.

“When I first met Uncle Alan, he was very welcoming,” she says. “He carries that throughout his teachings. My first lesson was a group lesson on May 11 at Mike Soong’s office. I was nervous because I didn’t have a steel guitar of my own. Uncle Alan’s first song he taught me was Waikapū. About three months later, he got me singing and playing on the steel to Pua ‘Iliahi. Uncle Alan isn’t just my teacher, he’s ‘ohana.”

Bandmann comes from what she describes as a very musical background, which is thanks to her family, who instilled in her a love of Hawaiian music.

“The importance of playing Hawaiian music is connecting me to my ‘ohana and culture,” she adds. “In my set that I’m doing, I did research of my ‘ohana, and it led me to my two mele, ‘Āinahau and Pili Me ‘Oe.”

The student has now become the teacher, and Bandmann passes on her musical lessons to the next generation of artists.

“I’m looking forward to showcasing my haumāna Ginger Kamalei in the open stage performance, as well as my ‘ukulele student Ki‘i and a high school bass player, Makana Aqui. I can’t wait to see them shine on the stage.

“To be a part of the festival is showcasing what Uncle Alan has taught me, and I hope to make him proud in not just my performance, but my students’ performances. For all that he’s taught me, I hope that I shared his teachings in the way he wanted me to.”

Vaughan also shared an early love for Hawaiian music: “I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by Hawaiian musicians. My grandmother Nohea loved Hawaiian music and the sound of the steel guitar.

“I love sharing this with my ‘ohana and providing them the experience that I grew up in,” he continues.

“Our kuleana as musicians is to perpetuate our culture and the music. How can you also not love the next generation of steel guitarists coming up? Steel will be alive and strong for the next 50 years, for sure.”

For more information on the festival and a full schedule, visit