Born To Entertain

Koko Kaneali’i discovered his love of entertaining when he was in kindergarten, and it continues today for the singer-actor-impresario

Koko Kaneali’i was born to entertain, it seems. Today the musician and actor is an entertainment jack-of-all-trades on Kaua’i. He’s not only been in films such as The Descendants and Honeymoon in Vegas, but has played onstage with household names such as Don Ho. When he’s not behind the camera or serenading audiences at Tahiti Nui, he’s bringing musical talent to the island with his company Kanak Attack Entertainment. Kaneali’i says he got his taste for the limelight in an albeit “smaller production,” at the age of 5.

“My interest in show business started with a Christmas play in kindergarten at the Salvation Army School in Damon Tract (land that today is Honolulu International Airport),” he says of his first performance, in which he played the H in Christmas. “On show night a few members of the cast were sick and couldn’t make it. The teacher asked if anyone knew any of the parts, and I said I did. For some strange reason I had memorized the whole show and knew all the parts.”

Originally from Kalihi, musical diversity was “all around us in the neighborhood,” he says. The Oahu-born musician cites his family as his biggest influence: “My brother Maha for teaching me life skills, and my parents (Roger Moikeha and Rena Liliha Kaneali’i) for encouraging me and my siblings to pursue our dreams, through good work habits and a good education.”

That guidance translated into following his dreams with vigor. He would follow those dreams to “a level most people only think about,” when he played and traveled with the iconic Ho between 1971 and 1973. “It still scares me,” he admits.

Not able to read sheet music, Kaneali’i used his memorization skill to learn every tune, even though pieces were constantly being added and changed. “I wasn’t a ‘sight reader,'” he says.

In addition to his family, Ho also served as an inspiration to him.

“Because of Don I learned more about show business than show business itself could have ever taught me. This man ran his business. He would do business on the phone at 2 a.m. Contrary to what people thought, he wouldn’t drink on stage. Those mai tais didn’t have alcohol in them. The guy was an awesome man.”

That experience continued to come in handy for Kaneali’i, who came to Kaua’i in 1978 for a one-month gig with some of his cousins and decided to stay. “I thought, ‘OK, I can make it on my own.” He got a job with then-radio station KIVM, where he did commercials and voice-overs until being offered a Hawaiian show on the weekends.

He and wife Julie now bring bands to Kaua’i (such as Te Vaka), with their Kanak Attack Entertainment. Kaneali’i says the goal of their company is to produce concerts and promote local musicians and artists. The couple formed the company in 2009 as a natural extension of Kaneali’i’s band Kanak Attack, which includes Darryl Gonzales and Keola Yokotake. The band is in the scene playing while George Clooney and Beau Bridges talk story at Tahiti Nui in The Descendants.

It was a fun time, Kaneali’i says. “They hired a chicken wrangler, who brought 15 chickens for the scene where George Clooney walks into Tahiti Nui,” he recalls. “By the time they got the shot, they were down to two or three chickens.” Joking that he didn’t think chickens were harmed during the production of the film, he adds, “but there was teriyaki chicken on the menu.”

Being in show business hasn’t been easy, with plenty of ups and downs.

“There have been times when I’ve been frustrated by this business,” he admits, “but I chose this path and I’ve stayed the course, having faith in my talent and the talent and mana of the people around me.”

Over the years he has certainly built a cache of star-studded anecdotes, one of which stems from a scene in Honeymoon in Vegas.

In the scene, Kaneali’i, who plays a Kaua’i cop, has just thrown a frustrated Nicolas Cage into a jail cell. The large, nude cellmate whom Cage bumps into as a result apparently was a surprise, as the director hadn’t told Cage with whom he’d be sharing the scene (making it all the more entertaining for viewers).

“From time to time, to break up the monotony, the directors would do something unexpected,” he says. “For the scene where I throw Nicolas Cage in jail, they had to replace the hired extra because he refused to do the scene. They decided to use one of the Teamsters to lay on the bunk, buck naked, and he surprised the heck out of Nicolas. Needless to say, the director got the shot he wanted.”

When Cage makes his one phone call from jail, there is Kaneali’i, donning a different look than most on-island residents are used to.

“For almost all on-screen work, like Honeymoon in Vegas, they dye my hair black,” he says.

Even though it may have been a small role, it was close to home.

“It was interesting for me because my dad worked in the sheriff’s office in Honolulu, and my grandfather was the last of the horseback cops and the first of the motorcycle cops with the Honolulu Police Department, and here I was playing a cop.”

And he still gets checks, too.

“One was for 8 cents after taxes. My wife laminated it for laughs. It cost more to mail it.”

For Kaneali’i, laughs are what it’s all about. “I was attracted to the ability to help people forget their problems for a moment in time or longer and to share aloha for the gift that it is,” he says.

It’s something Julie says he does with uncanny sincerity.

“I admire his ability to create a relationship with the audience and make them feel welcome. He embodies the meaning of aloha,” she says. “It’s a code of conduct and a huge part of who he is as a man.”

When he’s not entertaining, he’s still creating.

“I’m early riser, so I wait for the rest of the world to wake up,” he says. “Most of my time now is spent working on ideas for our stream site and writing the book Ma’kena, last of the navigators, which is now in its first phase of editing.”

Also an artist (he’s quite good) Kaneali’i dabbles in writing and is an avid storyteller with a knack for wala’auing. But his first love and passion (besides his wife) is music.

“I paint or draw pictures, build models,” he says. “But my focus has never wavered far from being a musician and entertainer. This road has led me to so many amazing places, and I’ve met incredibly talented people who have given me immeasurable gifts.”