Willie K Hawaiian Blues Man, to perform at 14th Annual Blues From The Top Festival
May 19, 2016
Willie K calls on a Monday afternoon. "Hello there," he said. "It's Willie K." His deep voice was a bit gravelly, but had a flow reminiscent of ocean waves gently crashing on the shore.
For those familiar with Willie K (short for Kahaiali`i), the ocean reference will make sense. He was born and raised in Maui and still lives there today. He's known as the "Hawaiian Blues Man" and carries a ukulele with him when he performs.
"Nothing happier than a Hawaiian with a ukulele," he says. He starts to laugh. It's a big, soulful explosion. "Yes, I'll play the blues on that, usually some Jimi Hendrix. Voodoo Child on the ukulele."
Willie credits Hendrix, along with blues icons B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughn as his blues inspirations. But the guitarist, who started singing at just six years old, says his father was the one who started it all.
"My father was a musician," Willie pauses. "As a kid, you look at your dad as a hero and his guitar caught my attention. He was a jazz musician, but he played the blues for me. I dug it."
He picked up a guitar and never looked back.
"I was the only guy in the whole brood of nine boys and four girls who made a career out of music. I just never gave up on it."
He started gigging professionally around Maui, but found the music scene a bit challenging. Hawaii isn't really a blues town, so Willie had to learn a little bit of everything in order to get hired.
"I'm kind of a renaissance man." He starts laughing again. "I play every type of music there is if I have the chance to learn it: gospel, jazz, blues, country, Hawaiian. It's the entertainment business. You have to learn a little bit of everything."
Willie immersed himself in music, playing gigs, recording and even embarking on a year long world tour. Along the way, he developed his own voice and a unique sound.
"It's not traditional blues. It's all about doing it and feeling it. It's an island-style blues."
In October of 2011, he released an album entitled "Warehouse Blues." It was a huge success in Hawaii, winning Rock Album of the Year at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.
"It was the biggest taboo," Willie begins to laugh again. "Most people never go beyond the islands with their music, but I wanted to do something different."
In 2013, he organized Hawaii's first blues festival.
"I called it 'Uncle Willie K's BBQ Blues.'" He chuckles for a second. "All kinds of people show up to jam. The locals accept it. They can't do anything about it anyway. We bring people in and put them in a bungalow on the beach."
These days, Willie K and the Warehouse Blues Band play a weekly blues dinner show in Maui, the only one in the state of Hawaii. No contemporary island music, reggae or calypso here, Willie says. It's all blues. The show sells out every week. He doesn't do much touring, but is looking forward to his trip to Winter Park to play this year's Blues From The Top Festival.
"I love Colorado," he says. "The last time I was there though, it was tough to breathe. It was a crazy concert. I had to take a breath before every word. I tried to ski too." More laughter. "I'm much better at surfing."
Whether he's playing the ukulele or the guitar, the Hawaiian Blues Man wants his style of blues to transform the audience.
"It's the only time both the guitar and the vocals can be emotional at the same time," Willie pauses again, but this time he doesn't laugh. "It's all universal, sweetheart. It's playing what you're feeling and it goes into the ears of those who are listening."
For more information on the 14th Annual Blues From The Top Festival June 25 and 26, or to buy general admission tickets, visit http://www.bluesfromthetop.org.
Willie K headlines High-Note Thursday on June 23.
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