Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Okinawa is such a beautiful place, not just the ocean and scenery and culture, but the people. I’ve been treated well and taken care of by many people here in what has become ‘My Hawai‘i.’” — Colin Sewake
The passing of Malani Bilyeu, one of Kalapana’s original members, came as a shock to many whose lives the 69-year-old talent had touched. I consider Kalapana, the Hawai‘i surf/rock band, to be the most influential musical group to come out of the Islands.
I grew up listening to Kalapana’s music all the time in Hawai‘i and met them in the early 1990s while a University of Hawai‘i student through their sax player at the time, Colin Katada, from Hilo.
After moving to Okinawa, I reconnected with the band almost 15 years later when I attended their concert at the Tökyö Cotton Club in 2007 and then saw them again at the Tökyö Billboard Live club in 2009 and 2010. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when they came to Okinawa in 2015 for their first public performance here at the Camp Foster Festival. It was such a treat to see the guys here in my territory. I never expected it would happen.
I had the opportunity to talk story with Malani and the guys over lunches and dinners and during periods of free time during their three-day stay in Okinawa. I remember chatting with Malani in the front seat of my van about Mackey Feary (who died in 1999) as I drove the guys back to their lodging after dinner at Yoshihachi Sushi in Chatan. An autographed picture of the band hangs on a wall of the restaurant today. Those were some really personal and precious times.
More recently, hanging out with Malani and the guys backstage at their Tökyö Billboard Live and Blue Note Waikïkï shows in 2016, 2017 and 2018 was also very special. And sitting with Malani and some of his family members backstage of the Waikiki Shell at the September 2018 Kapono & Friends Concert was truly memorable.
Kalapana is hands-down my favorite music group of all time and all genres. I love all of their songs, but Malani’s composition, “Naturally,” from the band’s first album is the one song that summarizes my feelings and memories of growing up in Hawai‘i. Tears fill my eyes every time I listen to it, especially now that it has been 24 years since I moved away from the home of my birth.
I remember driving to a parking lot near the sound check site for their 2015 performance at Camp Foster in Ginowan City. I listened to them going through the beginning part of several songs in the set they were going to play that afternoon and the next day. When I heard the first few sounds of Malani’s composition, “Naturally,” tears began streaming down my face right there in my van, because every memory I had of growing up in Hawai‘i . . . my family and friends, the beaches, the people, the music, everything about Hawai‘i . . . came back to me in that instant.
When I retired from the Air Force in 2017, I asked the guys to play at my retirement party in Hawai‘i in May. They gladly obliged and took the stage at Dot’s Restaurant in Wahiawa, topping off the evening and my military career with over an hour of their wonderful music. They capped it off with “Naturally,” the one song I wanted to hear performed live to wrap up my 23-year military career, which had taken me away from the sands of my birth. Malani even changed the lyrics a little in the middle of the song and made reference to both Wahiawa and Okinawa. That attracted a lot of cheers from the audience.
He also introduced and recognized my Aunty Barbara Kudo, who was their vocal trainer from 1974 to 1975 when the band first started. It was an unforgettable evening and a memory that I wanted to share with everyone I had grown up with and who had supported me while I was growing up in Hawai‘i so that I could be where I am today.
I was always looking for opportunities to bring Kalapana back to Okinawa. I guess it will just have to be unfinished business.
Rest in aloha, Malani. Those were classic moments with you that I’ll always hold close to my heart.
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, O‘ahu, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. He met his future wife, Keiko, within a month and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin retired from the Air Force and, recently from the Air Force Reserves. He now works as a customer service representative for Hotel Sun Palace Kyuyokan in Naha. Colin and Keiko have two teenaged children and make their home in Yomitan.