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First-rate fun: Hilo Slack Key Music Festival set for Sunday


One of Hilo’s signature music events, the Hilo Slack Key Music Festival is set for noon until pau Sunday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

It’s the silver anniversary for the event, which also has gone by the names Big Island Slack Key Festival and Big Island Hawaiian Music Festival. The admission price is the same, however, just $5, or as slack key master and festival organizer Ben Kaili said, “Best deal in town, brah.”

“This is a public service, a labor of love,” Kaili said.

Tickets are available at Basically Books, Gallery One and Hilo Guitar & Ukulele and at the door.

In addition to Kaili, the lineup includes Cyril Pahinui, John Keawe, Diana Aki, Kris Fuchigami, Nephi Brown, Victor Chock and Dwight Tokumoto.

There also are four hula halau: Halau Na Lei Hiwahiwa O Kuualoha, kumu hula Sammye Kuualoha Young; Hula Halau O Kalaulani O Puuanahulu, kumu hula Stephanie Apolo; Ke Olu Makani O Mauna Loa, kumu hula Meleana Manuel; and Hoa Hele from Sendai, Japan.

Kaili, who is presenting the event in cooperation with Naalehu Theater, a nonprofit organization, and the county, said the festival’s anniversary will be dedicated to the memory of three Hawaiian musicians who died in the past several months: Dennis Kamakahi, Richard “Piggy” Kaleohano and Chino Montero.

“This year, Uncle Dennis was supposed to come and play for this concert,” Kaili said.

Kamakahi, the singer-songwriter-guitarist who replaced the legendary Gabby Pahinui in the Sons of Hawaii, last played the event two years ago.

Fuchigami, a 24-year-old ukulele wizard from Hilo, is a fixture at the festival and has played there since he was 15.

“It’s a fun event,” Fuchigami said Wednesday. “Every year, I see the same people coming back, and it’s great to see that, but I also love seeing the new people who are coming. It’s just a nice festival where people appreciate the music and the ukulele, especially.”

Fuchigami will start recording a new album next month, with a working title “More than This.” He said he expects it to be finished in December or January. He works full time as a warehouseman for KTA Super Stores and teaches ukulele at Hilo Guitar & Ukulele.

Despite his busy schedule, he finds time to play events, mostly on weekends, around the state, and played shows last month in Seoul and Daejeon, South Korea.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “The ukulele reached Korea about five years ago and for them, it’s like heaven when an ukulele player comes over. They show the most respect to the artist.”

Fuchigami will be accompanied by his mom, pianist Keiko Fuchigami, in his half-hour festival set.

“I’m looking forward to showing the new originals I’m working on for the new album, along with a couple of favorites such as ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,’” he said.

The Frankie Valli song, including Fuchigami’s infectious jazzy cover, has extended legs because of the movie “Jersey Boys.” There are multiple versions of him playing the tune on YouTube, with one garnering more than 127,000 views.

Fuchigami also started his own ukulele contest last year and will do it again Nov. 1 at Prince Kuhio Plaza.

“We had 17 (entries) last year and I was really surprised at the amount of people who came out to watch the contest,” he said. “The mall was just totally packed from each side.”

He said he finds teaching and mentoring other musicians rewarding, and had this piece of advice for aspiring artists.

“In life there are gonna be a lot of things that are gonna bring you down and set you back. Just keep pressing forward,” he said. “In high school, I failed ukulele class, I failed band class, I lost every single ukulele contest that I’ve entered, but I never gave up and I told myself that I’m gonna try harder.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.