At the edge of a lavafield along Puna District’s rocky coastline lies the tiny fishing village of Kaimu and its world-famous open-air live music venue simply known among locals as “Uncle Robert’s”.
This is where the Kalapana Awa Band – a fixture of the Big Island music scene for years – plays every Wednesday evening as the venue’s house band, blasting out everything from old-time country hits to local Hawaiian-infused reggae to rock ‘n’ roll to rumba. Awa, otherwise known as “kava”, is a traditional Polynesian drink made from the root of a plant in the pepper family, consumed for its mildly sedative and relaxing effects. True to its name, Uncle Robert’s features an “Awa Bar” where locals and visitors alike drink the bitter elixir, usually out of coconut shell halves.
Onstage, members of the band sit in a row on a long, sturdily built wooden bench plucking guitars, basses, ukuleles and more, while patrons in brightly colored shirts and flower leis strung around their necks boogie down on the dance floor below. These Wednesday night parties usually start off pretty subdued, but as the hours creep by after the sun goes down and the crowd gets livelier, the band starts to kick their act into high gear and the place gets loud.
A drummer in the back bangs away on a dusty-looking drum set, rarely illuminated by the spotlights aimed at the line of players on the bench sitting like birds on a wire. There are occasional guest musicians, too: horn players, hand drummers and slack key guitarists. Every week is a little different, yet most of the Awa Band’s setlist is just a rearrangement of what they played the week before.
For visitors with enough time on the island to make it to multiple Wednesdays down in Kaimu, they will begin to notice some of the band’s essentials: at some point in the night the boys onstage will invariably kick off renditions of “Hawaiian Superman,” “Mustang Sally” and “Twist and Shout” and other well-known hits. The crowd – many of them regulars – will give a familiar cheer and some of those seated at the picnic benches surrounding the dance floor and nursing bottles of beer will spring to their feet and start dancing.
Other songs are much less well-known and not so rocking. When the band starts one of their traditional Hawaiian songs the swirling scrum of people below the stage mellows out, and many stand there transfixed at the sight of a veteran ukulele player making the instrument sing for all its worth, while the guitar and bass takes a backseat. For visitors, it’s a powerful sight: ethnic Hawaiians singing Hawaiian music in the Hawaiian language while in Hawai’i. This is arguably one of the biggest draws of Uncle Robert’s – such a combination is hard to find these days in the islands, and as every generation goes by it gets rarer.
For the Kalapana Awa Band, The Show Must Go On
The band is comprised of members of the Keli’iho’omalu family and their close friends, which has strong ancestral ties to Kalapana and Kaimu. The name of the venue and the Wednesday evening events themselves are simply known as “Uncle Roberts”, named so to honor the memory of the patriarch of old Kalapana Village, Robert Keli’iho’omalu. It is Robert’s children who now run the day-to-day operations of the sprawling complex, which includes a local-style kitchen serving up Hawaiian comfort food and some mainland staples, a humble grocery store called “Kaimu Korner” and even a smoothie shack making cool, refreshing drinks out of locally grown produce like mangoes, pineapples, passionfruit, bananas, papayas and so much more.
Before 2020, the Wednesday night concerts also included a massive open-air market with a veritable maze of vendor tables selling everything from soap to handmade jewelery to tacos to spring rolls to health tonics to photography to t-shirts. On a clear evening during tourism’s high season the market would be absolutely packed wall-to-wall with patrons, while the hissing roar of frozen food being thrown into giant woks full of hot cooking oil sitting on propane grills filled the air from every direction. This was Uncle Robert’s in its heyday, and unfortunately the family had to make some drastic changes to the venue’s format due to Coronavirus, including scrapping the market component because – as anyone who’d shopped at the market back then could attest – even the tiniest effort at social distancing was impossible.
Back in those days there wasn’t a cover charge to see the band, but since the pandemic Uncle Robert’s has had to charge a small admission price on Wednesdays. This is to make up for all the lost vendor fees after the night market was dropped. The change may have driven away a few locals, but plenty of visitors still come to Kaimu to see the show because they know it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and they feel good in supporting local music and a community that’s seen more than its fair share of disasters over the years.
Today, Wednesday nights in Kaimu are usually just scaled-down versions of what they were in the old days, with a long, snaking line of cars parked along the road’s narrow shoulder leading to the venue and raucous, guitar-heavy music echoing out across the old lavafield. The awa bar and regular bar largely look the same, and the band’s energy and musicianship is as bold as it was back in the old days. There is one notable new addition to the setting, though: a massive 6-foot-diameter puzzle piece tile mural depicting the Kingdom of Hawai’i’s Royal Crest stands at the entrance to the venue. Kalapana is home to many Hawaiian sovereignty activists, including Robert’s son Samuel (known in the village as “Uncle Sam”) who commissioned the piece from local artist and master ceramicist Rika Blue. It took Rika years of tinkering in her studio to complete the mural, which is made up of almost 100 separate hand-painted pieces. Though the piece is hard to miss, visitors sometimes walk by it without realizing its significance to the Kaimu community, and it’s worth it to study the mural up close and appreciate its awe-inspiring attention to detail.
How To Get There
Uncle Robert’s is accessible via Highway 130 coming from the town of Pahoa, which is roughly 20 miles south of Hilo in Big Island’s Puna District. Follow the highway for roughly 10 miles past Pahoa until signs appear warning that the road is ending. There will be a left turn lane, and taking that left will bring visitors to a “T” in the road after a few hundred more feet. From this intersection, at around 6pm or 7pm on Wednesday nights during busy season, there will already be a long stretch of cars parked along the shoulder, usually up to and past the intersection itself. This is basically the “free” parking for Uncle Robert’s, whereas by turning right and driving down to the market complex proper visitors can find pay-to-park spots out on the flat lavafield with a friendly local directing traffic and taking payments.
A smart way to experience a Wednesday in Kaimu is to come early, easily find free parking out on the road, and then set off on the easy quarter-mile hike to Kaimu Beach. Though locals call it a “beach”, it’s actually a scraggly stretch of coastline with crashing waves that throw the giant lava boulders to and fro as they break and recede. Swimming here is more or less unheard of. The footpath to the coast is paved with red cinder stones, and climbs over hills of cracked, ropey lava known in Hawaiian as “pahoehoe” and through young forests of coconut palms. For those who forgot to pick up beach snacks in Pahoa town, stop by Kaimu Korner for basic provisions, drinks and even a few homemade grab-and-go meals.
The trailhead for the beach path isn’t the easiest to find for newcomers – it can be found across the parking lot from the grocery store and up a stone staircase. The vast majority of the locals milling around Kaimu are friendly and patient, and most genuinely appreciate visitors and the business they bring to the struggling area. So ask around for more information, inquire about when the band is slated to start that night and sip a coconut shell full of kava just to say you did.
The restaurant and smoothie shack in the main complex are open during daylight hours on weekdays and Saturdays, and are usually closed Sunday. They sometimes stay open late on Wednesdays to serve the crowds arriving to see the concert, but this isn’t guaranteed. So, if you’re planning to stay for the evening, it’s a good idea to arrive early, order a chicken katsu or kailua pork plate and pineapple-mango smoothie, and then explore the area while there’s still daylight.