Artist Highlight: Kanekoa Gives Reason to Smile(y's)

Artist Highlight: Kanekoa Gives Reason to Smile(y's)

Bolinas is a sleepy and eccentric little village tucked away just north of San Francisco. The town is flanked by several bodies of water; transitioning from a mellow laguna, to the bolder bay, and facing the open Pacific on the northwestern edge. It’s the middle of summer, and in many places in North America, this means heat. But on the coast of Northern California, the sun taunts the abundant salt water and whips up a cool marine layer that coats the air. This overcast atmosphere adds a complimentary timelessness to mysterious Bolinas; it feels like it could be any time of year, and any year in the past several decades.

Perched on the edge of the laguna is the perfect venue for this time machine vibe: The charming and established Smiley’s Saloon - a bar, restaurant and miniature hotel. One evening in early July, Kanekoa - Maui’s premier uke jam band - called in the locals for a live show and a pregame ukulele circle. This was show number three of their summer “Bear Foot Run” Northern California and Lake Tahoe tour.

Kanekoa have been playing together since the late 1990s, and their experience together is apparent. They are visibly bonded to each other, and are fluent musicians and performers. Kanekoa was revolutionary in elevating ukulele in a high-energy jam genre, and they continue to connect and convert all types of music fans with their dynamic sound.

Before the full-band performance, a dozen individuals surrounded lead singer/rhythm uke player Kaulana Kanekoa, lead uke player Vince Esquire, and bassist Don Lopez for a uke circle. The string section of Kanekoa led the attendees through playing tips, stories and a few sweet songs. After the session, the participants flocked to Kanekoa for hugs, photos and compliments. This intimate event went a long way with those who joined; it was an extra offering that demonstrated the band’s accessibility and connection to their fans.

When showtime arrived, Kanekoa released sonic waves that ranged between percussive and soothing. Kaulana laid a steady foundation of ukulele strums, his vocals transitioning seamlessly from soft and soulful to emphatic, bluesy growls. Vince’s lead ukulele chops transcend any previous notion of what can be done on ukulele - he’s intuitive, consumed, and he absolutely shreds! Don delivered unwavering, seasoned grooves on his U•BASS®, and drummer/percussionist Augie “Lopaka” Colon drove the rhythmic bus with animated and deliberate gusto. From seated, smiling foot taps - to all out flailing dances and big grins - the Smiley’s crowd leaned into Kanekoa’s music for the entirety of the event.


The band featured Kala’s All Solid Spruce Top Ziricote Tenor XL Ukulele, The Revelator™ (from the Kala USA Workshop), soon-to-return Solid Maple Tenor with Cutaway, and an acoustic-electric U•BASS. The instruments came to life in the hands of these talented gentlemen. They brought so much joy to all who witnessed.

Keep up with Kanekoa by visiting their website:

July 27, 2023 by Ash Reyes
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