Steven Espaniola is Keeping Hawaiian Tradition Alive While Also Pushing Forward


On a sunny late-February afternoon, Steven Espaniola is all smiles beneath his Kanile’a Ukulele hat as he arrives for our interview lunch at Noelani’s Island Grill in the San Francisco Peninsula suburb of San Carlos. A few nights a week the Hawaiian/Asian fusion restaurant features top-notch Hawaiian music from various local players—including Mr. Espaniola, who has been a regular performer there since the place opened ten years ago and lives just up the road in the town of San Mateo. When we walk in the door, he is cheerfully greeted by owner Noelani Maestrini herself with a big hug, and over the next few minutes as we settle into our table, other employees stop by for an aloha hug. The good vibes are flowing all around.

Espaniola has been an important part of the Bay Area’s vital Hawaiian music scene for more than two decades now, sharing his talents as a slack-key guitarist, ukulele player, bassist, songwriter, and one of the finest contemporary practitioners of falsetto singing (leo ki’eki’e) you’ll find anywhere. Working with Honolulu-based producer/engineer Dave Tucciarone (Makaha Sons, Raiatea Helm, Keali’i Reichel), he’s made two superb albums showcasing his love of classic and what I would call “modern traditional” Hawaiian music—Ho’omaka (2006) and Ho’omaopopo (2013)—with a third one hopefully arriving by the end of 2024. That unfinished one has already produced two fine advance singles: the old Don Gibson country weeper “Blue Darling” (previously covered by  the Hawaiian group Kapena) and a haunting original called “Sakura” (the video for which was nominated for a 2023 Na Hoku Hanohano award). He’s been an in-demand workshop instructor on the ukulele festival circuit for some time, last year traveling to five across the country. His YouTube channel features free instructional videos of songs plucked from the much-loved He Mele Aloha songbook of Hawaiian tunes. He also plays solo concerts here and there and, of course, when he’s home, Noelani’s is more than happy to have him on a Saturday night. Indeed, he played there the night after our interview.

Over a poke bowl (for him) and some saimin noodle soup with Spam (for me), we talked about his somewhat unusual road to becoming one of the most respected Hawaiian musicians on the mainland.

You grew up on Oahu, but I gather you didn’t start playing music until you’d moved to the mainland. Were you exposed to a lot of Hawaiian music as a kid?

Yes. I grew up in Aliamanu, on the island of Oahu, a small town near Pearl Harbor [in the Honolulu metro area]. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of music through my grandmother. She sang in a group with her two sisters called the Debebar Sisters, who sort of modeled themselves after the Andrews Sisters. She also played a concert Kamaka ukulele, which I now have. Also influential in my life were my two uncles. One, Nando Suan, was the right-hand man and guitarist for Ohta San [Herb Ohta] for about 40 years. Anytime you saw Ohta San, my uncle was right there. My other uncle, Larry Debebar, who was the brother of my grandmother, was for years the house guitarist for Germaine’s Luau, which is one of the biggest luaus on Oahu. So those three people in the family were super influential to me as a kid, just for being around, and being at parties—what would now be called a kanikapila, but to me it was just a Sunday at an aunt or uncle’s house. The focus was food and being around family but there was always music being played.

I was never really serious about music growing up. I played trumpet in school a bit, and of course there was always an ukulele around the house and I’d play a little. 

So, how would you pick stuff up?

Just by osmosis, really. It seems like the way of learning in Hawaii was always observe, listen, ask a few questions, and hope you retain it through repetition and practice—and practice some more. There wasn’t any sort of formal teaching going on. 

Then, when I was in my middle teens, 15 or so, my mom was relocating to the Bay Area from Hawaii, and I decided to follow her. I could have stayed back and lived with my grandparents. My dad wasn’t around. It’s really only in the last 15 years or so that I’ve been in touch with him. It’s been great. That’s the Hawaiian side of my family, so it’s been nice connecting to my Hawaiian roots. [“Espaniola” is his Spanish-Filipino mother’s maiden name. His Hawaiian-Chinese father is Wayne Asam]. The irony is that he was a big Hawaiian music promoter, promoting it in restaurants. Now he doesn’t want to have anything to do with Hawaiian music [laughs].

The ukulele was always there as a go-to instrument. But in high school in my late teens [in the eastern Bay Area city of Antioch], I picked up the electric bass guitar and formed a group with friends—sort of an alternative rock/grunge-ish group.

Must be the early ’90s? Nirvana, Pearl Jam

Right! It was at that time. The band [Overwhelming Colorfast] actually got signed to Relativity Records and we recorded a record with the same producer [as Nirvana], Butch Vig. We were together for a few years. Our biggest thing was probably opening for the Ramones and Social Distortion on a tour—we started in Canada and made it down here and played the Greek Theater [in Berkeley]. And we made it all the way to New York. It was kind of a crazy time. I solidified my chops during that period and also listened to a lot of jazz. I think I left that group in 1995. I got jaded with the music scene; the business side, the politics. So I took about a two-year break from playing any kind of music because I wanted to refocus and find my purpose.

Fast-forward a couple of years [around 1999] and a friend of mine asked me to sit in [on bass] with a local hula halau [hula school] here in San Carlos. 

Why did that suddenly appeal to you?

I think I missed playing music; playing with other people.

Photo by Joey Lusterman

Had you been following what was happening in Hawaiian music at all?

A little, but I wasn’t seeking it out. I knew it was there. Iz Kamakawiwo’ole was really huge at that time; you couldn’t not know about him.

And Jake was about to happen.

Pure Heart [featuring Jake Shimabukuro and Jon Yamasato] was happening around that time. Kapena was big. Keali’i Reichel was big, too, and I was aware of him. So I guess I did know what was happening back home in Hawaii. And the opportunity to play with the halau sort of reignited my love for playing music in general.

Were you already playing slack-key guitar?

Not yet. I was only playing bass. I had zero guitar experience. And bass was totally self-taught. I used to lock myself in my room for eight hours at a time, listening to Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius. My mom would slip some food in to me periodically [laughs]. 


So I played with this local halau for maybe a year or two, and through that I got introduced to other local Hawaiian musicians and I started playing with another group of musicians here who played in the style of Hui ‘Ohana [the popular Hawaiian group led by Ledward Kaapana and Dennis Pavao]. I was instantly familiar with the music because I grew up with it; it was around the house. So it was an easy segue from the halau to my first Hawaiian group, which was called Kilohana. Then, our lead singer left the group and we were singerless, so I decided to give that a try. I’d never sung before, but I went in and started singing all these classic Hui ‘Ohana songs. Those first practices were pretty rough [laughs]. We were guitar, bass, ukulele, percussion. At that time, another friend, Joe Lapuz, was playing uke and I was playing bass, but for the songs I used to sing, I’d switch over to ukulele until I got comfortable singing and playing bass at the same time. 

How did you make your way to falsetto singing?

At the beginning I would just try to emulate Dennis Pavao, until I started to find my own voice. I had heard falsetto my whole life from uncle Dennis and auntie Genoa [Keawe] and people like that. But the first time I heard it in person was this gentleman by the name of Saichi Kawahara, who was from here and he had a great band called Kapalakiko. He was a huge figure in Bay Area Hawaiian music and he sang falsetto. The first time I heard him I was like, “Wow, this is amazing!” That he could sing that high! Hearing all those people made that style of singing attractive to me, so I wanted to pursue it. Another singer I liked was George Helm, who had learned from Kahauanu Lake. But I didn’t even know if I had the right vocal range for it. I just went in and started doing it, self-taught. I made my way through all the mistakes, and then if there was applause at the end I was thankful [laughs]. 

Around this time I also got interested in playing ki ho’alu slack-key. It was something I’d always wanted to learn, so I started to dabble and teach myself. There was no internet to consult for tunings, so I’d just pick it up from wherever I could and do it by ear. A couple of years after playing slack-key on my own, I approached uncle George Kahumoku, who was living in Santa Cruz at the time, and asked him if he could show me what I didn’t know. So I’d book these two-hour lessons with him. I thought he’d sit me down and teach me about tunings and various mechanics and stuff, but basically I’d go to these lessons and sing what I knew. I’d start playing and he’d join in. And he would critique me
and tell me how to improve my playing and my singing—like changing the key; I didn’t even know I could do that! Later, he moved back to Maui, but I really cherish the time I spent with him.

All through this period when I was playing bass and learning slack-key, I always maintained the ukulele. It was the instrument that, when I picked it up, I didn‘t really have to think about. It’s this thing that had been with me since I was a kid and it felt the most natural.

What uke were you carting around?

It was this off-brand that my grandpa had given me that he got at the Aloha Stadium flea market [in Honolulu]. I think I still have it in storage. I learned so much on that ukulele! But it was hard to play because the action was so high.

It makes you better, though!

That’s right! It does make you a better player; playing through that pain [laughs]. Then my wife [April] bought me a Mele, and that was my first serious ukulele. They’re based in Maui. Once I got more serious about the ukulele, I left that band and went to another called Ka Ehu Kai and it was in that band that I got more serious about ukulele, though I would still go back and forth between bass and ukulele. This is in the early 2000s, around the time the ukulele was really starting to explode. 

I think it was 2004 when I was asked to perform at my first solo thing at this event called UkeFest West, which Andy Andrews put together in Santa Cruz. This was my first ukulele festival—I didn’t even know that there were ukulele festivals! 

It was a who’s who of ukulele players at that time—a young James Hill was there, there was Lyle Ritz, Jim Beloff was there. And that’s where I met Bryan Tolentino and Chris Kamaka. It was really the first time I realized: “Wow, the ukulele is a big thing!” 

Steven Espaniola teaches a workshop at the Menucha Ukulele Band Camp
Steven Espaniola teaches a workshop at the Menucha Ukulele Band Camp. Photo by Nick Grizzle

And you played Hawaiian music exclusively?

I played traditional Hawaiian because that’s what I was most comfortable with. I mostly would play the music I remembered hearing that I was exposed to in my youth. I credit my uncles and aunts who were living in those households blasting all this music. I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time, but it sure paid off later! 

I just kept doing it and then I got the opportunity to sing and play for another halau in the area. So I started to build a repertoire of Hawaiian tunes I could call my own; put my stamp on. I was perfectly content playing at whatever Hawaiian restaurants were around, which was a lot more than there are today. I credit my wife, April “Hokulani” Espaniola, for jumpstarting my professional Hawaiian music career and giving me the self-confidence to go from a local musician content with playing bars and restaurants to becoming a recording artist.

It was around that time, too, that I first reached out to Kanile’a Ukulele, which was like a small mom-and-pop back then. The dialogue that I had with [founders] Joe and Kristin [Souza] from the beginning felt very organic and not forced. It felt like family. And they were willing to build me an ukulele to my specs: a four-string super tenor. The interesting thing about that ukulele is, at the time Joe was still working at the fire department and there was a big storm and this old, old koa tree had fallen on someone’s house. I think a friend of Joe’s called him and said, “You can have this tree if you and your guys take it off the roof.” So that’s what he did and this first ukulele came from that tree! Usually koa has a brownish coloring, but this was more gold; really beautiful with kind of an oak-ish look.

When you would formulate a set, how would you balance what you would do on guitar versus what you would play on ukulele?

The foundation of my set lists was always rooted in songs that reminded me of my youth and times spent in Hawaii, so I would gravitate to that at first, and then worry about instrumentation later. When I was first starting to play solo, I was seeking a fuller sound so I would gravitate to slack key, and then I would sprinkle in ukulele throughout my set.

Of course a guitar has a larger range than an ukulele in terms of how it fills a room.

That’s right. To me, even now, I could play my entire set with ukulele if I really wanted to, but I think because of the fact that I was singing this high leo ki’eki’e, I wanted that balance of the lower guitar. 

Sonically, I don’t think audiences can take long doses of high singing and then also a higher-sounding instrument like ukulele. So I like to play the ukulele here and there, especially in a concert situation, where I might have an ukulele segment. 


Have you written with ukulele?

Yes. I’d say most of the songs I write start with the ukulele because it’s that instrument that’s always there—it’s easier for me than guitar. If I have an idea for an arrangement, I always start off with ukulele. Even when I record, the basic tracks always start out with ukulele and vocals.

You think it’s easier to sing with ukulele than guitar?

Oh, for sure! With guitar, since I learned it after ukulele, I’m still thinking about it all the time.

What do you get out of playing ukulele festivals and what do you offer the people who come to your workshops?

In recent years I’ve been playing a lot of festivals, and that has really given me a new love and passion for teaching and sharing things I’ve learned over the years to this audience of players who have an appreciation for Hawaiian music and culture. When I’m at an ukulele festival, I know what I’m there for: I’m usually there as the Hawaiian contingent and I embrace that! You’ll see James Hill, Neal [Chin], Craig [Chee] and Sarah [Maisel], Victoria Vox, various others. And they’re all great! Each offers a unique perspective. And mine is traditional Hawaiian; I’m usually in that realm.

They’re not coming to you to learn pop tunes.

No, I try to keep it traditional, because I think people want to learn this thing that I bring to ukulele. I focus more on the strumming aspect of it, and teaching the beauty of the various strums that are available in Hawaiian music, along with the syncopations and the turnarounds. And I’ll expose people to some of the more classic, easier-to-learn songs in Hawaiian. Because in addition to showing them the chords and the strums I will teach them the language—all in the span of an hour and a half. 

Which instrument are you taking to your workshops?

My current one is my Kanile’a signature model, which is one I worked with Joe to construct. This one is a darker koa—it almost looks like mahogany—and I wanted this one to be like the polar opposite of the first one they made me, which is very bling-y and flashy. 

I wanted this one to have some of the characteristics of a classic Martin—very unassuming, and it will look the same in another 20 or 30 years. So I wanted it to be simple and plain and for the beauty to come from the sound and not the way it looks—even though it still looks beautiful.