Luau on the St. Johns

It was 5 p.m. Wednesday, a sacred time for the Folio Weekly newsroom. To wit, #FindYourFolio Happy Hour had just begun. The ramblin’, rovin’ weekly event landed in Jacksonville Beach at the invitation of Lauren Boquette, the new general manager who is turning Surfer the Bar into a live-music mecca. The sun was shining. The margaritas were flowing.

It was a fitting backdrop to the arrival of Kalani Rose. The San Diego-born, Jacksonville-based singer and ukulelist came here to tell Folio Weekly how her Hawaiian heritage has influenced her music … and why she’s throwing a luau at a Riverside rock venue.

But first, photographer Alex Harris tested the waters. His partner, Sheila, has also performed on Florida’s Polynesian show circuit, and turns out, they have mutual friends. Theirs is a fairly tight-knit community, solidified around a heritage trade that may be commodified but also offers performers an opportunity to explore their roots—and pay their bills.

Still, it requires careful negotiation.

“I feel that studying the culture and taking the time to truly represent the islands is most important,” Kalani explained. “I am in a hālau, which is a hula school, named Na Mana O’ Kipona Aloha [Hawaiian for ‘the power of deep love’]. We train every Sunday through hula ‘basics,’ understanding the meaning behind the chants and perfecting choreography. We do our best in staying authentic as well as connecting tourists back to the songs they may have heard on their travels.”

The singer traces her Hawaiian ancestry to a grandmother born on the island of Maui and raised on Oahu before relocating to California.

“[Grandma] raised the majority of my ’ohana in San Diego, where I was born in 1994,” said the singer. “My birth name is Kalani Rose, Kalani meaning ‘the Heavens’ and Rose after one of my mother’s best friends.”

Her Navy family moved to Jacksonville a decade ago. Inspired by her grandmother’s culture and music, Kalani picked up the ukulele a few years later.

“I’d always loved music,” she explained, “but I didn’t start playing until about five years ago.”

She and her four-piece band are now regulars at St. Augustine’s Prohibition Kitchen and several Jax Beach venues. Kalani is also wrapping up a bachelor’s degree in Music Technology and Production at the University of North Florida. She looks forward to pursuing a career performing at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and recording her own songs.

“My degree has given me opportunities to run live sound as well as track and mix my original music,” she said.

In the meantime, she continues to spread the gospel of ’ohana across Northeast Florida. Since playing to beach bums on the coast is like carrying coal to Newcastle (or pineapples to Hawaii), Kalani recently joined forces with Nighthawks’ Patrick Shoemaker to add some variety to the Riverside music venue’s offerings. The two decided to throw a luau on a Sunday afternoon as an alternative (or follow-up) to the neighborhood’s ubiquitous brunches.

Hawaii’s Kona Brewing Company is sponsoring the affair, which features live music, hula dancing, fire poi and, yes, a roasted pig. (We reckon that checks all the luau boxes.) As event emcee, Kalani promises to take luau-goers (luauers?) on a moonlight swim (there’s your Blue Hawaii reference) from Hawaii to New Zealand.

“It’ll be a mix of all things I love,” said Kalani, “food, jamming and Polynesian culture!”

For the live music portion of the program, Kalani is joined on stage by vibraphonist Aaron Plotz, who also serves as drummer in the Kalani Rose Band as well as Side Hustle and Trail Diver. To the delight of exotica purists—and the inconvenience of the road crew (presumably Plotz himself)—the multi-instrumentalist plays a for-real vibraphone à la Clare Moore, not a lightweight digital approximation.

“Transporting a vibraphone definitely involves some tricky maneuvering, but it can be done!” Kalani laughed. “The vibraphone and ukulele are an unusual duo. They make such a beautiful sound together!”