fter more than six decades of playing swing music on Kauai, the Starlighters big band will be performing their last show tonight.
Band leader and alto saxophone player, Danny Hamada of Waimea is retiring as a musician. His older brother, the late trumpeter Dickie Hamada, formed the Starlighters band before 1955.
“The band started as Dickie Hamada and the Starlighters,” he said. “We were all high school musicians, none of us had professional teaching or anything like that, so it was just a progression of how we started.”
Before Dickie died in 2006, Danny promised he would keep the band going as long as he could.
“It’s not just taking my horn out to play, for me it’s deeper than that,” Danny said.
The 12-piece band met at Kauai Veterans Center to rehearse every week, and they have welcomed all musicians with a passion for music, sometimes reaching as many as 17 members.
“I never refuse anybody, as long as the attitude is correct,” he said.
Their big band sound from the 1930s to the 1950s has featured five saxophones, two trombones, three trumpets, three vocalists and many more musicians of all skill levels, including high school students and military veterans.
“Most of the guys that sat in the group were more of laymen musicians, da kine guys that come back and play again or somebody learning,” he said. “As long as they enjoy it, I know what’s in their heart.”
Trombonist Bill Bryner, a 91-year-old accomplished musician from the Midwest, joined the band when he came to Hawaii five years ago. He has played since the fourth grade and received his bachelor’s degree in music. In 1945, he was drafted for the last increment of horse cavalry to go through the US Army in Kansas. Years later, he started a successful big band in Oregon, before joining family on Kauai.
“Playing with this band is everything to me,” Bryner said. “To know that it’s not going to be hurts me deeply. Music is a part of my life I’m really going to miss.”
“This type of music isn’t around anymore,” he added. “It will be a true loss to everybody, the island, and certainly to me and all the musicians who play.”
While a couple professional musicians have sat in with the band, the only requirements were for players to be humble and want to learn how to play big band music.
“The original personalities we had became old and some passed on, but we’ve had a lot of people come in for the love of music,” said vocalist Ray Domingo. “Danny was never a person to turn anybody down. Anybody wanted to play music, he always let them in willingly.”
“We get paid just enough to pay for renting the place we have to practice,” he added. “People all volunteer for the love of music, they don’t get money out of this. It’s just for the love of music that they come and they play.”
The group has drawn a following of ballroom dancers after performing every third Friday of the month at Kukui Grove Center for nearly 30 years, in addition to playing weddings, parties, hotels and private functions.
“I told the boys sorry, but it’s time for me,” Danny said. “It’s hard to run an organization this size with the stress, pressure and demand on me. There’s no lead alto that can cover for me or help me.”
The 80-year-old sax player says health issues influenced his decision.
“It’s really tough when you gotta play two-hour gigs,” Danny said. “If I cannot perform 100 percent, I don’t want to be there. You don’t play music for yourself, you play music for whoever’s out there. If you cannot satisfy them you’re wasting your time.”
Their final performance is 7 to8 tonight at Kukui Grove food court. Come by and wish farewell to Danny and his legacy band at this free event.
“These guys are the best band I ever met,” Danny said. “Thanks a lot.”