LIHU‘E — When you think of a kanikapila, images of close friends and family come to mind. Uncle is strumming his ‘ukulele, mom is cooking in the kitchen and everyone has a smile on their face.
Marlene Sai is familiar with this type of kanikapila, which took place at her family’s house in Kaimuki. Except it was Andy Cummings, Sonny Chillingworth, Gabby Pahinui and Ralph Alapai — some of Hawai‘i’s most legendary musicians — filling the house with music.
“You think it’s the norm, and you don’t know until later in life that it was really a privilege and a special time,” said Sai, who has been called a true diva of Hawaiian music. “It just seemed normal, like a regular happening. … My aunt’s husband would be on the piano and everybody would have an instrument. There would be hula. It was always this way. Uncle Andy was a pretty strong influence in my life, as well as church.”
The Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning singer and Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame inductee will be in concert from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Kaua‘i Museum. She will be accompanied by composer and arranger Kenneth Makuakane, who was Sai’s musical director at the Monarch Room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
When Sai was a student at Kamehameha Schools, Cummings was working with composer Jimmy Taka to write the song “Kainoa” on sheet music.
After school, Cummings would sit Sai down on their family’s front porch and teach her the song.
Later, “Kainoa” became the song that started Sai in the business. Her debut album of the same name is featured in the book “The 50 Greatest Hawai‘i Albums.”
“I didn’t know about signature songs when I first recorded ‘Kainoa,’” Sai said. “I was 18 and fresh out of high school. All I knew was that no one knew this song and it was beautiful.”
Sai initially caught the ear of Don Ho while working a summer job in the travel industry. She and her friends visited the restaurant he managed in Kane‘ohe, Honey’s.
“(Don Ho) called me up to sing, and I sang a few bars of ‘Kainoa’ with Sonny Chillingworth,” Sai said. “Don had not made it yet, he was just managing his mother’s restaurant and bar. So I got up and sang, and before I left, he asked me for my number, and he lost it. We ran into each other a few weeks later and that was the beginning of it.”
It wasn’t long before she was offered a contract to record her first album, which took place in — of all unlikely places — a bus depot.
“It was late at night after the buses stopped running,” Sai said. “We are talking about 11 p.m. or midnight, and we recorded down where the police station is now in Honolulu.”
For Sai’s concert at the museum, she plans to sing some of her most popular songs, including “Kainoa,” “Waikiki” and “I Love You.”
“The island of Kaua‘i is my favorite island,” Sai said. “My father is from the island, so I do have a special aloha for that island.”
Sai doesn’t favor any song over another. While talking about each one of her recordings, it’s obvious each song holds a special meaning to her, as it evokes memories of friends, families and places she holds dear to her heart.
“The story behind ‘I Love You’ is my dear friend Teddy Randazzo, who I was introduced to by Tom Moffatt, said ‘We have to do a project.’ He said ‘I will write you a song.’ I said, ‘I love that.’ Time went on, there wasn’t a big rush. Months later, I get a call from him, he said ‘Would you come up? I’ve got something I want you to hear.’ He started to play the song, and I started to cry.”
The song became a standard for Sai, who has sung it at weddings, special occasions and even at a funeral.
“It’s a lovely, beautiful tune,” Sai said. “I’m very honored to have recorded it.”
As time moved forward, Sai was offered an acting role fit for a queen.
“When I was asked to portray Queen Lili‘uokalani, I didn’t instantly respond to it. I needed to personally weigh everything and see what it would all entail.”
Sai accepted the role in the one-actress play, “Hear Me, O My People,” which garnered her the Po‘okela Award from the Hawai‘i State Theatre Council and caught the attention of Washington, D.C.
“When I went to D.C., I was asked to perform at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre,” Sai said. “That was a special time. Performing it for the legislature, and them not knowing much about our history, was special. They looked to us — as many do — thinking of hula skirts, hula dancers, Waikiki Beach, beautiful ocean and beautiful flowers, but not knowing all that had transpired and happened to us and the illegal overthrow.”
Sai also portrayed Hawai‘i’s last monarch in the PBS documentary “Betrayal,” which aired in 1993, the 100th anniversary of the overthrow it depicted.
Today, Sai likes “to keep busy.” Following her Kaua‘i performance, she will be jumping on a plane to perform in Las Vegas for a Mother’s Day concert.
She plans on returning to Kaua‘i next year for another concert to benefit the Kaua‘i Museum.
“I look forward to being there and performing,” Sai said. “We’ll enjoy ourselves with everyone, and I’ll sing songs people are waiting to hear.”
Want to go?
What: Marlene Sai and Kenneth Makuakane in concert
When: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Kaua‘i Museum, 4428 Rice. St., Lihu‘e
Cost: $100 per ticket; Includes heavy pupu, a no-host bar and meet and great
Details: 245-6931 or www.kauaimuseum.org