Talk Story with Dolly Kanekuni

  • Bethany Freudenthal / The Garden Island

    For the past 25 years, Dolly Kanekuni has been teaching Kauai how to sing.

On most days you’ll find Dolly Kanekuni with an ever-present smile, in her studio behind a yellow door and up a long flight of stairs, waiting to greet her steady flow of students and get to work.

The calm studio, a juxtaposition from the surrounding industrial area that’s littered with wrecked vehicles and tow-trucks, is where art meets form, where students practice scales, “bat, bat, bat, bat, bat, bat, bat, bat, bat,” or “mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum, mum.”

It’s where Kanekuni, with her mother’s heart, breaks down walls and brings out the singer in all who are willing to work for their craft.

For the past 25 years, Kanekuni has taught voice lessons to hundreds of students on Kauai and Oahu, but she’ll be the first to tell you the most important part of her life has been being a mother who is always present in the lives of her two sons.

With a family centered heart, Kanekuni’s career as a vocal instructor has allowed her the opportunity to home-school her children and to be there for every major developmental milestone in their lives.

Her favorite songs are centered around the family and family life,

With her sons grown, Kanekuni said she’s not sure what’s next for her.

How did you make it to Kauai?

We flew here. As opposed to how I got here from Italy, which was on a boat. I immigrated from Italy when I was a year old to Ohio on a boat, I was the youngest passenger. I was raised in Ohio, 15 years in LA where I studied voice and then 25 years on Kauai, just because I was looking for a safer place to raise our toddler. LA was getting kind of crazy with the riots that had happened just around that time, earthquakes, I was just not feeling safe. Believe it or not, California was too cold for me. I’m constantly looking for warmer climates. I kind of follow the sun.

How did you choose Kauai?

My husband, ex-husband now, windsurfed, so we did a lot of water sports and we used to vacation on Maui for a week every year and we loved it. We loved the warm water, but Maui seemed like it was getting kind of crowded and we were looking for something a little more country-like and less populated, so we started searching on the other islands. We came to Kauai, we were here for one day and we said, “This is the island.”

We went home, we bought a one-way ticket from one year from that date, and we spent the year selling the house and the business and on that date, we packed our house into a container and it was Sept. 11, 1992. That was the day Iniki wiped out the island and we were homeless before we even got here. We were going to come here, rent a place, get jobs. There was nothing.

We ended up moving in with his parents. We lived with his parents for a couple of months, still trying to get through to Kauai, and then it was Christmas, we had a 3-year-old, we couldn’t leave through Christmas, so we got through the holidays and then January, and then Feb. 3 we finally just came over here. Basically, it’s always been a dream of mine to live on a tropical island and I kind of tend to go for what I want.

What have you been doing since then?

I got divorced, then re-married and have been married for 20 years and I have an 18-year-old from that marriage also. I have two sons, so just raising my boys basically is my life. I home-schooled them. I feel like I’m a mom first and I’ve always been into theater, so I got involved with the Hawaii Children’s Theater. I’ve been president of the Hawaii Children’s Theater for the last five years and just love producing theater for the island.

When did you fall in love with music? When did you know you wanted to do music as your career?

I wanted to perform as my career. I left Ohio when I was 18 to become a performer. I grew up basically in Italy, you know, being an immigrant family, we didn’t socialize with anybody but my relatives. There was a lot of music in the house, my grandpa played the clarinet, my dad whistled and sang old Italian songs all day long. I ended up picking up my grandpa’s clarinet when band started in fifth- grade and I played that all the way through high school, but I really got into popular music and singing with The Carpenters. I used to sing with The Beatles when I was a child, my mom tells me with a pencil as a microphone, my ear up against the radio, “‘Listen, do you want to know a secret,’ what’s the words, something like, ‘closer,’” and I’d get closer to the radio. Just a lot of music always.

I guess I’m a country girl. The music people I was meeting were, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to go to this club and got to stay until it closes at 2 and I want you to meet the producer.” I’m like, “You know what, we’re going camping this weekend.” I just kind of got away from it.

Tell me about your studies. What was that like?

I didn’t start until I was 25 and I thought I didn’t need training, I thought I could sing, I thought I was fine. When we would come to Maui to visit, I would see the girls in the bands performing at like the hotel gigs outside the pool and I thought, “What a dream job, have a band and be the front singer.” So the karaoke craze came out and I got a little karaoke machine and listened to Whitney Houston singing all her songs and I got to where I was singing a song of hers. And I’d sing it twice and my throat would hurt and I’d be like, “Wow, what the heck’s going on, how am I going to sing for an hour with a band, I can’t even sing two songs and my throat hurts?”

So I went to the karaoke store and I said, “I need help, something’s not working here,” and she said, “Oh, well there’s all these different, books and cassettes, but if you really want to learn how to sing, you’ve got to go to this guy,” and she pointed to his business card. And I called Seth and I went in for a voice lesson and I thought I was going to be all that. I sang a song for him, turns out, I was basically screaming all my songs and just using way too much muscle and the muscles I was using were just over it. My larynx was so tight, that was the pain.

Where did all that hard work lead you musically?

I came here and started performing, started taking on students because I had to be in permission to teach the method. I had to ask for it because we didn’t have the association of teachers yet. So I asked Seth for permission, he granted it and I started taking on students.

Why is it important for kids and adults to practice singing, to practice music, to be involved with that aspect of life?

There’s reasons why singing is important that has to do with so many different things, using your voice, making the most of what your voice can sound like, even in speech and when you study singing you do improve your speaking voice. Being able to articulate, express yourself, whether or not you’re ever going to sing in front of other people, is important.

In relationships, there are studies that say that people choose partners on how their voice sounds, in jobs, being able to interview, being able to present yourself. Performing, I think, teaches you how to present yourself, getting up on stage, not being afraid of that. There’s so many people with so much to say, so much to express, so much art to express and it’s a way to express that through singing.

As a teacher, when somebody who has been told they can’t sing, how do you break down that barrier, that negativity and turn it into something beautiful?

I have yet to find someone who’s told me they can’t sing, who actually can’t sing. So I ask them to let me be the judge of whether they can sing or not and I run them through some stuff and I have them roll along with it, play along with it, and say “After what you just did, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to sing.” If you can match notes and hold them out and speak clearly, you can sing. It’s just a matter of getting all the muscles to coordinate to get that all to happen.

As a performer and as a teacher, what’s one of your favorite memories?

I did a concert once here on Kauai. I had Kathleen Dahill accompany me on piano and all my friends came out. I changed into three different gowns, I did a duet with my son, he was like 10 at the time or maybe 8. I did a duet with my good friend Tom, I did a duet with my friend Mary. It was just like a family concert event. It was fun, it was beautiful. It was like giving, it was all of my favorite songs, getting to do my favorite songs with my favorite people.

You’re scared when you perform? How do you get over that fear?

You don’t. You try all your things, you deep breathe, you imagine that it’s all going to go well, you visualize, but there are times when you’re just going to be really nervous. You prepare. You make sure you really know the song really well because the nerves are going to make you forget it and screw you up, so the more you’re prepared, the more you can kind of just go on auto pilot until that wears off usually a couple lines into the song, maybe half way through, definitely by the end. The last line, you’re like “YEAH!” There are times your knees are shaking.

What are some of your favorite songs and why are they your favorite songs?

One of my favorite songs is from a musical written about Ben Franklin’s life that was never finished. A song came out of it by Audra McDonald, the song is called, “I Won’t Mind,” I just love it. I love the sentiment. For a while I couldn’t sing it without crying and I got to the point where I could sing it and almost cry so I was able to perform it. It’s about an aunty who doesn’t have kids and at the end she says, “I won’t mind singing by your cradle, singing to you softly far into the night. I won’t mind reading you a story, quacking like a duck, chirping like a bird.” It’s all talking about the lovely things she’s going to do for a child and then, “I won’t mind watching when your mother bakes your favorite bread, watching your father lift you.” And at the end she says, “But if one day a toy should break and if you call me mama by mistake, I won’t mind.” It just gets me every time.

That is a very family-oriented song. Tell me about raising your kids?

The best part of this job is I was able to do it part-time and I have to thank my father-in-law who is deceased now a couple of years, but he took us in to live with him in his home when my son was born and because of that, I was able to work part- time and I was able to stay home the rest of the time to raise my kids. I didn’t miss a thing and that’s the best part. I didn’t miss a first word, I didn’t miss a first step, I nursed them forever, don’t ask me how long, much longer than anyone else except people who would nurse would allow. But they’re great boys. They’re solid men.

What’s next for you? What are your plans?

That is the million-dollar question because I now consider, I’m pretty much on my own. So I can do anything. People ask me, “You’re going to be an empty nester soon, what are you going to do?” and I say, “Anything I damn well please, because now I can.”

Now I can do whatever I want and it’s weird. It’s like, what do I want? I’ve always known what I wanted, but I’m older now and it’s different so maybe that’s changed? Do I want to move to New York and audition for Broadway? The sky’s the limit. I love it here, I want to be able to stay here and still have all those wants and dreams fulfilled.

What’s one thing you always tell your students?

To really work to be their personal best. Not to compare, not to compare themselves with their friends, their friend’s voice, their favorite artists that they listen to and enjoy, because a lot of that is, I mean how do you really compare your voice to a voice that’s recorded in a billion-dollar studio? You don’t know if that’s really what they sound like. Just take what you have and make it the best that you can make it.


Bethany Freudenthal can be reached at 652-7891 or


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