Steel Trappings

On the Playlist

On the Playlist: William Kanui

January 1, 2023 • Geronimo "Geri" ValdrizSteel Guitar History

"HAWAIIAN STEEL" is a weekly radio program that spotlights the Hawaiian steel guitar masters from the past to the present. "ON THE PLAYLIST" features the musicians heard on the program's playlist. This month we feature singer, songwriter William Kanui!

The remarkable recordings of Kanui and Lula have long captured the imagination of record collectors, historians, and fans of early acoustic Hawaiian steel guitar. The hit recording "Oua Oua" with its wild vocal and unforgettable steel guitar solo is the highlight of their career and captures a magic moment in time, 1930s Paris, France.

In 1909 Hawaiian musician William Kanui set off from Hawai‘i for the U.S. mainland. Like many other Hawaiians he would have heard of the rising demand on the mainland for Hawaiian music and the prospect of plentiful work.

William Kanui

By 1913 Kanui worked for awhile in Philadelphia, and eventually landed in New York City. There he played Hawaiian music at the Luna amusement park at Coney Island. He did so well that he was offered a job to play Hawaiian music at the Luna Park in Paris, France.

In November, 1913 Kanui went to Paris, France with a troupe of Hawaiian musicians. In Paris he befriended Hawaiian guitarists Joseph Puni, Diamond Kekona, and a French hula dancer named Lucy Schimdt. By April, 1914 the four musicians left Paris for London, England.

In the United Kingdom the new act was billed as Mademoiselle Leilani and the Hawaiians. Kanui played the acoustic Hawaiian steel guitar, Joe Puni played the guitar, Diamond Kekona played the ukulele, and Lucy was the exotic hula dancer "Leilani." Kanui received rave reviews from the English press for his steel guitar playing, and Lucy wowed audiences with her native costume and graceful dance. At the time, Hawaiian music and dance was a new, exciting, and popular entertainment.

For nearly five years during the Great War, the group toured extensively throughout the United Kingdom, from Cromwell to Scotland, advertising their shows in newspapers and the radio. The group performed in big cities, small towns, theatres and music halls. And after nearly 5 years on the road, the tour ended in January, 1919. By then the Great War was over.

William Kanui and Lucy Schmidt returned to Paris soon after the War, Joe Puni and Diamond Kekona remained in England. The duo landed a gig playing at the Olympia Theatre. This time they were billed as Kanui and Lula and the newspapers describe them as a "special exotic pair." "Kanui yells the songs of his native land and Hawaiian melodies permeate from his instrument…Sobs, cries of ecstasy and heartbreak exhale from his steel guitar while Lula, shameless yet chaste, performs the dance of love of the Hawaiian Islands."

Kanui and Lula

Kanui and Lula remained on the play bill at the Olympia Theatre for the next 10 years as they would return regularly. They were a unique and popular act with a loyal audience returning and, often asking for encores!

In addition to shows at the Olympia Theatre the duo played at other music halls and venues throughout Paris. And as their fame and popularity grew, Kanui and Lula began touring across Europe, the Middle East and South America.

For the next 15 years the duo appeared regularly in the Netherlands, Amsterdam, the Hague, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Spain. They were sometimes joined by Joseph Puni and other Hawaiian musicians.

In 1922 Kanui and Lula recorded for Star Records in Berlin, Germany. A total of 18 sides were recorded and were issued on the Star, Beer, and Asahi labels. Kanui played the acoustic steel guitar with vocals. He used a wood bodied Hawaiian steel guitar and played in the "A" tuning. Joseph K. Nahale played the rhythm guitar and vocals, and Lula is not on these recordings.

In 1928 the duo played in Alexandria, (Egypt), Constantinople, (Turkey), and Syria. They also went to South America, where they performed at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The newspapers there reported that "the entire audience applauded the two artists wildly, forcing them to repeat the numbers they had just performed. Kanui and Lula are outstanding masters of the Hawaiian guitar and dances of Honolulu."

1n 1933 Kanui and Lula entered a recording studio for only a second time, in Paris, France. They recorded 8 sides for the Odeon label. On four sides Kanui played the acoustic Hawaiian guitar and sang entirely by himself with no other musical accompaniment. He recorded "Oua Oua," a version of the "Hawaiian War Chant," "Tomi Tomi," "Ua Like No a Like," and "Pua Carnation." "Oua Oua" was clearly their biggest hit selling in substantial numbers. This self-accompanying style is unique and distinctive of Kanui's steel guitar playing. The remaining four sides featured Kanui with Joe Puni on vocals and guitar, and Lula on ‘ukulele and vocals.

By 1940 the German army occupied Paris and Europe was at war again. William Kanui was arrested as an American prisoner and spent two years incarcerated. Following the liberation of France in 1944, Kanui played music briefly but he became ill from diabetes. His condition worsened, he eventually lost his eye sight and he spent considerable time in various French hospitals.

William Kanui died on September 6, 1960 in Paris France. He was 69 years old. Lucy "Lula" Schmidt died ten years later on January 19, 1970 in Paris, France. She was 77 years old.

Today fans seek out the recordings of William Kanui. He continues to inspire steel guitarist seeking to learn from the early pioneers of acoustic Hawaiian steel guitar. His music is now available on CD and online to a new generation of fans who can appreciate this innovative and unique Hawaiian musician!

In 2022 a new book titled "The Story of Kanui and Lula" was published by Les Cook of Grass Skirt Records. The book chronicles the musical life of Kanui and Lula and includes a CD of their original recordings.

On the Playlist of Hawaiian Steel: William Kanui

Song CD Album Publisher
Oua Oua Kanui and Lula / Hawaiian Favourites Vol.1 Goldies Records
Pua Carnation On a Coconut Island / Kanui and Lula Harlequin
Tomi Tomi Kanui and Lula / Kanui and Lula Grass Skirt Records
Ua Like No a Like Kanui and Lula / Hawaiian Favourites Vol.2 Goldies Records

"Hawaiian Steel" with Geri Valdriz is broadcast live every Tuesday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm (HST) on Mana‘o Radio, Wailuku, Maui, Hawai‘i, KMNO, 91.7FM on the radio dial.

You can catch it on the air, or streaming live at www.manaoradio.com. Listeners can also access our online archives to enjoy previously recorded programs at your convenience. Just search "Listen on Demand" for past shows.

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Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Japan-Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival
July 14, 2023 Ho‘olaule‘a concert – 4PM - 6:30PM HST


Royal Hawaiian Center Presents Waikīkī Steel Guitar Festival
July 15, 2023 Ho‘olaule‘a concert – 11AM - 2PM and 4:30PM - 6:30PM HST
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