Mike and Erma Kuenzli have been preserving Hawaiian music on the mainland — specifically Sequim — for 15 years now and don’t show signs of stopping.
As Naki’i, they’ve played thousands of shows at festivals, fairs, casinos, concerts for nonprofits, adult care facilities and more.
Their next big event is one they helped start — the sixth annual luau at the Sequim Senior Activity Center on Tuesday, Aug. 24.
Naki’i and Na Hula O Kauhale No Nahelekai, a hula team from Port Ludlow, will play, sing and dance. Hawaiian luau food will be served.
Frequency and care
The Kuenzlis average about 150 performances a year.
Their most frequent shows are in assisted-living facilities, which they prefer and find rewarding.
“We could make a lot more money elsewhere,” Mike said.
“But it doesn’t make any sense,” Erma said.
“It’s amazing how music gets people going.” The couple visits about 10 facilities a month. They say they’ve seen many people react positively to the music who otherwise might be unresponsive in their daily lives.
They also often find others with Hawaiian backgrounds.
“We meet a lot of people who have been to Hawaii and remember a lot about it,” Erma said.
“It’s great to hear the background because we have no idea what Hawaii looked like back in the 1930s,” Mike said.
Erma grew up in Nanakuli, Oahu, and met Mike while he was in the Navy.
She later worked for a local school cafeteria and he for the telephone company.
The Kuenzlis first visited Sequim in 1983 and moved to Clallam County in 1994.
They never intended to get into performing here but fate grabbed them by the leis.
A hula teacher needed music for a class, so the Kuenzlis played for it.
That led to several more events and some consistent gigs. They now have played all over the state.
Naki’i had four players with the Kuenzlis partnering with friends for about a year until Erma’s brother Samuel Naki, moved to Sequim.
The friends left, so the Kuenzlis added Naki to become a trio and a family affair.
Naki played with the band till his death in 2007.
“He was our elder,” Mike said.
“We still stress two voices with three hearts.”
In concert, they play a wide range of traditional, contemporary and original Hawaiian songs.
Their repertoire exceeds 400 songs and they’ve spent countless hours researching Hawaiian songs from CDs, tapes and songbooks to maintain authenticity.
“Not many people know the language,” Erma said.
“We tell them about the songs, and they really appreciate it.”
“It’s like an opera where the music is beautiful, but if you don’t know Italian then it’s lost,” Mike said.
Naki’i plays songs that are appropriate for specific occasions, such as birthdays or weddings.
“We’ve got to meet a lot of people and we watch our audience and know to either play straight Hawaiian music or a mix,” Erma said. Their set lists include an eclectic mix on some nights, sometimes including oldies, country and more.
The Kuenzlis say they are pretty well plugged into Sequim but are open to re-engaging with events they used to play and for finding new opportunities.
They can be reached at 681-8821 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call 683-6806 for tickets for the Sequim Senior Activity Center luau.
Reach Matthew Nash at email@example.com.