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Get your instruments tuned for the Ko‘olaus Bluegrass Festival

    By Pavel Stankov. March 15, 2013 - 11:45 am


“We can’t hear the mandolin on your back,” said a loud voice after the end of the song I had come in the middle of. I pulled up a chair and dutifully opened my case.

The jam session at a popular Kailua restaurant included about a dozen people taking turns singing Appalachian roots music for nearly three hours on a Tuesday night.

Hawaii’s bluegrass community is a motley bunch of various ages, backgrounds and skill levels that regularly gets together for song sharing and networking.

Popular instruments are acoustic and resonator guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, upright bass, and of course the local favorite, ukuleles.

The single most important event for bluegrass aficionados on the island is the biannual Bluegrass in the Ko’olaus.

Organized as a camp in the beautiful Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden near Kaneohe, the festival is a free and open to everybody in celebration of one of America’s most popular folk genres.

This spring’s edition will kick off on April 26, and will continue throughout the weekend until the following Monday morning.


“There’s jamming going on continually,” described publicity coordinator Mike Spengel. “I’ve known times when it went ‘round the clock.”

According to the organizers, last fall Bluegrass in the Ko?olaus attracted about 90 campers.

During “Band Scramble,” the festival’s most popular event, vice president of Bluegrass Hawaii Jeb Weimer counted an audience of 400 campers and visitors coming from all over the state, as well as the mainland and even Japan.

Although Bluegrass in the Ko’olaus strives to promote an informal and easy-going approach to music making, there is also a fair amount of competitiveness for those who are interested.

Band Scramble is a good example: Musicians sign up with their names and instruments and are then randomly grouped into improvised bands.

They are then given 30 minutes to decide on a song and rehearse it, before taking it to the stage in competition with each other.

“When they perform everybody kids them and teases them and it’s a lot of fun,” Spengel explained. “That’s probably the best-received part; people get a real kick out of it.”

The festival does not ignore music education either.

Upright bass player Bob Schornsthiemer organizes the so-called “Slow Jam,” which is designed to teach novice players the genre basics.

Other workshops focus on mandolin, autoharp, banjo, and fiddle, as well as different levels of acoustic guitar proficiency.

Guest performances by local and visiting bands and even a gospel singing on Sunday morning are also scheduled to bring variety to the event.

Bluegrass Hawai?i also plans to organize potluck style lunch and dinner for overnight campers who contribute..

If interested in participating in a three-day weekend of folksy fun reminiscent of faraway Appalachia, contact