There’s nothing more appealing and summer-appropriate than kicking back on the beach. Local artists have sung about cooling off and catching surf, but no one does it quite like Kolohe Kai – a group that has mined the unbridled imagery and energy of fun in the sun and producing equally joyous tunes. Kolohe kai translates to “rascals in the water.” Some may be all work and no play, but Kolohe Kai renders Hawaii all play, all day through their sincere, catchy, free-floating vibes.
Kolohe Kai recently released “Heartstrings” – a new single destined to be the next summer jam, but Kolohe Kai has been churning out ready-made summer tunes since they got started. Songs off their debut album This Is the Life still enjoy radio-play to this day.
Their first song, “Butterflies,” charts the tug of war between fear and desire in the face of a first crush: You’re my crush/Can’t you see the way I blush. No matter how shy you are, Kolohe Kai reassures that everything will be alright through their feel-good brand of irie-reggae.
“Lover Girl” slows the tempo down and continues the story of a potential romance to a love made true. Reggae’s endless appeal apart from the overall catchiness is its ability to rhythmically capture love’s ebb and flow.
Album title-song “This is the Life” is the open invitation you’re looking for. Kolohe Kai draws out the country-living appeal of the Hawaiian countryside, of riding on dirt roads from the cane fields to the shore. This is the life, the life meant for me and you/So I hope you’re here to live it too. Hawaii is free for anyone to enjoy and Kolohe Kai sings with this inclusion in mind.
Lead singer Roman De Peralta shines underneath the moonlight with “Dream Girl.” The reggae-jive is dialed down, his vocals scaled up and accompanied by a soothing saxophone gently rocking us to an island reverie.
That same saxophone was just getting warmed up. “Ehu Girl”is the track that put Kolohe Kai on the map, a song that enraptured a generation the same way Malino’s “Always Be Mine” did years before. It’s an ode to the beach, a place where their hearts reside. Ehu refers to the sun-drenched hair phenomenon common amongst surfer girls. De Peralta’s burning love for the ocean is inseparable from him as a songwriter. (You set my heart on fire.) It’s only fitting that a surfer girl is the object of his affection.
“Cool Down” is a summer-fever anthem locally-inspired and inflected: we should go beach now. That youthful spirit is what distinguishes Kolohe Kai’s sound, singing about surfing and cruising down the coast with reckless abandon. Most surprising of all, these songs were written, recorded, and released while they were still in high school.
They were students in the same Polynesian music class. It was Roman De Peralta who caught the attention of record label, Go Aloha Entertainment. They formed Kolohe Kai and participated in the statewide “Brown Bags to Stardom” talent competition, an origin story similar to another local obsession – Ekolu. To Kolohe Kai’s surprise, they won. They used that momentum to record their first album by the end of junior year. Their first single, “Ehu Girl” dominated the airwaves by the time they were seniors. Needless to say when graduation came around, they were already flying high.
With youth comes its woes. “Genuine Love” is an honest inquiry into relationships and a necessary moment of reflection. Is this laughter for real/Or is it just for show? The energy is gone, but the sincerity is there, featuring a seemingly alone De Peralta and a quiet piano tune reminding him he’s not.
“Kiss That I Never Had” won them the Brown Bags competition, so in many ways this song was their first breakthrough. It’s hard not to see why, with cascading guitar lines and the return of a soulful saxophone. (Reminder: they composed these melodies in high school.)
Kolohe Kai speeds things up with “Is This Love,” the song’s title a callback to a Bob Marley classic. Kolohe Kai echoes that sentiment at a breakneck speed which in itself captures the rush of love’s head-over-heels sensation.
“Don’t Stop the Rhythm” is another fast and loose track heralded by triumphant horns. Being the penultimate track, we know the end is near, but we can’t possibly stop with so much energy and momentum built thus far.
The album comes to an end with a sweet tribute to De Peralta’s hometown of Pakala in Kauai. “Pakala Waters” acknowledges exactly where this all started for him: in the water, sitting on a surfboard and waiting for the right wave. Kolohe Kai’s artistic sensibilities are a result of their surfer identity. They spotted the wave early on, gathered momentum, paddled their okoles off, and rode in on the waves of success. It’s no wonder they keep coming back for more.
Kolohe Kai went from performing at graduation parties to headlining their own tours across the Pacific. Hawaii’s little rascals aren’t so little anymore. They’ve put out 3 albums, their lineup shifting and expanding in the process. Yet they’ve always remained the same, singing about their love for Hawaii and especially the ocean surrounding them. The blue may be all encompassing, but it’s also creatively resetting, a blue and otherwise blank canvas to find themselves all over again. Summer’s almost here. With a new single out and the promise of a new album, now’s as good a time as any to discover Kolohe Kai.
Adrian Manuel is a freelance writer. He’s published articles on Thought Catalog, written a flash piece for A Quiet Courage, and submitted feature essays for The Good Men Project and Mamalode. He also runs an entertainment news blog where he reports on film, television, and music. He lives in Maui.