Darrell Aquino, a regular at Mai Tai’s since they opened in 1999
Image: Katrina Valcourt

Want a drink with that music? The Mai Tai Bar at Ala Moana will fill your cup

Entertainment / The moment it hits 5 o’clock on a Friday, you have a choice: Go home and relax after a long week of slavery to The Man, or go out and celebrate your temporary freedom. I chose option B the other week by hitting up Hang Ten at the Mai Tai Bar on the top level of Ala Moana Center. At happy hour from 4–7pm every day, they offer cheap pitchers of Kona Longboard ($9) and an assortment of pupu for just $5 each. It wasn’t long before I was full of calamari and very, very happy (despite the extremely packed bar), sitting back to enjoy the music from local band Typical Hawaiians.

There are a number of hotels, restaurants and bars that feature live music on a regular basis, but none so often and as solidly as Mai Tai Bar. Twice a day every day (4–7pm and 9:30pm–12:30am), a different artist takes the stage to create a local and contemporary atmosphere amongst a sea of big-chain stores and restaurants.

“We actually started live music before we started happy hour,” says Francine Cekada, general manager, who has been with the bar since they opened in June of 1999. “We love our musicians–they are the description of Mai Tai Bar.”

And although musicians get paid less here than if they performed at other venues–musicians didn’t give out specific numbers–the overall atmosphere created by the staff and bar-goers alike makes Mai Tai’s THE venue for Honolulu performers. Here’s why:

The large crowd

“I think the perk for most musicians is the exposure,” says Tahiti Rey, who performs at Mai Tai’s with Jason Alan once a month or so. Mai Tai Bar is in a central location, not too far into town, with plenty of free parking, no cover charge, good food and an overall positive environment that attracts a large crowd on a daily basis. “Where your fans are, that’s where you want to be,” says Thomson Palakiko Enos, producer, songwriter and musician of Typical Hawaiians. “Without them, there is not music.” Pass by Mai Tai’s any night of the week, and you’ll see every seat–every comfortable couch, stool and chair–happily occupied.

Diversity and flexibility

To keep the regular customers coming back, a variety of musicians and genres pump up the crowd and prevent the talent from going stale. “[The musicians we have] do a lot of Hawaiian contemporary music and reggae, which definitely feeds the energy of the crowd,” says Cekada, but they also feature pop acts and, on Sunday nights, live DJs. For Typical Hawaiians, which performs as both a full band and as a duo, a plus is that they get to play for both the happy hour and late night party crowds.

Ben Taaca, Lounge Entertainment Manager at Tihati Productions and the booking agent for the bar, says he looks at the quality of the players, the vocals and how everyone in a group sounds together as a band when selecting entertainers. As a musician himself, he knows what crowds find exciting, but there is also a business side to consider.

“I look at the quality [of how they are] personally, if they take the business seriously,” says Taaca. “It’s not just the quality of music, but they have to work with the venue and with me. It’s all about being professional.”

After musicians send biographies and samples of their performances to Taaca, he evaluates if they’ll be a good fit for Mai Tai’s and adds them to his catalog of rotating artists. “[I like to] even it out so we don’t have the same kind of music every day. It depends on their availability, [but we like] to mix it up and keep it fresh.”

The staff

Bouncers have a reputation for being intimidating, but at Mai Tai Bar, I’ve always been greeted warmly by the big guys at the corners–don’t tell, but they’re real softies. The attentive bartenders are all smiles, the waitresses are friendly and everyone is respectful of each other, “which is imperative for Jason and [me] to work with a venue,” says Rey. “Respect and appreciation [are] a must!”

According to Enos, there are a few members in particular who really make a difference: “Danielle the waitress, Francine the manager and Chris, the bartender. These folks really make you feel like family, and they do an awesome job taking care of the families and friends that do come to see us.”

Even though ‘ohana is an ongoing theme here, Mai Tai Bar is 21+ by the time the musicians begin to play at 4pm. Thankfully, the open-air bar doesn’t even try to contain its island sounds. Stick an ear out of nearby Bubba Gump while noshing on shrimp, or sit on the rim of the fountain outside and stare longingly into the pau hana heaven. The aloha spirit is not something to be stamped on our hands–it’s in the air all around us.

Ala Moana Shopping Center, 4th floor by California Pizza Kitchen, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., open Sun.–Sat., 11am–1am, Hang Ten 4–7pm, Late Night Happy Hour 8–11pm, live entertainment 4–7pm and 9:30pm–12:30am, NFL Sun. 7am–1am, 947-2900, [maitaibar.com]

Mai Tai Rumble

Tuesdays from Oct. 9 through Dec. 4, Mai Tai Bar is hosting its 12th Annual Bud Light “True Music” Mai Tai Rumble, in which bands compete for $30,000 in cash and prizes in either the Island Music/Reggae category or the Open Mic category (rock, R&B, rap, salsa, etc.). Artists will be judged on their vocal quality, instrumental ability, delivery of selected music, MC ability and overall stage presence. Phat Joe hosts the weekly competition, which also showcases local favorites after the ruckus:

Oct. 23: Rebel Souljahz

Oct. 30: Ooklah the Moc

Nov. 6: Nesian Nine

Nov. 13: Rebel Souljahz

Nov. 20: Nesian Nine

Nov. 27: BET

Dec. 4: Ooklah the Moc