Vol. 4, Issue 9, February 26-March 4, 2009
By Norb Garrett
San Clemente Times
Local singer/musician Kai Kalama reaches for his dreams on TV’s biggest stage-American Idol
It’s a far cry from playing the karaoke bar at Taka-O Japanese Restaurant in San Clemente, but from those humble local beginnings, 27-year-old Kai Kalama has made it to the biggest stage in America-American Idol. This week the singer/musician from San Clemente will attempt to move into the final 12 contestants, having made it all the way to the final 36 following his successful audition in San Francisco and subsequent elimination rounds.
At stake is a recording contract and instant fame-former winners include household names such as Carrie Underwood and David Cook. The FOX show, now in its eighth season and known equally for its contestants as it is for star judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and newcomer Kara DioGuardi, asks viewers to select its winner once the judges have whittled down the hundreds of thousands of prospective singers to the final 36. Kalama must out-sing nine of his fellow contestants Wednesday evening and land enough votes from the viewing audience to earn one of three spots in the final 12. His fate will be revealed Thursday night, February 26. Airtime locally on Fox Channel 11 is 8 p.m.
“It’s quite a ride to try to get there,’ Kalama said in an exclusive interview with the SC Times. “You see a lot of talented people go home who you thought would be there instead of you.’
As unlikely as the journey might seem, for Kalama the trip to Hollywood via San Francisco has been something he’s dreamed about.
“It’s been life-changing, but it’s also been something that I’ve been waiting for in my life,’ said Kalama, who along with his older brother Ryan formed OFFWHITE, a band that began while the boys were in school but gained a huge local following as it worked its way through San Clemente’s music spots, first Taka-O, then Gordon James, BeachFire, OC Tavern and Molly Blooms. “It’s kind of like the catalyst to make me grow up, make me into a career-minded adult. It just so happens that I want to have a career in music,’ Kalama said.
Kalama and his brother were so good, word started getting out. “I remember my son telling me that I needed to go see these guys down at Taka-O,’ said Gordon Rose, co-owner of Gordon James Grill. “Of all the groups that play at Gordon James, I’ve only gone to see two of them live-and these guys were one of them. What I really liked about them was their interaction with the crowd.’
Rose isn’t surprised at all to see Kalama among the final 36 on American Idol. “Certainly he has the talent to make it to the next round,’ said Rose. “Musically, Kai’s got the vocals. They’re both gifted instrumentally.’
Growing up, Kalama’s musical career was shaped by his mother and father. Originally from Hawaii, the family moved to Redlands, Calif., where they attended middle school and high school. His mother, Jamie, taught the boys how to sing for their church choir, while father Ron taught the boys how to blend music and humor through his Hawaiian-styled “Smothers Brothers’ routine. “My dad and his brother had kind of like a Smothers Brothers/Hawaiian comedy routine thing, so my brother and I watched that growing up,’ he said. “They did Hawaiian songs, they did comedy, and eventually we ended up as part of the show.’
At the age of 12, Kalama took up guitar, and by age 13 was good enough that his dad would let him fill in when needed with his routine.
The family eventually moved to San Clemente and the brothers began pushing the music envelope professionally. “Fast-forward 10 years later and my brother and I are pretty much doing the same thing, going to bars, working for four hours a night, just having a really good time,’ said Kalama. “Being a little funny and having good music behind us. It’s been quite a journey, definitely.’
The decision to audition for American Idol actually came from the father of the band’s manager who believed enough in Kalama’s voice that he offered to fly him up to San Francisco on his private plane.
“He really believed in me and my voice, so I figured at least I’d get a free trip out of it,’ Kalama said. “It was a wild ride. It took me a while to finally say, ‘Alright, you’re going to do it, it’s the best way to get out there.’ And I’m so proud and happy that I did.’
Standing out among the thousands isn’t easy, but with his frizzy, reggae-styled hair and pony tail, Kalama looks the part. He admits to being confident on stage, but once through to the judges, things were a bit different.
“Right when I walked in it was very intimidating,’ he said. “I had the San Francisco skyline behind me, four of the most famous people in the country right now and cameras all over the place. Oh man, I really just had to do what I was supposed to do. I knew my song, I knew it really well, I knew what I wanted to get out of it. But I was definitely very nervous, probably the most nervous I’ve been in my entire life. I fancy myself as not that nervous of a person, but I couldn’t feel my body at that point. But you really just gotta know what you want to do and know that this is what you’re supposed to do. That’s what got me through it.’
Despite some criticism from the brutally frank Cowell, he got through after singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ by the Platters.
“Kai’s got a great stage presence,’ said BeachFire general manager Chris Turner, who has seen the brothers perform almost monthly. “He has a magnetic personality.’
Whether his voice and personality sway the national voting audience remains to be seen this week. Online oddsmakers list him as a mid-table bet to get through. As he works to become more disciplined and focused, older brother Ryan and family friends tend for his now-ill mother in San Clemente, pulling for Kai to keep moving forward.
“[Ryan’s] actually working a whole lot lately and he’s actually taking care of my mom primarily,’ said Kalama. “He’s been a real proud supporter of me and he knows that what’s good for me is good for us. I have the best big brother in the world.’
With his next big hurdle ahead of him, Kalama is confident and appreciative of the opportunity. “I’m not the most disciplined person when it comes to rehearsing and things like that,’ he said, “but this has really made me rise to the occasion.’
Past American Idol Winners
2002: Kelly Clarkson
2003: Ruben Studdard
2004: Fantasia Barrino
2005: Carrie Underwood
2006: Taylor Hicks
2007: Jordin Sparks
2008: David Cook