All in the family

The De Lima Ohana - (from left) Kapena, Leolani, Kalena, Kelly and Lilo - releases a new album, Kupu A’e. Music is the De Lima family business, and business is good

Melissa Moniz
Wednesday - February 25, 2009
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More than 20 years ago, Kelly Boy De Lima captured Hawaii’s attention as the lead singer of one of the most recognized groups to emerge from the Islands, Kapena.

Along with De Lima’s Kaimuki High School classmates Tivaini and Teimoni Tatofi, Kapena blasted out contemporary Hawaiian hits such as Reggae Train, Masese, Blue Darling, Sea of Heartbreak and Nobody’s Child.

Along with his growing successes with his music, came the growing successes of his family. In 1988, Kelly and his group took home two Na Hoku Hanohano awards for Best Hawaiian Contemporary Album and Group of the Year with their second self-titled record project. That same year brought another great celebration for him and his wife, Leolani - the birth of their son, who was fittingly named Kapena.


But before the Hoku awards and the new baby was the beginning of the talented family we see on stage today - Kelly and Leo.

“I was entertaining at a place called Sparky’s Lounge on Kapiolani Boulevard, and she (Leo) was a singer at the Hawaiian Hut,” says Kelly. “I used to go there because our bass player was a dancer there too. So I would go and I saw her singing there one night.”

Like clockwork, every three years a brand new baby was welcomed to the family - Kalena, then Lilo.

“Kalena got her name from her grandmother,” explains Kelly. “Lilo is actually a nickname; Leolani is her real name after her mom. We used to call her little Leo and it just kinda of stuck together.”

The De Lima Ohana (from left), Kapena, Leolani, Kelly, Kalena and Lilo

Kalena may be familiar to some, as Kelly penned a song in her name, Kalena Koo, on Kapena’s Future Frontiers album released in 1994.

So how did the family go from watching Dad perform to standing toe-to-toe with him on stage and releasing an album together?

It wasn’t by chance.

As Kelly explains, it was lots of practice.

And, as the kids explain, it was lots of D-A-D.

“Learning how to play and sing under my dad’s ways of teaching was a little intense at times, but looking back on it, I needed it, and I think my sisters feel the same way,” says Kapena. “If he didn’t push me, I know I wouldn’t have pushed myself, and because of that I am very thankful.”

Music is a way of life in the De Lima household, and Kelly decided early on that he was going to give his children all the tools he possibly could to help them succeed.

Kapena took piano lessons at 5 years old, added drums when he was 11, then came Hawaii steel guitar lesson from Jerry Byrd. He also knows his way with a bass and guitar. Kalena took piano at 5 years old, then saxophone, then ukulele and most recently drums. Lilo also started on piano, then at 6 years old took trumpet lessons. And two years ago she picked up the bass when her brother moved to San Francisco to attend college.

Kapena at one of their first live gigs, Kelly and the Tatofi brothers

“I wanted to raise my kids all the same way,” says Kelly. “I don’t want them to think I did something for one and not the other. But it’s not like it was so popular with them.”

Mom adds, “They took it like punishment for a while. Piano, they have to practice 45 minutes a day, so each of them had to rotate off the piano. Kelly doesn’t raise them by only having them do things that are for their gender. There’s no boundaries.”

Along with the lessons came Dad’s expectations, which were always big. As Kelly explains, “A lot of people think that when you send children to lessons, that’s where they going learn. It’s 10 percent of what they learn at the lesson and 90 percent of what you put into it. A lot of people come up to me and tell me, ‘Wow, Kelly Boy, your kids are awesome, I like my kids be like that.’ It’s really a lot easier said than done. It’s a heavy, heavy commitment. We sit in our living room for hours. The poor kids would watch other kids play outside and they would be in here practicing. There’s been tears and fights, and my wife is yelling at me, ‘What are you doing to the kids?’”

Kalena on the mic with Dad and brother Kapena backing her up

Kelly says it was like boot camp. And Leo quickly adds with a laugh, “And he was the drill sergeant.

“People think because they’re kids that you should lighten up or not expect so much, but that was never Kelly’s theory,” she says. “He didn’t care if they were 5 or 12 - he demanded excellence and there was no compromising that. I was the referee.”

Kalena did her first lead vocals on Kapena’s Christmas album when she was just 7 years old, and she started performing regularly in the seventh grade.

“At first I only had one gig every two weeks, so it wasn’t that hard,” says Kalena, a senior at Word of Life with a 4.0 grade point average. “It’s kind of like conditioning, because after a while you get more used to it and you learn how to plan ahead.”

Kapena made his first appearance playing keyboards with his father’s band when he was just 10 years old, and officially began traveling with the group at 12.

“People used to laugh when I used to bring Kapena to gigs,” says Kelly. “The sound guys when we were doing Bay Fest yelled at me that there’s child labor laws. If you look at some pictures he could barely see over the keyboard.”

Lilo joined the family on stage in 2006 when Kapena left to attend Expressions College for Digital Arts to pursue a degree in sound arts. Lilo stepped in as the bassist for the group, and Dad says that he believes she’s found her instrument.

“When we first started Kapena, they (Tivaini and Teimoni) always told me that they eventually wanted to move back home to Tonga,” recalls Kelly. “That day came, and thank God that the children were right at that point where they were ready to take over. Basically, when the brothers left, the family took over.”

Leo adds, “For some people, they might have done something else when the brothers left, but music is the only thing that Kelly knows and loves. It wasn’t even a question about what he was going to do. With the kids there was a need, and they filled it. It wasn’t a question. That’s how it happened.”

So is it Kapena or De Lima

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