Issue 12.5: October/November 2009

Gypsies, Minstrels and Seafarers

story by David Thompson

photos by Jack Wolford

 

A half-hour before show time, a minibus pulls up in front of Bayfront Coffee & Kava in downtown Hilo, and several men and boys in dark green kilts pour out. They set up quickly on the sidewalk, stretching open rain tarps, unfolding chairs for the audience and laying out sheets of plywood for the dancers. Then the bagpipers blow a few notes, the drummers, guitarists, fiddler and flute player jump in, and the show begins.

After “Danny Boy” and a few other Celtic classics, the musicians change to a Middle Eastern scale, and a half-dozen belly dancers swarm the sidewalk, jingling, twirling and veil-dancing their way through their set. For their exit they part a curtain to reveal a trio of Irish step dancers, who clack away on the plywood with their hard-soled shoes as the music turns Celtic again.

By now the audience knows this is no ordinary pipe-and-drum corps, and not just because it brought belly dancers. There’s something even quirkier going on: The production has a thoroughly homespun aura, as though the musicians were self-taught, the costumes homemade and the dance moves learned from instructional videos—it’s as if a big, talented, do-it-yourself family decided to put on a free show in front of the kava bar every Wednesday night.

Which is exactly the case.

“We’re Lobo del Mar, a big family from Alaska—and Texas, Georgia, Israel, Finland …” announces one of the pipers, Brady Buntin, his voice trailing off as if the list were too long to continue. Then he introduces the band, which includes his son, his brother Bart, Bart’s son and seven of their nephews. “The dancers are our wives, sisters, daughters and nieces,” Brady says, cradling the bagpipes that he made himself.

Before the night is through, Brady will do a flamenco guitar solo, Bart will play Mexican canciones and sing a love song to his wife, a pair of Spanish dancers will perform, the belly dancers will return as Tahitian dancers, a 3-year-old girl will dance a comic hula and the band will play, among other things, “Amazing Grace” and “Dixie.” In the faces of the audience, there’s amusement, delight and flat-out perplexity. People don’t know what to make of Lobo del Mar. People never know what to make of Lobo del Mar.

 


 


Rupert Buntin
The family is tough to peg.  You could think of it as an ancient Scottish clan, Americanized, armed with power tools, speaking Spanish and Hebrew and running whale-watching tours off the Kona Coast. Or you could think of it as a band of sea-roving gypsies with fundamentalist beliefs, tattoo guns and a restaurant serving huevos rancheros and margaritas on Ali‘i Drive. Whatever you come up with, one thing is sure: This is a family unlike any other you’ve met.

There are fifty-two Lobo del Marians all together—or at least living on the Big Island—and in anthropological terms they really are a clan: “a group united by kinship and descent that recognizes the primacy of a common ancestor.” In this case, that ancestor is Rupert Buntin, the lanky 75-year-old in bell-bottoms and long-sleeved denim shirt watching the show from a table near the entrance of the kava bar.

Rupert is the clan chief and the kingpin at the center of Lobo del Mar’s multiple business ventures, which include construction, sales of Old World instruments, a dive school, tourism kiosks in Hilo and Kona, boat tours, land tours, a restaurant called Bongo Ben’s and an entertainment company (bagpipers and belly dancers for hire)—but he is not, he insists, a planner.

“If I make a plan,” Rupert says in his disarming Texas drawl, “if I spend all that time thinking something out, writing it down, I feel like I’ve already done it. And what fun is that?”

It was in that spirit that he married the woman in the short denim skirt and matching jacket who sits next to him: Carrol Buntin. Two weeks after she and Rupert met back in 1960, they were hitched. And then they made a family, cranking out one kid after another, until they had eleven in all: Ruppy, Rett, Brent, Bart, Brady, Brandy, Bucky, Babette Billie, Bunny Bee, Bridget Bobbie and Brena Belle.

 


 


Brady Buntin
Rupert and Carrol raised their family on a series of boats that they found and overhauled in the backwaters of San Francisco Bay, the Columbia River, Puget Sound and Ketchikan, Alaska. The Buntin children were largely home schooled, and by the time they hit their teens, they were thoroughly versed in carpentry, mechanics, electrical wiring, draftsmanship, fishing and seamanship.

You might think that so many children living on one boat would equal chaos, but it was quite the opposite. Buntin discipline was strict and very much in the tradition of the Old South from which both Rupert and Carrol originated. The full-grown Buntin children still address their parents as “Sir” and “Mame,” just as their well-mannered, hard-working, home-schooled children address them and any other adult they speak to.

The Buntins are Christian Zionists, which explains why they study Hebrew and why among the many, many homemade tattoos inked onto the limbs of the musicians at the kava bar are Hebrew letters spelling “Lobo del Mar.” Their faith also sheds light on the organizational structure of their clan, which is modeled after that of a kibbutz. Everybody pitches in to help as needed, and proceeds from each family enterprise go into a communal pot.

Like a planet held together by its own mass, Lobo del Mar seems to have a gravitational force that keeps it from flying apart. But it hasn’t always been so densely concentrated. The family once stretched out all over Alaska, down the West Coast, into Mexico and out to Hawaii, as more and more of the Buntin kids left the boat to work as fishermen, electrical contractors and the like. It wasn’t until the early ’90s, after Rupert sold the family’s ancient 68-foot crabber, built a small fleet of catamarans and relocated the Buntin center of gravity to Mexico, that the clan reassembled fully.

The key was the creation of a family business at Puerto Penasco, a charter boat operation that carried tourists out onto the Sea of Cortez to fish or dive or sip margaritas at sunset before the belly dancers and bagpipers appeared. Everyone in the family had a job, and, as it turns out, they liked working for themselves better than working for anyone else.

The family created its own business empire and called it Lobo del Mar, Spanish for the family’s second boat, the Sea Wolf. Brena Belle, the best artist in the bunch, drew a snarling wolf for a logo: an image that might have baffled someone shopping for a snorkel tour but that symbolized the family’s fierce independence perfectly.

Mexico recast the Buntins. Rett, Bart, Brady, Brent and Bunny Bee all married Mexicans. Spanish became a second language. But after fifteen years in the sweltering Sonoran Desert heat, the clan was ready for a change, and so Lobo del Mar—along with eighteen dogs and a few small boats—came to Hawaii. Will they stay? Probably not forever. But where they might land next is anybody’s guess. If you ask Rupert, he’ll say, “I never know where we’re going until we get there,” or “When I get outside that breakwater, I’ll either turn north or I’ll turn south, and then I’ll know where we’re headed.” But this much is clear: Wherever they go, they go en masse. One thing I quickly learned about Lobo del Mar is that it’s rare to catch any of them alone, at least for long.

When I sat down to talk with Brady at the Hilo Farmers Market, where he sells the lyres, psalteries and other musical instruments he makes, it wasn’t long before brother Brent, brother-in-law Juan and assorted nephews rumbled up in the Ford F-350 Lobo del Mar construction truck to say hey. When I met Babette Billie hawking sunset and snorkel tours in front of Bongo Ben’s, it was only a matter of minutes before a dozen Lobo del Marians showed up for lunch. When I visited Rupert and Carrol on their boat—an abandoned sampan they’ve salvaged and totally tricked out with creature comforts—waves of children, in-laws, grandchildren and step-grandchildren filed into the cabin, exchanged hugs and kisses and squeezed onto the settees for a visit. And so many members of the clan turn out for the weekly kava bar show, they sometimes outnumber members of the audience.

On this particular Wednesday, though, the split is about even. Near the end of the show, the band strikes up “Whiskey in the Jar” and goes on the march, leaving the sidewalk to parade through the kava bar. Outdoors the decibels plunge so unexpectedly it’s disorienting, but in a few moments the full force of the bagpipes and drums will return. Then the show will end, the minibus will be quickly reloaded and the shiny white Lincoln Navigator used for the Lobo del Mar land tours will pull up to the curb for Carrol and Rupert. Carrol will get in, but before Rupert does, he will turn to a Lobo del Mar fan, flash a warm smile and say, “I have never tried to tell anybody that this was an ordinary family.”