Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i

Creating Space

Story by Quinn Ferrar. Photos by Andrew Richard Higa.

When you enter Kukuau Studio, you might be greeted by a nude model posing for a life drawing class, hopeful singles on speed dates or a jam session around a cardboard campfire. It’s that kind of place—the only one of its kind in Hilo.

On a recent jazz jam night, a full band manages to squeeze onto the cramped stage in front of a mural by local artist Dan Madsen, playing standards along with local favorites like the theme from Hawaii Five-0. The crowd, a mix of musicians waiting for their moment in the limelight and locals of all ages, sporadically launch themselves off couches and red velvet seats salvaged from Hilo’s historic Kress Theater to dance.

Musician Bub Pratt, the self-styled “curator” of Kukuau, is originally from Bremerton, Washington, but you’d never guess he’s relatively new to the island—he’s stopped on every block in Hilo by a fan, student or a surf buddy from Honoli‘i, where he paddles out most mornings. Pratt started out as an Elvis impersonator but soon found a talent for putting together bands on a low budget for his wedding-planner mom. Opening an arts studio “wasn’t my idea, this wasn’t some great plan,” he says. “It’s just me doing what the ‘āina [land] told me to do.”

Fifty years ago 55 Kukuau Street was the Hatada Bakery, the first bakery with island-wide distribution on Hawai‘i Island. When Bub acquired the building, it seemed like a teardown; almost three years later it’s been transformed into a performance space/recording studio/theater/art hub that’s home to all forms of weirdness and creativity. Vestiges of its past life can still be found, if repurposed. The bakery’s walk-in freezer now serves as a sound booth for recording music.

Kukuau turned three in February and is expanding its creative offerings; it just launched a record label, for example, that features local artists. For those interested in learning music, Bub offers lessons at Kukuau during the day. “I teach any fretted instrument,” he says, “except the banjo.” Nights are for the more experienced musicians: Monday is reserved for jazz, and on Thursdays anyone is welcome to bring their favorite acoustic instrument and join the faux campfire jam.