Hawaii may be more than 2,000 miles and an ocean away from Sonoma, but on a recent Saturday afternoon the Aloha State was right within reach.
About 30 musicians strummed ukuleles and sang in unison as a dozen hula dancers performed their graceful moves, turning the hall at the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club into an island paradise.
A monthly “kanikapila” jam session draws about 70 people to the historic Sonoma clubhouse, where Hawaiian dance, music and attire bring the warmth and romance of the islands even on the dreariest of days.
The kanikapila — the Hawaiian word meaning “getting together to make music” — is presented through Hula Mai, a Sonoma group offering hula lessons and performances.
Master ukulele player Del Medina of Marin County and his group lead the lively sessions, with novice and experienced musicians welcome to drop by with their ukuleles, guitars and even kazoos.
“Kanikapila just warms my heart,” said ukulele player Michele Shockey, 75. “It’s just fabulous. I love Hawaii but can’t always get there.”
She’s among the North Bay musicians who join the informal jam sessions. Music books with Hawaiian and pop songs are available, with Medina calling out titles and corresponding page numbers so even newcomers can sing and strum along.
It’s a gathering of “ohana,” the Hawaiian word for family, where all are embraced for a program of island hospitality. Medina guides the sessions, with participants welcome to suggest songs or get up and dance as they like.
No one is on stage; everyone gathers together in the spacious hall, the personable Medina and his musicians in a semicircle facing the crowd.
“Del is a character,” said Dorothy Lund, president of the woman’s club. “He’s really fun and keeps it going.”
Lund, in a colorful Hawaiian blouse, greets visitors who step into the stately building to enjoy the spirit of aloha.
“This music is just joyful,” she said. “It’s not just Hawaiian music. He plays a little bit of everyone.”
Medina welcomed guests, many in Hawaiian clothing, with a warm, “Aloha, everybody,” followed by “OK, here we go. ‘Country Roads.’ ”
He and fellow musicians performed the John Denver song, their ukuleles providing an upbeat version of the country classic.
“It’s infectious,” said Betty Ann Bruno, 85, who organizes the kanikapilas. “If you’re in a bad mood when you come in here, you lose it.”
Bruno established Hula Mai eight years ago, now a close-knit group of 55 dancers who encourage one another through dance and the challenges of life.
“There’s a wonderful sisterhood,” Bruno said. “They take care of each other. It is the most amazing thing.”
The kanikapilas grew from informal gatherings at her home a few years ago, becoming so popular she secured a venue large enough to accommodate dozens of musicians, hula dancers and others who long for the laid-back and joyful atmosphere of the Hawaiian islands.
Most Hula Mai dancers are senior citizens who, like Bruno, defy their age. In a long, floral-appliquéd Hawaiian-print dress, lei and flower in her hair, Bruno’s elegant hand gestures and graceful barefoot steps flow effortlessly to the music.