Kalapana iconic musician ‘Uncle Robert’ dead at 75
"Uncle Robert" Keliihoomalu
By JOHN BURNETT Hawaii Tribune-Herald
Robert Pookapu “Uncle Robert” Keliihoomalu Sr., an iconic figure in the Kalapana and Hawaiian communities, died peacefully Sunday at his Kaimu home. He was 75.
His death was posted on the Facebook page of Uncle’s Awa Club, known unofficially as “Uncle Robert’s.” Keliihoomalu’s establishment served as the gathering place in the Kalapana-Kaimu community, and numerous messages of condolences have been posted on the page.
Keliihoomalu was born in Kaimu in 1939. His family’s home was spared when most of Kalapana, including the Kaimu black sand beach, was inundated by lava in 1990.
“From 1984, when the lava started flowing down (from Kilauea volcano), they stayed on the aina,” radio personality Jacqueline “Skylark” Rossetti said Monday. “They never had to leave. … They took care of all of the people who had to leave the aina.”
Former Mayor Harry Kim was the county civil defense administrator when Kalapana and Kaimu were taken by Madame Pele. He noted the loss in April 2014 of Kalapana matriarch Minnie Kaawaloa, as well as the passing of Keliihoomalu.
“I feel a real emptiness inside,” he said. “They were very special people to everybody, just beautiful, beautiful spirits. … They were a link to old Hawaii.”
Kim said Keliihoomalu was also the Puna overseer for the county Public Works Department Highways Division when the lava came.
“He pulled his regular shift and more,” Kim said. “I counted on him. I’m not minimizing what is happening today (with the June 27 lava flow in Puna), but this was different. … I lived down there during the eruption; I used to stay down there. And every night or in the early morning, someone would bring flowers and put them on my makeshift desk, and sometimes cookies.
“I was the bearer of bad news, and never was it received with any kind of anger or hostility or frustration. We lost over 200 homes down there.”
Keliihoomalu was the patriarch of a family of well-known musicians. He released the CD “Aloha Kaimu” with his late wife, singer G-Girl Keliihoomalu, in 1990, and the album was re-released in 2008. She died in 1996 at 54.
“Their family always played music; their home was surrounded in music and their love for the culture,” Rossetti said.
A son, Patrick Punaikeonaona “Puna” Keliihoomalu, also a musician, died Feb. 15, 2012, three years to the day before his father’s passing, at age 44. He often played music at the awa club, which hosts a farmers market on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings.
“The crowd would always be in the hundreds, sometimes over a thousand,” Kim said, adding he recently chatted with Keliihoomalu at one of the events. “One of the things that he said was, ‘This is the way it’s supposed to be, people having fun, music, food, and just relaxing.’”
Rossetti said the awa club “blossomed out of necessity because people were coming back to Kalapana.”
“The lava wiped out all the special places that people would go,” she said. “The black sand beach was gone; Queen’s Bath was gone. Chain of Craters Road to get up to Wahaula Heiau was gone. There was no reason to go back there. Uncle decided to make a reason and create a wonderful venue for people to come out and hang and learn about Hawaiiana.
“That was his whole thing, to teach people about what it is to be Hawaiian. He worked to revive Kalapana.”
Added Kim, “We’ve just lost a real friend and a reminder of what is special about Hawaii.”
Keliihoomalu left behind a large family. Survivors’ names will be published when a formal obituary is received.