It’s Saturday morning at the Waimea Coffee Company: There’s the initial, overwhelming sniff of a powerful roast, the smile of a familiar face, and the strum of live music near the take-out window.
On many of those Saturdays, that voice and guitar is courtesy of Dagan Bernstein.
Bernstein, 39, was born in Pennsylvania before a family move, when he was 5 years old, to a 60-acre coffee and avocado farm south of Kona. The family later moved north to Waimea and Bernstein attended Hawaii Preparatory Academy.
“My connection to coffee goes way back,” Bernstein says, after a recent morning session at the Waimea shop, reminiscing of his time at the Kona acreage. “There was a roaster and coffee tasting (building) they built.”
As for music?
“I’ve been playing music for over 30 years now,” he says. “Started when I was a kid.”
With an easy smile and a welcoming countenance, you can find Bernstein playing guitar and singing at the Big Island Brewhaus, Pukilani Farmers’ Market, Merriman’s Restaurant, Kohala Coffee Mill, and, of course, the Waimea Coffee Company. (Excepting the first Saturday of the month, he plays every Saturday at WCC from 9-11 A.M.) Bernstein delivers a satisfying blend of folk, Paniolo and country.
“Folksy with an Island vibe. Being raised in Hawaii, I try to bring an Island folk vibe,” Bernstein says, gracefully answering the sometimes-awkward question of describing his musical style. He adds later: “Coming from Hawaii, I started to understand the important role of Hawaiian music.”
After graduating high school, Bernstein shifted to the University of Oregon to study linguistics. “Being away from Hawaii,” he says, “I got homesick and music was important.” Also, in a bit of a culture shock, he was surprised that his fellow U of O students hadn’t heard of his Hawaiian musical influences, or the slack-key greats, in particular: “I thought everyone knew Hawaiian music.”
After graduating, he made his way back to the Big Island, working on a farm, giving lessons at a ukulele shop, and “doing whatever.” Soon, he was teaching ukulele at Waimea Country School, and later HPA, where he found a niche as a math teacher and instructor in the HPA middle school ukulele ensemble.
At the 25th Annual Ukulele Festival in 2018 -- featuring middle school students from HPA, Kealakehe and Waikoloa -- Bernstein playfully donned an afro wig and took selfies prior to a Motown number. Georgia Poláková was Bernstein’s music teacher when he was a student at HPA, and now teaches alongside him.
“I can remember Dagan being creative. … Dagan was an individual. He didn’t follow the crowd,” Polákovásays, later adding about when she wanted to hire Bernstein at HPA: “He had done this CD. … I went into my principal and I said, ‘I know he’s on the Island. We should get Dagan.’”
Poláková nearly beams talking about her former student and, now, colleague.
“He’s an amazing teacher now. … It was little steps that took him closer and closer and closer,” Poláková says. “He’s an amazing artist; (things) that I can’t do,” before adding later: “I have to say his character is remarkable; how he relates to the students.”
As for his own music, Bernstein has released two full-length CDs – “Paniolo Music” (2015) and “Change Something” (2016). “There’s another level, there’s a cultural way of defining people and where they’re from,” Bernstein says, talking about the Hawaiian style.
Rachael Scott, a Waimea singer/songwriter and open-mic host at numerous locations, has played on many of the same nights as Bernstein: “His music? Oh, definitely, Paniolo music.”
Jeff Quin, a longtime Waimea-area musician, has played with Bernstein many times through the years. “We’re old friends and I like his music a lot. His latest Hawaiian stuff is really good. He’s really onto something.” Quin adds later in a conversation: “We’d be playing somewhere and he’d play this Hawaiian song and I’d say, ‘Dagan, what song is that?,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, I wrote it.”
Bernstein is currently working on a new album and testing many of the songs on Saturday mornings at the Waimea Coffee Company. “I see how people react, then go home and work on them some more.”
“I like his new approach to country feel. He’s got a very warm, deep vocal, mixed with expert rhythm guitar,” says Mikey, owner of the Waimea Coffee Company. “Always playing something new. His originals are original. And his covers don’t sound like covers.”
Teaching middle school math and music at HPA, Bernstein describes: “I love it. I’m living the dream life.” And playing his own music at coffee shops and farmers’ markets is a way for him to connect back with his hometown.
“I play music at places that are a big part of the community,” Bernstein says, “And to help create a positive experience for people.”
Written By: Timothy Scott | Photos By: Kathrine Kauhane
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