By T. Ilihia Gionson
He’s come a long way from the entertainment tent at the Hawai‘i County Fair! As Kalani Pe‘a stood on the stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to accept the Grammy for Regional Roots Album for his debut album E Walea, he knew that it was the lessons and values learned growing up on Hawai‘i Island that got him there.
Hānau A Hānai ‘Ia Ma Hilo (Hilo Born And Bred)
Kalani was born and raised on the Hawaiian homestead in Pana‘ewa. While he was in preschool, a teacher identified a speech impediment and referred Kalani to a therapist.
“I stammered and stuttered, stuttered and stammered a lot,” Kalani says, “but my mom (Pua Leonard) figured that singing would be key.” That was Kalani at four years old, and he hasn’t stopped singing yet—long after the speech impediment was gone.
Kalani’s dad, Arthur Pe‘a, who comes from a musical family, introduced him to jazz and big band music. He grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music—Luciano Pavarotti, Luther Vandross, Genoa Keawe, even The Lim Family. (Little did Kalani know then that he would later collaborate with Nani Lim Yap on the song “He Wehi Aloha”.) You can hear these multi-genre influences when Kalani sings.
Arthur and Pua encouraged Kalani to take vocal lessons, join choir, and enter talent competitions. Early performance venues included the Hilo Medical Center lobby, the entertainment tent at the Hawai‘i County Fair, and the pool at Hilo High where Kalani and friends won the Brown Bags To Stardom competition in high school. He also won the National Association of Teachers of Singing Competition while he was in college.
Although Kalani’s artistic talent isn’t limited to singing—he is also a talented visual artist who illustrated five Hawaiian language children’s books—singing always had his heart.
Kalani grew up in Hawaiian language immersion schools, attending Ke Kula Kaiapuni O Keaukaha for elementary school, and graduating from Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u in Kea‘au. He went on to Mesa State University in Colorado, earning a degree in Mass Communications. While at Mesa State, Kalani was exposed to opera singers who added to his training.
Back home in Hawai‘i and working as a Hawaiian Resource Coordinator with Kamehameha Schools–first in Kona, then on Maui–Kalani kept singing. Friends and family knew that if there was a song to sing, a microphone to hold, Kalani would be right there. “I love singing, just being so free. It’s la‘au lapa‘au (medicine) for me.”
“Ua Lawa Ka Hīmeni Manuahi!”(“Quit all of this singing for free!”)
Turning his love for singing into a career came at the behest of Kalani’s fiancé, Allan Cool. “So I’m sitting in Lava’s (a karaoke bar in Wailuku, Maui) with my other half, and I’m gonna sing a Luther Vandross song,” Kalani remembers. “Allan looks at me and says, ‘You gotta quit this! Quit all of this singing for free!’”
“He would just sing, and it would turn into a party,” Allan elaborates. “A mini-concert! It wasn’t just karaoke, was a mini-show. I told him, we have to put the music you’ve composed—Hawaiian music, Hawaiian contemporary soul music, your favorite covers, on an album.”
Although they both had full-time jobs—Kalani at Kamehameha Schools, Allan as a manager for a retail store—they put in the work and investment to make Kalani’s debut album a reality.
“Could I be a full-time musician? I prayed about it, and I had to have my fiancé’s support. He helped me soar,” Kalani recalls. “And of course, my parents and ‘ohana have always supported me.”
Kalani and Allan found their producing partner through a chance encounter one year at the Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, where Allan was doing makeup for a hālau that was performing.
Kamakoa Lindsey-Asing, a Waimea boy, is a member of the group Ho-a and Project Kuleana. He had also been working with legendary producer and engineer Dave Tucciarone, who has more than 300 albums under his belt including many Hawai‘i Island artists. Kamakoa and Dave agreed to talk story with Kalani, and they embarked on the adventure of recording E Walea in September 2015.
Ua Hana A Walea (Practice Makes Perfect)
For as much as Kalani had sung in his life until that point, he was very much aware that recording an album would be something quite different. “You’re recording music that will be with you for the rest of your life. Every sound, every dynamic, every crescendo, every vibrato, will be recalled and remembered,” he says.
It turns out all that karaoke paid off, Kalani says. “You Are So Beautiful”, his take on the soulful Joe Cocker classic with a mix of original and new Hawaiian lyrics, was recorded in one take—a rarity in Dave’s studio. Commuting back and forth between Maui and Dave’s studio in Honolulu, E Walea was completed in May 2016.
Selecting the 12 songs that would be part of E Walea was important to Kalani. There are songs he sang growing up—“Nani A Maika‘i” from church, “E Nā Kini” from school. There are Kalani’s twists on songs he loves singing at karaoke, like “You Are So Beautiful” and Luther Vandross’ “Always and Forever”. There are originals for special people and places, like “Hanalei I Ka Pilimoe” and “Ku‘u Poli‘ahu”.
“Aloha wau i nā mele a pau ma ia sēdē (I love each and every song on this album),” Kalani says. “Ua noho au me ka maluhia a kālailai kūpono i kēia mau mele a pau. (I sat for a while and put a lot of thought into choosing these songs.)”
Of special interest to Kalani are the songs about the places he loves: “He Lei Aloha No Hilo” for his childhood home, “Eō Lononuiākea” for his time living in Kona, “Oli Mahalo No Maui” for his newly adopted home.
“He mea nui ka hāpai ‘ana i nā inoa o nā wahi pana, i ola nā inoa kūpono o kēlā me kēia ‘āina—‘o ka ‘ili, ke ahupua‘a, pono e hāpai i kēlā mau mea a pau!” (It’s important to recall the names of our places so that they will continue to be passed on—every part, every ahupua‘a, we must use them!”)
E Walea means to come together, to enjoy each others’ company. The musical styles that come together on the album are an eclectic mix that quite faithfully reflects Kalani himself. “It’s OK to be innovative, creative, spontaneous, and authentic,” Kalani says. “I’m not a traditional artist, I’m not an R&B artist, I’m not an opera singer. I’m Kalani Pe‘a who sings Hawaiian contemporary soul. I’m all about that.”
Ka Lei O Ka Lanakila (Wearing The Lei Of Victory)
E Walea was released to the world on August 5, 2016, and it skyrocketed to the top of the iTunes World Music Charts on its release date. Two weeks later, the album hit No. 12 on the Billboard World Music Chart. Kalani is humbled that people connect with his music. “Ua nui ‘ino ke aloha o nā kānaka like ‘ole no kēia mau mele!” (All kinds of people are very drawn to these songs!)
The quick success was a blessing that kept Kalani and Allan quite busy.
“People think we have a hui (team) of marketers, public relations people, photographers. It’s just the both of us,” Kalani says. “We have office hours. We sit. We have our laptops out. We strategize. They call it horizon scanning—what are the ‘ōpua (clouds) out there? What will give us the inspiration to create?”
Even though Kalani knew he had something special in E Walea, it got real when the album got nominated for a Grammy in the Regional Roots category. He got the news of his nomination in December. On February 12, 2017, former karaoke singer Kalani Pe‘a became a Grammy winner.
His Grammy acceptance speech went between song and speech, between Hawaiian and English. “Music saved my life,” he said, sharing the story of his childhood speech impediment.
He quoted Joseph Kaho‘oluhi Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u, the 19th century legislator, composer, newspaper editor, artist, educator, and musician for whom Kalani’s alma mater is named. “Hele aku au me ka mana‘o pa‘a, I will strive to move forward with dignity. Paio aku au me ka mana‘o koa, I will go forward like a warrior. Lanakila au me ka mana‘o pono, I will win and wear that laurel of achievement with righteousness and equality. Mākaukau au me ka mana‘o wiwo‘ole, I am ready to set sail with courage, dignity, and honor for my people.”
When Kalani won the Grammy, it was the first award for a Hawai‘i artist since the academy discontinued the Hawaiian Music Album category in 2011. It was also the first Grammy for Dave, his producer and engineer. Kalani later added the 2017 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Contemporary Album Of The Year to E Walea’s accolades.
Kalani still gets back to Hawai‘i Island often to visit family—mom, dad, grandma, siblings, and extended family are still here—and to perform. He attracted one of the largest crowds at the Hui Kāko‘o Concert Series at Keauhou Shopping Center in late 2016. Just days after winning the Grammy, Kalani was back at his alma mater, Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u, performing at their benefit Pūlama Mauli Ola.
And yes, during Merrie Monarch week, he was out and about in Hilo. For this interview, we met at Freddy’s Restaurant (the quietest place we could think of) between his performances at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Festival, and at his CD release party in the Crown Room at the Grand Naniloa Resort.
“My heart is filled with love as I go through this journey. These awards don’t define who I am,” Kalani says. “Yes, I’ve achieved one milestone in my life. But you know what? ‘Akahi a ho‘omaka. He ho‘omaka wale nō kēia. (We have just begun. This is only the beginning.) We don’t believe that you start something then finish—we must continue to learn new things.” ❖
Kalani will be performing at Kahilu Theatre in Waimea on October 21, sharing music from E Walea. Details are TBD. For details on this and other shows, follow Kalani on social media @KalaniPeaMusic, and visit KalaniPeaMusic.com.
by Kalani Pe’a
Mauna Kea kilakila keu a ka u‘i
Luhiehu ka makua o ku‘u lani
Poli‘ahu ka wahine kapa hau anu
Pumehana ka wahine e ‘apo mai ē
Majestic Mauna Kea, oh, you’re exquisite
The most appealing guardian, my heavenly one
Covered in the blanket of the snow, you are
This warmth of love, she embraces us
Ke Ola Magazine asked Kalani what his favorite song is on his debut album, E Walea.
He loves each and every song, but one song did stand out–”Ku‘u Poli‘ahu.” “I shed tears because I often think about why I chose this. I shed tears of joy because it has such significance.”
When he was a high school junior at Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u in 2000, Kalani and his classmates had already started taking courses at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. One course that Kalani took was traditional Hawaiian song composition with longtime professor and legendary composer Larry Lindsey Kimura.
“My mother was going through some trials and tribulations at the time. I compared those to the thunder and lightning on Mauna Kea,” Kalani says. Even with all that was going on, his mother never wavered in her commitment to her children–covering them with her love much as the snow goddess Poli‘ahu blankets the peaks of our mountains with snow. “She is beautiful, luhiehu–gorgeous, exquisite.”
“I also dedicate this mele to other mothers who nurture their children. Without our moms, we wouldn’t be here. We need to cherish our kūpuna and mākua.”