Q+A: Kalani Pe‘a, Grammy Award-Winning Hawaiian Musician
Catch Pe‘a at the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards on Saturday, May 20 on KFVE.
Photos: Courtesy of Kalani Pe‘a, Vision Horse Media, Adam Palumbo
As the Hawaiian music-community gets ready for the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards on Saturday, May 20, one artist is likely to have a very good night: Kalani Pe‘a has been nominated for awards in nine categories for his album, E Walea. This is the album, you'll recall, which already won a Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Music Album–the first Grammy for a Hawai‘i artist since the Best Hawaiian Music Album category went away in 2011. Not bad for a debut effort!
We spoke with Pe‘a to find out more about how E Walea came to fruition, and what’s next for the rising Hawaiian-music star.
HONOLULU: A Grammy Award, nine Nā Hōkū Hanohano nominations—you’ve been having a good year, Kalani …
Pe‘a: I often have to pause and reflect, not only on the successes, but on the many mountains I’m still climbing. It’s been good, though. A lot of people are asking me, is this the highest mountain you’ve climbed? But, from a Hawaiian perspective, we don’t believe in just kūlia i ka nu‘u, striving for the highest mountain and you get to the top and that’s the end. We continue to soar and continue to climb. In Hawaiian, we call it ‘akahi o ho‘omaka, the beginning of every journey. We don’t believe there’s a start and finish line, like a marathon. This is just the start for me, even though I’ve been singing for 30 years, from 4 years old to age 34.
H: How did this whole thing get started?
P: I went from being a karaoke boy singing at a karaoke bar, doing stuff like “Me and Mrs. Jones” in Hawaiian and English. One night, I was singing, and my other half, Allan [B. Cool], looks at me and says, “Are you kidding me? We’ve got to quit this. We already write music, you love to sing, we need to record.” This would have been in 2015, in the summer, around July. We got in touch with [music producer] Dave Tucciarone in September of that year to start recording.
H: Had you performed in public before?
P: It was just at the karaoke level. Prior to that, I was the talent show boy. I had a speech problem; I stuttered so much as a kid. Music definitely saved my life. I tell everyone, ear training, music theory, vocal performance, being able to sing in front of everyone as a kid saved my life. I worked on my stage presence, my vocal capabilities, being a tenor, learning classical music, Earth, Wind & Fire, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s music, I grew up with all of that, because my family is full of musicians. We’re garage-band musicians. I never tell anyone this, but we are.
H: Your parents could you see had talent from an early age?
P: When I was 10 years old, my mom caught me singing in front of mannequins, serenading them. My dad was like, “Uhhhhh.” My mom said, “Honey, I think he’s into music.” My dad said, “No, he’s playing football.” That didn’t happen at all. I tried throwing a football, but that didn’t work. I preferred holding a microphone.
H: Did you ever think of singing as a potential career?
P: I never thought, until my other half told me, “You’ve got your history, you’ve got your family and your friends, and you have people who support you.” Then he said to me, “Can we research producers in Hawai‘i?”
H: Was this your first time in a recording studio?
P: Oh my god, I was so nervous. I pulled up in a rental car and Dave came out. He looked at me and said, “Hi, you’re Kalani Pe‘a? You’re a little late, and you’re also parked in a fire lane. Maybe you can move your car.” But he never sent me home. I came with a humble heart, prayed every day and prepared, mentally and emotionally, to sing in that studio in his condo. We recorded for nine months—beginning in September 2015, and my album was completed in May of 2016.
H: Did you walk into the studio with songs already written?
P: Not at all. I came up with tracks, so I had to work with my musician friend, Kamakoa Lindsey-Asing. He’s played for Napua Greig; I’m not going to list all their names, but he’s been the backbone for a lot of us musicians. And we’re childhood friends. We go all the way back to Brown Bags to Stardom days. I won Brown Bags to Stardom and he was like, “Oh gosh, the king of karaoke, now you’re back.”
H: Did you know the recording process was going to take that long?
P: I thought it was going to take longer. There were days when Dave would say, “OK, your voice is good on this day, your harmonies are good on this day, oh, let’s add four more parts.” I said, I can’t do five parts! He said, “Oh, yes, you can.”
H: Is there a central theme or message to E Walea?
P: I wanted to introduce myself with the word walea. E Walea is the title of the album. Walea is short for my nephew’s name: Kamāli‘ikānekūikekaipu‘oluwaleaokalani. And I wanted to honor my niece and nephews as they are the next generation, and they are into hula, so that they can continue the teachings I’m able to share with them. And so I wanted to honor them by using the word walea, which means to be exuberant, to come together, to be excited, to enjoy each others’ company. This album defines who I am, I want you to be exuberant, be elated, come together like a flock of birds and chirp away.
H: How do you feel about incorporating contemporary elements into traditional Hawaiian music?
P: I have written music on this album that hopefully shows the younger generation, as millennials, it’s OK. It’s OK to wear a lauhala bowtie with Burberry glasses, and wear a Louis Vuitton bag and sing “You Are So Beautiful” in English and Hawaiian. It’s OK to be innovative. I’m not here to please anybody. I am here to show you who I am. I am the guy who will wear the Pineapple Palaka tie and a blazer and shorts with Kalipa slippers, and I go, hey guys, this is my mele about Al Green, or a Stevie Wonder song, “Isn’t She Lovely,” in English and Hawaiian. This is who I am, and I’m not going to change.
H: What was it about the classic song “Noho Paipai” that led you to cover it?
P: We would always play it during Pe‘a family Christmas parties in the garage. Kamakoa [Lindsey-Asing] created this particular version. Some people might think, well, we should have sung it traditionally, the way Uncle John Almeida composed and arranged it. But it’s a fun-loving song. If you really read the kaona behind it, “Noho Paipai” talks about your loved one getting on the rocking chair. You get on the rocking chair, or else, if you don’t, you’ll lose your opportunity. So you better get on that chair, or else someone else will. It’s very metaphoric. And so, for this song, I wanted that big band, 1920s–1930s sound. I wanted that jazz feel. Hey, this is a love song, this a rocking chair song, come and join me or else someone else will!
H: Tell me about the release of the album.
P: We finished the recording in May of 2016. Aug. 1 was the CD release at 6 at Pakele Live!, so mahalo to Lynn Piccoli and Pali Ka‘aihue. Immediately after that day, we hit No. 1 on the iTunes World Music chart. Two weeks later, we were No. 12 on the Billboard World Music chart. I was like, awesome. … Everything just came together. Even just before Halloween, we continued to build relationships, and then submitted E Walea for the Grammys, and found out we were nominated in December.
H: When did you start performing in support of the album?
P: Right after the CD release at Pakele Live!, I immediately got calls. I got a request to sing underneath the Lahaina banyan tree for an event in front of 50 people. And, now, it’s amazing how thousands of people will come out to a show. I’m just so amazed how my mele have impacted so many people. And I cry, because I’m just so elated that people are happy. I never knew how many people would come up to me to tell me about the personal connection they have with certain mele.
H: What’s next for you?
P: I’m going on a world tour starting June 1. I’m leaving my full-time position as a teacher with Kamehameha Schools to become a full-time musician, because I want to and I can. Working as a KS employee, I’ve loved it for eight years, being a Hawaiian resource coordinator and a curriculum developer. I create curriculum for grades 6 through 12, focusing on ‘āina-based and project-based learning, with a Hawaiian language and cultural background. I love creating curriculum.
H: It sounds like you’ll still be in education, just in a different way.
P: Yes, I am. I’ll be educating the community and the world and thinking globally. What is Hawaiian music education? What makes our music unique in the world? What makes Hawaiian music Hawaiian? What makes us innovative and creative? Because, yes, it’s appropriate to have an R&B or contemporary feel to the music, or to sing Hawaiian opera. I plan in the near future to have songwriter summits, and a songwriter haku mele camp, as part of my tours. I am horizon scanning, I am planning ahead with my other half, as we move forward with Kalani Pe‘a music.
H: Tell me about that Grammy night. What’s it like to show up for that event?
P: I was so nervous, to be in Microsoft Theater with all these wonderful musicians. I was wearing my prescription sunglasses, because I was crying. My eyes were swollen. I didn’t expect to be so nervous. Margaret Cho was the emcee, and she told us during the break, OK, if you guys win, you only have 40 seconds to speak, so please don’t read it off a paper, speak from your heart, thank you very much.
When they called my name, E Walea, Kalani Pe‘a, my body went through this whole draw, this emotional feeling where my spirit came out of me, and all I saw was people and laughter and crying, and my mother stood next to me and cried. And my other half stood on the other side. I just didn’t know what to do. I cried and I cried, and I ran down that aisle. When I got to the stage, and I spoke from my heart, I never knew. All I saw was lights, and a shiny stage, and all these radiant faces. All I saw was happiness. All I saw was my kūpuna, surrounding. This spiritual feeling I will never feel again. I never knew E Walea would get recognized in this way. As my other half stood next to me, I acknowledged in my acceptance speech everyone who played an imperative role in my life. My mother, my father, Iosepa Kaho‘oluhi Nāwahī, my idol, and my kūpuna.
And when I got off stage, immediately after that, we got hundreds of emails. And some of them were, like, “Poor thing, that big boy can sing, I heard his music, but he’s wearing those glasses, he must be blind like Stevie Wonder.” So, in my concerts lately, I’ve been dedicating a song to Stevie, and singing, “Isn’t She Lovely.”
H: In the wake of the Grammy win, what kind of attention did you get from the Mainland and beyond?
P: The Grammy has changed my life completely. With humility, it’s given me so many opportunities, so many concerts. I’m booked now until 2020. I never knew how many new doors and windows of opportunity the Grammys could open. It’s such a blessing. I’m just full of love and aloha right now, I can’t even explain.
H: And now the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards are coming up, and you’re nominated in nine categories.
P: It would be a blessing just to bring home one, if can. If cannot, then it’s understood. It’s an honor to be in a room full of aloha for music, musicians who have composed mele aloha ‘āina, mele aloha kanaka, aloha lāhui. However, it’s an honor to be nominated for an award that’s been given to kūpuna I look up to. Genoa Keawe, Auntie Edith Kanaka‘ole and other kumu.
All I know is that, after the Hōkūs, I just need to take a nice vacation somewhere.
H: Have you started thinking about your next album?
P: My producer Dave Tucciarone says, o wela ka hau, the iron is hot, so you gotta get back to the studio. I told him, I want to focus on me again. Going from E Walea, being exuberant and elated, to more of a sense of place, talking about identity. I’m coming up with ideas, but more of a Hawaiian contemporary album. We always want to improve our work. Sometimes artists are never satisfied with what they have. I have composed six or seven new songs already, and I look forward to working on my second album.
H: You’re originally from Hilo, now living in Maui. Do you identify with one more than the other?
P: At this point, I identify myself as kanaka Hawai‘i. I am a native boy of Hawai‘i, but yet my roots are in Hilo. I am proud to be a Hilo native, coming from Pana‘ewa, Hilo, Hawai‘i. And I am also proud to live on this ‘āina, Maui Nui a Kama, because my grandmother’s side, on my dad’s side, comes from Ke‘anae and Hāna. So I have my mo‘okuauhau, my genealogical ties to Maui as well.
H: Do you go back to Hilo often?
P: Oh yes, I have to visit the matriarch, my grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I also go back to visit my mom and my dad, my siblings. But my mom, Pua Leonard, who is the Poli‘ahu in my song—on track 10, I composed a song, “Ku‘u Poli‘ahu,” comparing her to the snow goddess. And there’s a lot of kaona and hidden messages behind that, as my mom went through challenges. I honor her, and my grandmother. She’s the full-time caretaker of my grandmother now. My grandmother was there for me at every contest, at every event. My grandmother inspired me and she actually was a sponsor, she wanted me to get on that Continental Airlines in 2001 and move to Colorado to pursue my education and music, and public relations. And today she forgets my name. Oh my god, you’re going to make me cry. So I honor ku‘u Poli‘ahu, my mother, and my grandmother. And also that song reflects on all the mothers whom we love, whom have passed. I cry on stage every time I talk about this song. It’s a reflection of who I am. Without our mothers, we wouldn’t be here today. They are the biggest cheerleaders in my life, my grandmother and my mom. My grandmother doesn’t remember me, so I have to sing to her. When I went to Hilo for the hula ‘auana competition and spent time with my family, she didn’t remember me, but when I sang to her, in that split moment, in that five seconds, she goes, “Oh my gosh, Kalani!”
I love my family. I am who I am because of my family.
H: It seems as though you’re in the right place at the right time.
P: Everything is just aligned. Our kūpuna, as wayfinders and voyagers, we look to the stars to guide us, and I never knew how much everything would align. Whether I’m talking about my mother and grandmother and Poli‘ahu, or about my love for Maui through song and chant, I never knew how much my album would put in a situation where the opportunities are available not only for me, but available for everyone. If we just seek guidance and knowledge and allow the stars to align, we’ll know the answers to that.