Kalani Pe‘a makes global connections through his music
Kalani Pe‘a is a grammy award-winning recording artist from Hawai‘i Island and currently resides on Maui where he composes and performs music and mele—Hawaiian song. Pe‘a was awarded a national fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in January, 2018 and he will perform at Blue Note Hawaii on Sunday, April 8 at 8:30 p.m. (tickets).
Summit (S): You’re a graduate of Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u Iki: What was it like attending a Hawaiian immersion charter school? What impact has that education had on your development?
Kalani Pe‘a (KP): In all respects, I believe in the program. We started 30 years ago. At 33, now, I’m telling myself that if Hawaiian immersion graduates can get doctorates in Hawaiian language, become medical doctors and lawyers and civil servants, then the program is successful.
What is it like? He aha ia mea ‘o ke kaiapuni, pono e ho‘omaka mai ka pūnana leo a puka kula, he kaiapuni kēlā? ‘O ia paha.
I am grateful to be fully immersed in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. Learning things like Shakespeare in Hawaiian, and chemistry and algebra in Hawaiian; being able to prep for SATs and ACTs—I had good kumu. All of my kumu shaped my life and, therefore, my family and parents. Coming from the Pe‘a family, it certainly shaped my identity; the program shaped who I am as a kanaka, as an educator, as a kaiapuni—a Hawaiian immersion graduate. And I’m so proud.
Ua ho‘omaka wau ma ka papa ‘ekolu, kū wau ma kekahi ‘ao‘ao, he alo a he alo, ma mua o ko‘u mai kumu, ‘o Kauanoe Kamanā, me ‘Anakala Pila Wilson, a mea mai lāua ia‘u “E pa‘akikī ana nō kēia papahana, no ka mea ‘a‘ole ‘oe i ho‘omaka ma ka pūnana leo kaiapuni, a i ‘ole ka papa mālaa‘o, ma nā kanaiwa kēia, akā makemake ‘oe e ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i?” ‘Ōlelo wau “‘Ae, ‘o ko‘u mau kaikaina mā, kaikuahine ke ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i nei lākou, makemake wau e ho‘omaka, makemake wau e ho‘omaka ma ia kula kaiapuni o Keaukaha.” A no laila, ho‘omaka wau, papa ‘ekolu. Hemahema, pā‘ewa, kānalua ka ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i ma ka puana, ma ka ‘ōlelo, ua ‘ōlelo wau, “Ua aia wau ma ka hale... ua aia?” hū ka ‘aka o nā keiki a pau, eia na‘e ua ho‘omaka wau.
S: If you look at the new crop of leaders coming up in the Hawaiian community, you have people like Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, who is another immersion charter school grad. If you look at the last 40–60 years of our community, none of our makua attended Hawaiian language schools; they did not have the opportunity to learn through that framework of understanding the world. How has that affected you and your world view?
KP: It’s OK to be bilingual. It’s OK to speak both languages eloquently, because we can. He ikaika, he makau, he ‘i‘ini, he aloha. We are capable. Kalākaua traveled the world to build relationships and to seek new ideas and to be innovate. It’s OK for Hawaiian people to do the same, but it’s up to us to make that choice. My parents didn’t force me to be part of the immersion program. ‘A‘ole lākou i ho‘okuleana, ‘a‘ole i ho‘okoi, ‘a‘ole lākou i pahu a kauoha ia‘u e ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, ua koho wau i kēlā no ka mea ua komo ka ‘i‘ini, ke aloha, ke kuko, ka makemake i loko o‘u e poeko a walewaha, because I could, and because our kūpuna had led me there.
After so many years I’ve come to the realization that the Hawaiian language is not dying at all. We are blooming. Ua mōhala—flourishing—like every other flower out there, and we have to work together—paio like. It’s OK that we come from different perspectives. Our lāhui have different ideas and perspectives and that makes us a strong lāhui. But we must paio like and remember to come together and have intellectual conversations, whether it’s in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, whether it’s in English, whether it’s in Japanese or in French.
I think the Hawaiian immersion program is the best thing that happened in my life. And my parents supported all four of us. And we have grandchildren—mo‘opuna—in the program now. They’re considered mānaleo. Mānaleo are Hawaiian native speakers who start speaking as soon as the parent gives birth to the child. From birth, from the piko, the parents are already speaking to them in Hawaiian. So my nieces and nephews are mānaleo, and one of my nephews is Walea, which is the title of my album, E Walea.
S: One of the songs on that album is about Lononuiākea; tell us about the history of that name.
KP: Lononuiākea is an old name for Moku o Keawe, the Big Island of Hawai‘i. It connects to the different akua that pertain to the god Lono. Lono is the deity known for bringing wealth and life and prosperity to the ‘āina—to the land. So whether we are talking about the various ua—the rain names of places like Hilo and the mist-like rain known as Kanilehua—Lono plays a pivotal role as the god of wealth and life-giving.
Lononuiākea is my home. I hail from Hilo and Kona, so the oli “Eō Lononuiākea” talks about various famous places—wahi pana—in Hilo, Kona and other places I have lived where we see Lono: in hāloa, the kalo plant, and how Lono feeds the kalo or how Lono feeds the natural resources of the ‘āina. I am describing all of those elements in this particular oli or chant.
I had to sing about Lononuiākea, the place that I lived. I currently live on Maui; so I had to create a mele—oli mahalo no Maui—showing love to a place of wao akua, of the heavenly skies, of places like Haleakalā, to the four great waters of Kāne, the god of water: Nā Wai ‘Ehā. I had to bring up these names because they play an imperative role in our lives through the resources that we consume: wai—or water, food, the elements that we live in—we have to acknowledge them, from the earth to the rivers to the sea.
S: Kahi mea e pili ana iā Waolani, ‘eā?
KP: No laila, ‘ae, ‘O Waolani, ‘ae, nānā ke kahe nei ka hou, ho‘oku‘u wau i ke kope ma ka ‘ao‘ao i ‘ole e hele a ha‘alulu. ‘Ae, ma loko nō o nā mele i haku ‘ia ma ka‘u sēdē, ua hāpai wau i kēlā me kēia mele, ua makemake wau e hāpai i nā inoa hanohano me nā wahi pana o nā mokupuni a pau ma loko nō o kēia pā sēdē ‘o E Walea. ‘O ka walea, ‘o ia ka hō‘ike ‘ana i ka nanea, ka makemake ‘ana e muimuia, a haiamū e like me kēia, a nanea mai.
“Walea” means to be exuberant, to be elated and, therefore, to have some sort of interaction with people. That’s how we begin, as Hawaiians, when we meet one another. At first sight, we talk about each other’s genealogy or mo‘okū‘auhau. We first start off with launa kānaka—with associations—and that’s how we build a connection with someone. So in terms of making this album, I had created mele over the years that defined the different famous places where I lived, that define the lives of my kūpuna, my ancestors, my loved ones from Maunawili—“He Wehi Aloha” talks about the beauty of Maunawili and Waolani of O‘ahu. It’s a love story; there’s poetry and kaona—hidden message.
S: Tell me about Makawalu Ke Ānuenue.
KP: ‘Ae. Makawalu Ke Ānuenue, ‘o ka mana‘o o kēlā mele, ‘o ka mana‘o‘i‘o o ka makawalu, ‘o ia nō nā mea nui ka heluna nui, ‘o nā aouli, ‘o nā ‘ano anuenue like ‘ole, he hō‘ailona kēlā no ke aloha, ‘o ka makemake, ‘o ka hō‘ike ‘ana i ka pili aloha me kekahi kanaka. He mele ia i pili, ma waena o kēia mau kānaka ‘elua, ‘o Hina me ka pēpē, ‘o Kauila, ‘o ke aloha o kēia ali‘i. I loko o kēia, he mea pili i Nāmakaokana me kāna mo‘olelo, ‘oiai ‘ike kākou i ka hula, a ‘ike ‘ia nō, ‘o ka piko o ka hula, aia nō i Moloka‘inuiahina. I loko nō o kēia mele ke aloha ma waena o kēia po‘e, nui nā mele like ‘ole, a wala‘au wau no ka nani o Molokai kekahi. No ka mea, kēia ali‘i wahine o Molokai, ua nui kona aloha iā Hina, eia na‘e, ‘o Hina, ‘a‘ole i hō‘ike nui ‘ia ke aloha iā ia. Ma loko nō o kona ho‘ā‘o nui ‘ana e hō‘ike i kona aloha nui iā ia, iā Hina, ua hō‘eu‘eu iā ia i ke aloha. Ma loko o Kaiolohia, loa‘a nō nā inoa ‘āina.
I make use of linked assonance. So I go from the name winds to the name of the different rains in that area of Molokai. Nā moani is a type of breeze, so when I’m talking about the breeze—the name wind of Molokai—I’m talking about how that wind touches your ‘ili and embraces you. It’s the feeling of love and passion and the desire between the ali‘i and Hina. So it’s a love story. And it also ties us right back into hula. Because, evidently, that song should be taught with hula, however there’s a little R&B twist to it, and oloka‘a ka maka as people listened to that song, they thought Kalani was a little Aotearoa, or a little Bryan McKnight or Luther in this.
I did this because it describes me as a millennial; as an innovative Hawaiian artist. I listen to The Temptations, Luther Vandross, Genoa Keawe, Robert Cazimero, because I grew up in that Earth, Wind and Fire time—my dad is a bass player with that R&B style. And then all of a sudden I have this twist of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. But it’s OK. If people can dance to a 3/4 waltz, they can dance to this R&B love song between Hina and Kaupepe e Kauwila.
S: I’m really interested in the process of creating J-pop and K-pop in Japan and Korea. There’s the music itself, and then there’s the entire distribution and marketing model that supports those new art forms. How do we make H-pop?
KP: Let’s start right now. I’ll grab a microphone and sing “Always and Forever” in English and Hawaiian, which is on my album, or Joe Cocker’s version of “You Are So Beautiful,” or Uncle O’Brien Eselu’s version, while ‘Iwalani Ho‘omanawanui ‘Apo plays the piano, ho‘okani. That’s who I am. I believe you can be successful outside of traditional Hawaiian audiences and that type of mele. It’s OK to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, Hiki ke ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, unuhi kūpono, haku mele kūpono, e ho‘ohana i nā mēiwi kaona kūpono. Kama‘āina ‘oe i kou kahua.
And how are we going to get there? ‘Ae, he pūnāwai nō ho‘i kēlā, no ka mea ma loko nō o ko kākou mau pīko‘u, maopopo kākou i ko kākou honua, ko kākou ‘ike hohonu. ‘A‘ohe pono kekahi e ho‘ona‘auao iā kāua, maopopo ‘oe, Mika Hussey, kama‘āina ‘oe i kou lawena kou loina, ‘o kāua kēlā. ‘A‘ole pono ‘o ha‘i e ha‘i iā kākou i ke ‘ano o ko kākou ola, nohona kanaka, ua kama‘āina kākou i kēlā, ua ‘ike ko kākou mau kūpuna i kēlā, mai ke Kumulipo a i kēia wā, ua ‘ike le‘a kākou i nā ha‘ina a pau, eia na‘e.
I never thought that I would win a Grammy. I pinch myself everyday thinking that it was just a dream—a moemoeā. I really do. I cried at the State Capitol when the governor and the House of Reps recognized me for Hawaiian music and perpetuating ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i through haku mele Hawai‘i, but yet in a contemporary style. I am a millennial Hawaiian—I’m proud. I’m here to carry and lift—to ‘auamo—the ‘ike of my kūpuna, the ‘ike of my parents, and to share that through story and mele.
Mele helps us share our stories. Mele helps us share legacies. Mele allows us to share who we are, to identify ourselves. I love mele Hawai‘i. I love all types of mele. I plan to do an opera number on my second album with Dave Tucciarone. My vocal teacher is an opera teacher who was taught by Luciano Pavarotti. It’s possible to do Hawaiian opera, it’s possible to do Hawaiian pop, to do Hawaiian R&B. Singing a Spanish love song like “Qué Pronto?” I can do it in Hawaiian.
After the Grammy win, there were he mau kaukani, o nā leka like ‘ole, nā leka uila, kaukani, mai nā haumāna o ka ‘āina, o ka honua, ‘Enelani, Nūhōlani, mai Tahiti, e ‘ōlelo ia‘u i kēia: “‘Ae, Mahalo, e Kalani. I sing this kind of music. Is it possible for me to win a Grammy?” And now I can say, “It is possible.”
I tell students of all ages that it is possible to win. And when you win, ha‘i ‘ōlelo ‘oe mai kou na‘au, ‘a‘ole pono e kahakaha pepa. Mai kahakaha i kou mana‘o ma ka pepa. ‘O ko kākou kūpuna, walewaha wale, e ha‘i ‘oe i kou mana‘o mai ka pu‘uwai, ‘oiai he ha‘alulu, ‘oiai kāhāhā, akā e nokenoke i ka mea e pono ai. E ‘ōlelo ‘oe i kou mau mana‘o. Ulu wale, haku wale, ā ola. And they all write back saying that they’re going to continue to pursue their music. “Can I do Hawaiian rap?” “Yeah, you ever heard of Sudden Rush? Sure you can!”
We can take it to a global level. We cannot think that Hawai‘i is the only place where we can perpetuate Hawaiian language and music. We have to do our best to network, and my goal was not just to win a Grammy, but to network—launa kānaka. I had to build relationships with producers. I gave my album to producers of Adele, Beyoncé and Drake. I cried because they embraced it. It’s all about sharing.
And once we network and build uapo—bridges and relationships—that is where we can see that Makawalu Ke Ānuenue, the multiple rainbows in that sky, the pilina, the connections. If we don’t make those pilina, he aha ka hopena? What are the outcomes? Our kūpuna have always taught us to make those connections because while we make those connections, we create positive outcomes.