Kalani Pe‘a is not just debuting his album, but himself. The cover photo of his album E Walea is a good indicator that Pe‘a is not a mere a newcomer to the Hawaiian genre; he’s a game-changer. Trading the beach for downtown Wailuku, an aloha T-shirt for a suit, a ukulele for an infectious smile and a shaka for a kalo necktie, you can see Pe‘a is different. But the 33-year-old singer is not trying to defy the status quo of Hawaiian musicians. He’s just being himself.
“I’m a modern Hawaiian,” he says. “That is, a Hawaiian that speaks Hawaiian fluently, and who will rock a purple bowtie and Versace prescribed glasses and will sing ‘Always and Forever’ in Hawaiian and English. That’s who I am.”
Pe‘a rocks the modern Hawaiian juxtaposition, and not just because he showed up to the interview wearing kalo earrings with his Versace glasses. In his album, the musician uses R&B and soul as mediators between millennialism and Hawaiian culture. It is Boyz II Men meets Bruddah Iz.
Allan Cool, Pe‘a’s manager and partner, labeled this hybrid sound as “Kalani style.” It’s not just the influence of R&B that makes Pe‘a’s songs stand apart from the kind that would greet you at the Kahului airport. It’s how he voices his words.
The Kalani style is not a subtle sound you pick out while listening to his seven haku mele (Hawaiian original music compositions) and five covers. Instead of noticing it as an afterthought, Pe‘a’s musical style surprises you mid-song. You can literally hear the soul throughout Pe‘a’s album, in both meanings of the word. In track four, “Hanalei I Ka Pilimoe,” Pe‘a disrupts the relaxed acoustic with a sudden–and powerful–ballad. Then there is the gentle track “Ku‘u Poli‘ahu,” but Pe‘a’s voice does not blend in with the soothing melody. Pe‘a’s lyrics are a force of their own, refusing to camouflage into the background music.
“My musician realized that normal traditional Hawaiian language singers have normal chords like C, F Major,” he says. “My chords are augmented and diminished and little minor chords so there’s a little jazz and R&B.”
Sitting at Maui Coffee Roasters in Kahului, Pe‘a took a break from his snack to demonstrate his distinctive vocal range. Pe‘a half-joked that he could mimic Beyoncé, erasing doubt that he was joking when he launched into her famous line “Baby it’s you, you’re the one I want.” The small talk and orders being yelled in the coffee shop did not muddle the clarity of the Beyoncé lyric. His voice’s ability to resonate, whether it is above the chatter of a crowd or Hawaiian instruments on a recorded track, can also be credited to his roughly four years of training as an opera singer.
While modern music genres and icons like Beyoncé and Luther Vandross inspire Pe‘a, he takes the Hawaiian aspect of his album seriously–if not more. Pe‘a is a fluent Hawaiian speaker who graduated from Ke Kula ‘o Nawahiokalani ‘opu‘u, the Hawaiian Language School in Kea‘au, Puna, in 2001. But Pe‘a is not just an academic Hawaiian. He speaks the language at the dinner table with his family. Pe‘a is also a strong advocate for Hawaiian music to receive its own category at the Grammy Awards.
“Our Hawaiian language must thrive,” he says. “Our people must thrive. And in order for me to do that, I must share that through the composition, through the melodies, and every song.”
For Pe‘a, his album is not merely a collection of songs that happen to be sung in Hawaiian. Rather than looking at the Hawaiian lyrics as a second language, Pe‘a treats them as poetry. That is where the meaning of Pe‘a’s album reveals itself–the poetics. Although the literal meaning of E Walea is “to come together like birds, be elated, exuberant and enjoy,” there are more hidden messages, kaona, to be discovered in Pe‘a’s songs. These cryptic meanings peak through in the images Pe‘a paints as he croons each word. Pe‘a used the image of a lofty flower as an example at Maui Coffee Roasters, explaining how we can compare the Naupaka flower of Hilo to a particular person.
As further proof of Pe‘a’s diligence to the Hawaiian culture, he recruited the alpha dogs of Hawaiian music, recipients of the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards themselves, to bring his album into fruition. For seven months Pe‘a sacrificed airfare money, an amount which he calculated could have bought him two new vehicles, to work with Dave Tucciarone, an engineer and producer in Honolulu who has received 13 Na Hoku Hanohano awards. Then there is Nani Lim Yap, a Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement awardee and singer Pe‘a referred to as the Diana Ross of Hawaii, who performed a duet with Pe‘a in track three, “He Wehi Aloha.”
“That memory, and having her in the studio and being recorded on my album permanently, will be one of the best memories in my life and embedded in me forever,” Pe‘a said.
Being in the presence of two Na Hoku Hanohano awardees is not what overwhelmed Pe‘a’s sentimentality. It was acknowledging that there was a family connection in the room, even if it was not blood-related, that got to Pe‘a. Family is one of Pe‘a’s top values, going so far as to title his album after the shortened version of his nephew’s name, Kamali‘ikanekuikekaipu‘oluwaleaokalani Pe‘a-Whitney. Pe‘a honored his grandmother Mary Ka‘iawe Manuia as well, closing the album with “Nani A Maika‘i,” a church hymn she would sing. But it was a family member who made it possible for Pe‘a’s lyrics to even be coherent.
A speech impediment diagnosis plagued Pe‘a at the age of four. Preschool speech therapy’s attempts at smoothing out Pe‘a’s stammering sentences were fruitless. It was Pe‘a’s mother, Puanani Leonard, who got him talking–or rather, singing–straight. Leonard introduced her then four-year-old son to singing, the child’s first song being “I Feel My Savior’s Love.”
Stuttering and stammering interrupted Pe‘a’s speech less as he went on to compete in a multitude of vocal competitions, winning Brown Bags to Stardom at eight years old and later snagging first place in the men’s category in classical and musical divisions at the National Association Teacher’s of Singing Competition in the Colorado/Wyoming chapter during his time at Colorado Mesa University.
“From speech therapy to being a college graduate in communications, Kalani can’t stop talking and singing,” Arthur Kalani Pe‘a, Pe‘a’s father, said.
Thanks to singing, the child who needed speech therapy in preschool went on to tackle a field in which verbal interaction is mandatory: journalism. Pe‘a worked as an assignment editor at KJCT News 8, an ABC affiliate in Grand Junction, for two years before returning to the islands.
Pe‘a says his decision to return home was not based on a nostalgic whim, a need to return for himself. It was for his community. More specifically, he wanted to give back to his community by educating Hawaii’s children and “to ensure that our future leaders know their Hawaiian identity.” Pe‘a is instilling that sense of identity everyday as a Hawaiian resource coordinator at Kamehameha Schools’ Maui campus.
Being an educator has also pumped up Pe‘a’s reputation as a singer. It’s not only the keiki who look up to their teacher, but the adults, too. On top of being a fluent Hawaiian speaker of 25 years and a graduate from a Hawaiian immersion program, Pe‘a said being a kumu, an instructor, has given him the integrity and credibility that has earned people’s trust.
This faith in Pe‘a’s music is essential given his alternative take on Hawaiian lyrics. When it comes to Hawaiian music, a genre that has so carefully guarded its traditions, it can be understandable for listeners to be hesitant towards Pe‘a’s direction. But Pe‘a is just trying to make his album more accessible to everyone’s tastes.
“It is a hard business because certain people like Hawaiian music a certain way, whether it’s falsetto or whether it’s traditional Hawaiian music, but for me, I hopefully can change that and make my album a little more global,” Pe‘a said.
Pe‘a hopes his album’s global reach will make listeners want to hunker down in a bar in Texas to listen to his cover of “You Are So Beautiful” or perform the hula at Merrie Monarch to his first three tracks. But that is the only impact Pe‘a hopes his album will have, other than hoping listeners simply enjoy themselves.
“I’m not trying to deliver or convey or influence others, I’m just trying to tell others that’s who I am,” Pe‘a said.
Pe‘a shared that his ultimate wish is for people to pick up his purple album, play it, read the lyrics, read a book, light a candle, have a ribeye steak and enjoy your loved one in the midst of everything.
The physical pre-sale for E Walea starts July 22, 2016 on Mele.com. You can buy the digital and physical album on Aug. 5, 2016. If you can’t wait to hear the Kalani-style, tune into KAPA FM, KPOA FM, KWXX FM and KINE in Honolulu, or pre-order Pe‘a’s album on iTunes and you will receive his original song “He Lei Aloha (No Hilo)” and his cover of “You Are So Beautiful” right now.
You can even meet Pe‘a in person on Aug. 4, 2016 in Honolulu at the Willows during Pakele Live for Pe‘a’s CD Release Party. But if you want to impress Pe‘a, wear a bowtie–that’s his signature wardrobe piece.
Click here for more info on Kalani Pe‘a.