THIS YEAR HAS been momentous for Hawai‘i Island-raised singer/songwriter Kalani Pe‘a. An artful ensemble of 12 songs in Hawaiian and English, E Walea, his debut album, scored a Grammy for best regional roots music album—an impressive first for an island recording artist. (The performer confesses he was ready to chant and hula his way up to the stage.) Then came an even more meaningful event when the native son was honored by his musical peers with best contemporary album at the 2017 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards in Honolulu. While he was busily preparing for concerts at home and for a tour in Japan, Pe‘a took a moment to share his thoughts on his globe-trekking adventure so far.
You’re a native of Pana‘ewa in Hilo on Hawai‘i Island. How has coming from such a special place influenced your perspective and music?
Our kumu waiwai (natural and cultural resources) are here in Hawai‘i—in front of our eyes and in our backyard. We belong here, as my ancestors and forefathers voyaged the seas as wayfinders. They were skilled people, smart and industrious, and settled in Hawai‘i—making it our home as the first settlers.
Your debut album is called E Walea. Tell us a bit about the title?
E Walea means to be exuberant and be elated while coming together like a flock of birds and enjoying one another’s company. Walea is short for my nephew’s name Kamāli‘i-kānekūikekaipū‘oluwaleaokalani. He is the eldest of my nieces and nephews. I gave him the name, and I wanted to honor him and the next generation of the Pe‘a grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The album features several original compositions. What are your favorites?
I love my entire album, and this is really hard to decide. But my two favorite original songs are ‘He Lei Aloha no Hilo’ and ‘Ku‘u Poli‘ahu.’ The first takes you to my hometown in Hilo. ‘Ku‘u Poli‘ahu’ is a song about my mother, Pua, to whom I compare the snow goddess.
You now live and work on Maui—and you’ve included a song (“Oli Mahalo No Maui”) honoring that island on the album as well. How is life on Maui?
Four years on Maui have gone by fast. My lifetime partner, business partner and manager Allan Cool, and I bought our beautiful home in Wailuku, and we love every bit of it. We miss Hawai‘i Island, but we’ve truly made Maui our home. We love to swim in ‘Īao Stream in our backyard and pick palapalai (lace ferns) and ‘awapuhi (ginger) to create a lei and observe these beautiful resources from my home, where you can see Mauna Leo or Mauna Lī‘ō down to Kanaloa (the ocean). ‘Oli Mahalo No Maui’ is an oli (chant) composed by Kalehua Simeona and me, and I wanted to honor everything about Maui.
Very few Hawaiian music artists have won a Grammy—especially for a debut album. How was that experience for you? You definitely looked elated on camera!
I can’t believe it still. I was surprised and honored to run that aisle in L.A. with open arms while receiving my first Grammy. I felt my kūpuna (ancestors) and mākua (parents) with me that day. I felt my other half being my backbone and biggest cheerleader.
What can we expect from you in the months to come?
I have more Japan and West Coast tours, as well as shows and concerts scheduled throughout the year, and next year in Hawai‘i and abroad. I am also writing music for the second album. I am excited each day.
Speaking of all the hats you wear, they’re definitely part of your wardrobe. How did that come about?
I own between 50 to 60 pairs of Kangol paperboy caps. I love them!
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