Kalani Pe‘a’s big leap
Sold-out Japan tour just the beginning
Winning both a Grammy and a Na Hoku Hanohano award for his debut album, and with touring offers pouring in, Kalani Pe’a had to make a difficult decision. It was time to give up his day job as a Hawaiian resource coordinator at Kamehameha Schools and devote his energy full-time to a music career.
Talking before heading to Japan for a sold-out, four-city tour, Pe’a is still feeling awed by the extraordinary confluence of his life since he released “E Walea” in August last year.
“I’m just so thrilled that so many things have happened, and so many things are still happening,” he says. “My producer wants me back in the studio, and I’m collaborating with other artists trying to create a Hawaiian language radio show. I’m appreciating these opportunities and diving into this wonderful wave, surfing it and enjoying this ride as it’s allowing me to pursue my dreams.”
The first Hawaii recording artist to win both a Grammy and a Na Hoku award for the same album, Pe’a will mark the one year anniversary of “E Walea’s” release with a concert in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s McCoy Studio Theater in Kahului on Aug. 5.
“I’m still tripping out,” he says. “The Grammys have allowed me to be a full-time musician. I’m going to California and New York in September, and Japan next week. I’m booked until the end of the year. I can’t even keep up with my own life. I have to always turn to Allan (Cool, his manager/fiance), ‘what is going on with me?’ He’s beyond my manager; he’s the love of my life.”
The praise has been mounting for this gifted, passionate artist, who is fluent in Hawaiian. Mayor Harry Kim on Hawaii Island proclaimed a “Kalani Pe’a Day” on Feb. 18, for bringing “great honor and prestige to his home Hawaii.”
In March the State House of Representatives honored him with an official proclamation. It began — “It is vital that Native Hawaiian culture and the arts be perpetuated for future generations: Kalani Pe’a is a torchbearer and we recognize his accolades, accomplishments and continued work on behalf of Native Hawaiians.”
“I want to ensure, as a Hawaiian- language speaker, that the Hawaiian language lives on through music and art, and that it is perpetuated so we are just not a dot on the map,” he emphasizes. “We are the people. We are the piko, the umbilical chord. We are the puuwai, the heart of the world.”
Born in Hilo and now happily residing on Maui, Pe’a has strong roots here.
“My father’s family comes from Keanae,” he says. “My great- grandfather comes from Maui. I have Maui ties all the way to Piilani. The MACC show means so much to me because I live here. This is home. My mom is flying in, who I honor in one of my mele. I know it will be an emotional night of crying because I never knew I would have all of these blessings. I’m so blessed.”
Gifted with a gorgeous voice and a flair for composing resonant Hawaiian songs, his exceptional debut album established him as a major, innovative figure in contemporary Hawaiian music. He’s now looking forward to recording a follow up early next year.
“I’ve been writing about places in Hawaii and I have a theme for the next album,” he reports. “I wrote a song about my grandmother while sitting in Wailuku Coffee Company a few weeks ago and I was just scrolling through pictures. My grandmother resides in Hilo and suffers from Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t remember me until I sing to her. She was a big support in my education endeavors and music. So I wrote a song about her in 10 minutes.”
Along with original haku mele, his debut album included a few covers ranging from Hawaiian treasures to pop favorites. The new album will also feature a cover — a ’70s pop classic he says is sung in Hawaiian and English.
Having earned recognition from his peers by winning a Na Hoku Hanohano award in May, Pe’a was especially heartened by the positive feedback he recently received from Molokai legend Melveen Leed.
“I was at a performance last weekend and Aunty Melveen Leed turned to me and said, ‘You’re such a ball of joy. It’s your turn. It’s beautiful that there are upcoming artists like you.’ It was awesome.”
SOJA’s lead singer Jacob Hemphill got so tired of seeing doom and gloom stories on TV that he composed a new song, “Bad News,” to encourage people to turn it off.
“I’m tired of turning on the TV and it’s always bad news,” says Hemphill. “There are a lot of horrible things going on in the world today, and there are also a lot of great things happening, but media puts the negative on blast in order to get higher ratings. The country feels like it’s in two separate pieces right now and we wanted to come out and say while everyone can easily guess what side SOJA is on, the only thing that matters is we somehow find a way to unite, because what’s going on right now is completely insane.”
Known for fusing inspiring messages with stirring roots rhythms, the Grammy-nominated band is adept at uplifting people with catchy melodies while addressing serious issues.
The timely “Bad News” is taken from SOJA’s latest studio album which will be released shortly.
“I really love this new record,” says Hemphill. “We went back and listened to a record we did 10 years ago called ‘Born in Babylon.’ What was so great about the record was we wrote it together and we arranged and recorded and produced it together. Every one of the members was there for every step of the way.
“Then people start phoning it in or emailing parts for a record because we’re on the road so much. We said we’ve got to stop this. You get further and further away from what the magic was. So this whole record was written, arranged, produced and recorded together with all eight of us in a room.”
Originally formed in 1997, SOJA comprises Hemphill on vocals and guitar, bassist Bobby Lee Jefferson, keyboardist Patrick O’Shea, guitarist Trevor Young, percussionist Ken Brownell, drummer Ryan Berty, saxophonist Hellman Escorcia and trumpeter Rafael Rodriguez.
An avid reggae fan since his teen years, Hemphill was most inspired by Bob Marley to become a musician.
“He was the greatest poet I ever heard,” he recalls. “It didn’t matter what color or age you were he could talk to anybody. Bob Marley was like if Martin Luther King, Jr. had a band, if Mother Teresa had a band, if Jesus Christ had a band. That’s how I looked at him. He was a prophet who wanted one love, one life, let’s get together, let’s be alright.”
Since their formative days SOJA’s popularity has gradually increased. Their 2012 album, “Strength to Survive,” topped the Billboard reggae chart and was hailed as one of the best reggae albums of the year. The band’s last two albums were both honored with Grammy nominations —“Amid the Noise and Haste,” in 2014, which featured collaborations with Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, Michael Franti, and Maui’s Anuhea, and “SOJA: Live In Virginia,” released in 2016.
Hawaii has long been a favorite destination for the band. In 2009, they paid tribute to their avid following here with the documentary DVD “SOJA: Live in Hawaii.”
“Hawaii showed us the dream,” he says. “Hawaii showed us that you are not a garage band, you’re a band that people want to watch. It was the first time I had ever heard myself on the radio and on TV. It’s always the place for us.”
• SOJA headlines the MayJah RayJah music festival at 5 p.m. Saturday at the MACC’s A&B Amphitheater. Gates open at 4 p.m. The lineup includes New Zealand’s reggae stars Katchafire and ManaLion from Australia. Advance tickets are $49 for general admission and $99 for VIP (plus applicable fees), and $59 for general admission and $109 for VIP (plus applicable fees) day of show. For tickets or more information, visit the box office, www.mauiarts.org or call 242-7469.
The Mana Maoli Collective will release a new music video soon that blends “Island Style” with “Oiwi E,” in honor of the Cruz Ohana, especially Ernie Cruz Sr., Ernie Jr. and Guy, who recently passed, and revered kumu hula John Keolamaka’ainana Lake.
The amazing lineup of participating artists in the video includes John Cruz, Jack Johnson, Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom, Paula Fuga, Natalie Ai Kamauu, Eli-Mac, Lehua Kalima, Taimane, Tavana, Kamakakehau Fernandez, Josh Tatofi, Glenn Awong, Nick Navales, Lion Fiyah, Pomaika’i Lyman and Shawn Pimental.