The kumu sessions
September 15, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
Barefoot, in cargo shorts and black polo shirt, Keali‘i Reichel took the McCoy Studio Theater stage one recent evening, expressing his trademark nervousness as he dived into the untested waters of a new concert format dubbed “Solo Sessions.”
It didn’t take long for him to realize, “I really, really like it.”
It didn’t take the audience long, either. Almost three hours after the performance began, the full-house crowd still sat motionless, spellbound, not wanting the evening to end.
In that time, the self-effacing performer shared the mele (songs), the hula, the oli (chant), the wisdom and the mana that have established him as an incredibly popular singer, a revered kumu hula — and one of the most articulate voices of his culture.
And funny, too.
To be precise, it wasn’t solely a solo show. Although he spent much of the evening alone on stage, he brought his band and enough dancers from his award-winning Halau Ke‘alaokamaile to share that space with him and spill over into the wings. It was their normal class night, he explained —they were required to attend.
As opposed to the grander scale of their annual Castle Theater concerts, McCoy added the intimacy of looking right into the dancers’ eyes — seductive reflecting pools, shining with ancient knowledge — as they executed the synchronized sensuality of hula.
The close proximity of the audience also served Reichel when he was alone. The questions he invited from the audience early in the evening wrote the script for what followed.
The questions — informed, respectful and provocative —might lead to a song, a chant, a hilarious recollection. As impressive as Reichel’s many talents was his ability to be so totally in the moment. The little shrugs and shy smiles camouflaged how masterfully he worked the unscripted questions into a spontaneous ebb and flow, as compelling and riveting as a fully staged drama.
Reichel’s candor about himself was disarming. Not only did he admit that his guitar playing was limited to six or seven chords — he demonstrated the point when he kept having to be reminded where to put the capo. Chords weren’t identified by letters, but by numbers corresponding to frets on the guitar neck.
He shared stories of the sometimes painful personal circumstances that had led to some of his most beautiful ballads. This knowledge in no way diminished the chicken skin of hearing him sing them.
He confided that for many years, he didn’t realize “In My Life” had been written by the Beatles. His description of his earliest hula training while a student at Lahainaluna was equally modest. He was the dancer whose costume always “accidentally” got left behind when the young dancers did their weekly performance at a nearby shopping center.
As opposed to letting these embarrassing beginnings scar him for life, he made them the foundation for a hula legacy that not only imprints each of his dancers, but has taken awards at the most prestigious of hula events, the Merrie Monarch, in the two years since he first entered.
Reichel answered a question about the other half of his ancestry. His father is “from Deutschland,” he acknowledged. He spent a year of his adolescence living there, becoming fluent in the language.
It was one more dimension of this complicated, brilliant artist who revealed that “the singing thing” feels extra, like an appendage to his life. The singing career has brought great rewards, including “concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and the panties department at Walmart,” but he’s still not altogether comfortable with its trappings.
“I’m a hula person first,” he said.
You realize that the local-boy demeanor isn’t a disguise — it’s the real guy locked inside the prodigious talent. The humility is still genuine. Ironically, the more embarrassing the revelation, or painful, or funny, the more he seemed to grow in stature with his willingness to share it.
Many of the audience’s questions focused on Hawaiian chant. In the culture’s oral tradition, chant is the lifeline connecting the present to the origin. As he explained this, demonstrating techniques, exploring the forces of breath and sound — as opposed to words — resonating into air, we felt the source of his power.
He isn’t its master, but its vessel.
We weren’t entertained by it so much as we were moved. We were touched. We were changed. The performance felt like the very reason the MACC had been built more than 15 years ago.
For that night, he wasn’t a performer so much as our kumu, our teacher. And funny, too.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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Keali‘i Reichel. Photo provided by the Maui Arts & Cultural Center