Keali'i Reichel knew he wasn't going to get much sleep the night of April 30. Around midnight came the judges' announcement that his Halau Ke'alaokamaile had taken top honors at the 48th annual Merrie Monarch Festival, the pinnacle of hula competitions in Hilo. A few hours later, on May 1, he was on Oahu, one of five iconic pioneers inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.
"It's been a little bit crazy," said the 49-year-old kumu hula, chanter and recording artist of this deluge of good fortune. "Things like that don't ever cross the radar.
"It's all good," he added during a recent interview.
Keali‘i Reichel in tall grass
U?ILANI FRIEDMAN photo
Obviously. Two of the most prestigious and difficult-to-achieve cultural awards in the state of Hawaii in less than 24 hours. Quite a culmination for the artist who was hardly the most promising hula student at Lahainaluna High School, and who didn't get on track until age 24, when a brush with the law and a community service sentence inspired him to commit the rest of his life to study and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture.
"For a long time, competition wasn't really on our radar," he said of his halau's path to the Merrie Monarch victory. "I'm not a good juggler. In early '90s, we used to do competition quite a bit, but when the first album came out, I had to make decision, a choice."
That album, "Kawaipunahele " in 1994, began a recording career that would establish him as one of the state's most popular, and most honored, musical artists over the next quarter century.
"Our priority was to do concerts, to let our students express themselves that way. So for the last 15 or 20 years, that's where our path has gone."
But then things began to shift.
"Hula requires expression," he explained. "Its culmination is usually a performance. But in the past few years, as I approached my 50th birthday, I didn't know if I had as much resilience for the concert venue. Something had to take its place. And so in 2009, I decided to enter the Merrie Monarch. Any competition is another way for expressing ourselves."
It's also stress-inducing for the artist who gets notoriously nervous before every show.
"You don't go to competition to share. You go to compete," he acknowledged.
"It has its positives and negatives. It pushes you to a level that perhaps you wouldn't attain under other circumstances that's the way the human animal is."
Competition has always been there in all aspects of Hawaiian culture, he noted.
"It's a very different animal from doing concerts. Carnegie schmarnegy," he added, alluding to a past performance in that most venerated of concert halls.
"The Merrie Monarch is more nerve-wracking in terms of stepping onto the stage. It's exhilarating, thrilling and downright scary. The performance lasts for seven minutes. The preparation takes a year."
That preparation is not only the training and values he instills in his dancers, but the bake sales, chow fun and every other detail of raising the $60,000 it takes just to get to the Big Island festival. "I don't want the students to have to pay for anything," he added.
"Once we're there, it's about keeping the focus. It's a matter of training and the dedication of the dancers, poor things, and also their families. I crack the whip like all kumu do. You hyperventilate. The heart goes a mile a minute."
And it paid off in the first Merrie Monarch victory for a Maui halau, achieved by taking first place in the kahiko (traditional) judging and second in the auwana (modern) competition, following the opening-night crowning of Tori Hulali Canha as Miss Aloha Hula. She had edged out another Maui dancer, Manalani English of Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka, by three points.
This was the second time in three years one of Reichel's dancers has taken the Miss Aloha Hula crown. His protege, Henohea Kane, had won it in 2009.
After the announcement came, the excitement kept everyone up well into the early morning. And then, a few adrenalized hours later, he was in the Grand Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, being inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame along with Ernest Ka'ai, Andy Cummings, the Richard Kauhi Quartet and Pat Namaka Bacon.
Hall of Fame inductions are really about a lifetime of accomplishment, decided by a group of musicians and scholars on Oahu. It's based on all facets of Hawaiian music, chant and hula - "the sum total of your influence and work.
"Earlier inductees were chanters from the early 18th and 19th centuries," he said. "I don't know the process - I was really surprised to be chosen. In my particular class of inductees of five, two are still alive. There are so many impressive hula and chant people."
When the morning actually came, "It was a challenging day, satisfying on so many levels. The Merrie Monarch was cool by itself. There's a certain bond. All the kumu see each other backstage. We're competing, but we stop, we hug.
"At the Hall of Fame, the past honorees were there. I was shaking in my boots. It was surreal because they had affected my life, had helped put me on my path. Really, it was quite remarkable to be in the same room with them."
Ironically, that honor provides a stark contrast to another award ceremony - the Grammys. Since its inception, the Hawaiian music category has been a constant reminder that the tastes of Grammy voters, almost all of whom don't live in Hawaii, don't match the sentiments of the music community here in the islands.
Following the awards ceremony, the Recording Academy in April restructured its categories, folding the Best Hawaiian Album into the Regional Roots field, which also includes Native American and Zydeco or Cajun.
"I can not speak for everybody, but I think it was good move," said the past Grammy nominee. "It caused so much decisiveness within the Hawaiian community, it was beginning to be uncomfortable."
The soothing accessibility of slack key had dominated other forms of Hawaiian music from the beginning, he observed. The Hawaiian Grammy "was supposed to be another source of pride for Hawaiian music, and also good from a business standpoint, But over the course of its lifetime, it didn't materialize."
While the Hall of Fame induction acknowledged all the facets of his career, to himself, he is first and foremost, "a hula person." But hula is so much more than just a dance. It is the unbroken link to the origin of Hawaiian culture, realized anew in every detail, in each moment of performance.
His dancers all have to learn Hawaiian. A commitment to the culture sets the agenda for whatever he does, and is evident in the authenticity and meticulous detail as well as the passion of his dancers.
Although his concert performances bear his name alone, they are actually extravaganzas, filling the stage with his dancers as well as his band and backup singers. And despite the record-setting record sales and the charisma that makes him such a riveting presence onstage, underlying that he is always the kumu, the teacher, making each experience a teachable moment.
Ironically, for someone so deeply grounded in a place, Reichel is one of Hawaii's most articulate voices when he travels elsewhere.
Earlier this week he was on the East Coast in a series of "Solo Sessions" performances in New York City and Washington, D.C., where he was presented by the National Geographic and the Smithsonian.
He had debuted the Solo Sessions last year in a pair of concerts in McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Besides showcasing chant, song and hula, the format relies on questions from the audience. Thinking on his feet, answering questions with disarming candor, Reichel's vulnerability and sincerity in this setting just add to his charisma.
Playing to Mainland audiences from a few hundred to stadiums of 5,000, his listeners range from "expatriots who are homesick to those who are there for the first time. Part of our job when go out beyond these shores,is to feed them as much as they can absorb without bonking them over their heads.
"I don't know if Hawaii has anything to teach - but I have things to say," he continued. "It depends on what community you come from - hula music surfing lei-making - we are all imparting a part of who we are. They are learning Hawaiian values."
His traveling is hardly limited to the U.S. Mainland. He has two halau in Japan and makes trips every seven to eight weeks to teach his 200 dancers there. Later this year, he will lead workshops in Mexico where, he notes, there are more halau than in Hawaii.
Working with Japanese dancers, he said, "I think they're more disciplined on some levels. It's in their DNA. But because they come from a different culture, they don't know things dancers here know."
Mexican dancers, in contrast, "also have their own viewpoint. They're not very disciplined, but because of their culture, they're very passionate. But there's nothing like being here, because this is the place hula is from. This is the epicenter. When we go out, it's like the stone dropping in that pond - we have to make the waves stronger."
Following Japan's recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear cataclysm, Reichel joined other top artists throughout the islands in benefits and relief efforts such as the recent Aloha Iapana concert at the MACC.
"Many of us kumu hula and musicians who travel to Japan extensively know that a lot of them have embraced our music and culture on many levels. It has become a focal point, not only to go, but to expand ourselves from financial standpoint. Because we make a good living there, we felt an obligation to go ahead and support in whatever way we can."
But as a world traveler and emissary for his culture, these days Reichel's thoughts are more and more with home.
"When we decided to go to Merrie Monarch, we committed for three years, whatever happened," he said. "This was our third year. Now we're going to take a three-to-five-year break - there are other things to look for."
Topping the list is a permanent home for his hula school.
"We have made every place on Maui our home, he said of the nomadic existence of Halau Ke'alaokamaile. The halau is based in a Hawaiian Homes hall in Pakakalo, but preparing for competition like the Merrie Monarch requires finding gyms with roughly the same stage configuration. After going through the rigors of raising money for that competition, he said, "We had come to the conclusion that if we could raise that kind of money, we could establish a land base for ourselves. So now our priority is finding a home.
"I'm at a point where I can sit and decide where I want to go," he concluded. "Most of that is hula related. There's nothing hidden, you take things as they come, music-wise. You just work, you just do it. Then you move on to the next thing, then the next thing."
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
* Keali'i Reichel will be the special guest performer for He Lei Hulu, He Lei Makamae "A Feather Lei, a Treasured Lei," a tribute to Akoni Akana and a benefit for Friends of Moku'ula at 5 p.m. Saturday, June 4, at the Old Lahaina Lu'au. Tickets are $100; tables of eight are $700. For details, call Old Lahaina Lu'au, 667-1998.