Last Kukahi set at MACC for Keali‘i Reichel and Halau Ke‘alaokamaile
Shows will help fund new home for halau
Twenty years after debuting the first Kukahi celebration of hula, mele and chant at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, kumu hula Keali’i Reichel and Halau Ke’alaokamaile will present their last Kukahi production in three performances beginning Saturday evening.
“I’ve been saying it for years, this is the last one, but I never made a formal public announcement,” Keali’i explains. “When we realized it was the 20th in 2020, that’s a great bookend. It’s been 25 years since the first album came out and we’ve been doing Kukahis ever since. At some point you have to say, enough already, let the young guys take over.
“I’m starting to train others to take over when I’m gone, so that’s the focus, making sure the continuum occurs within the halu itself. A lot of kumu hula wait until its too late; they pass suddenly with nothing in place. My cousin is gearing up to be a kumu hula this summer.”
As the last Kukahi show can we expect a grand finale?
“It’s a bit of a retro kind of show,” he says. “We’re bringing back some old dancers and old musicians who have crossed our path over the years. We have dancers who were instrumental in developing halau and our style of hula who have retired. I don’t know who they are because it’s a surprise. I’ve been teaching hula for over 30 years, so to bring back a lot of those students to dance on our stage again is really exciting.”
Special musical guests at the concert will include island favorite Robi Kahakalau. “We also have my niece, Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, from the Kanaka’ole clan, an amazing young woman. I’ve known her since she was four.”
And another guest will offer a preview of a major theatrical production honoring the goddesses Pele and Hi’iaka.
“We’ve been working with Stephen Schwartz, the producer and creator of ‘Wicked,’ on a musical, Broadway-style show that will hopefully come out in a couple of years,” he explains. “It’s the Pele-Hi’iaka story and we’ve been writing music for this the past few years and collaborating with him and (Broadway producer) Michael Jackowitz and (kumu hula) Patrick Makuakane. So we are going to bring in one of the girls who plays Hi’iaka to do a bit of a preview. The show is predominately in English because we’re trying to utilize our story and educate the world as to who we are. We’ll probably premier it in Hawaii and hopefully in New York.”
The MACC shows will help raise funds for the construction project to create a new permanent home for Halau Ke’alaokamaile on donated land in Olinda.
“It’s still in premitting, we’re almost out, and then we can start some ground breaking,” he reports.
The halau has received three major grants to help implement agroforestry programs as they relate to Hawaiian culture and hula — from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a federal Beginning Farmers and Ranchers grant and one from the Administration for Native Americans.
“The OHA grant was for $250,000 to reforest six acres and we brought in community groups to learn protocols and sense of place and reconnectivity to the elements utilizing chants to incite growth in the plants and in the land. That’s what they are accustomed to; that’s what they used to hear.
“The harmonics of chant can be quite exciting to the land. It works. We did experiments where we chanted after planting a field and then one field we didn’t, and that field kind of fell off and we had to redo it. The field next to it grew and was happy and thick and lush.
“That kind of environmental kinship through hands on work, through harmonics, through chanting, through reconnectivity to the elements, that’s a deeper level of aloha aina. It’s quite powerful.”
In August he traveled to Mauna Kea to meet with kupuna standing firm on top of the mountain. “As practitioners it behooves us to take a stand,” he says. “That mountain is our tutu, our grandmother. The deities that reside there, for my family especially, we connect to the snow goddess Poli’ahu. The re-connectivity for me was quite powerful up there.
“We’ve moved into an amazing phase of cultural and political awareness. Mauna Kea is important to us, to keep the re-connectivity to the elements alive and make sure to keep out unnecessary development. There’s enough up there; we don’t need anymore. Not everyone agrees with it. The majority of practitioners are at the front lines of the cultural and political renaissance.
“I’ve been around a long time. I’ve been through the Honokahua burials and the bombing of Kaho’olawe, all those pivot points in modern history. They were important to us and helped create this new generation of forward thinkers within the Hawaiian community, and never have I seen such unification. It’s been very unifying like nothing else ever before. It’s remarkable.”
This gifted singer, composer, chanter, educator and kumu hula grew up in Lahaina, but spent many weekends with his maternal grandmother in Paia absorbing the old ways.
“When you are young you just want to dance,” he recalls. “It was a time when dance was passed on without a lot of information. Our job was to learn the movement and then research. If I learned a dance when I was 14, I learned more about it when I was 25, and I continue to learn about it. The learning never stops.”
At Lahainaluna High School he hung with Willie K and enjoyed drama classes. “Willie K was in my class,” he laughs. “Drama class was easy. We did a couple of plays and a lot of acting out a part based on your own experience. We sang a lot and did a lot of body movement.”
The drama classes must have paid off because a few years later he was a hit as Judas in a production of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“I’ve always loved musical theater, so when the opportunity came up I auditioned and got the part. It was quite amazing. I think I was 25, long before the first album came out.”
After releasing his remarkable debut album, “Kawaipunahele,” Keali’i topped the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 1995, earning Album of the Year, Popular Hawaiian Album, Male Vocalist and Most Promising New Artist.
It was a feat attained without help from any of Hawaii’s major record labels, who had all turned him down.
By 1997 it had sold around 250,000 copies, and he became first Hawaiian artist to secure national distribution on a major record label.
His follow-up, “Lei Hali’a,” was also massively popular, with record-breaking sales that landed him in Billboard magazine’s world music charts, the first time ever for a Hawaiian musician.
“It took us by surprise,” he says about the early success. “Almost overnight it kind of changed our lives, my partner and the halau, and my family. Success affects everybody who is close to you. I had no intention to pursue this as a career, it was just to put out new music and to express myself. We came to a pivot point where we could continue focusing on what we were doing or take this new path, and it came very close to not taking the new path. The rest is history.”
After releasing more popular recordings and winning many Hoku awards and earning a couple of Grammy nominations, Keali’i delivered his final album, “Kawaiokalena,” in 2014. A celebrating of his Olinda home, it won eight Hoku categories including Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year and Hawaiian Album.
“What I wanted to express as an artist has been fulfilled,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I won’t record anymore, it just means I’ll probably not be doing more full-length albums. I’ve been a guest artist on other artists’ albums. It’s still fun, especially when it’s a collaboration. It’s the same with Kukahi, I’m just putting Kukahi away. I’m not retiring from the music industry or doing concerts, it’s just this particular piece will be put away. Maybe in a couple of years we’ll come back and do a different kind of concert at the MACC.”
At home when inspired he says he will occasionally pick up a guitar and sing.
“Something will come up and I need to reconnect to the music part and put aside the kumu hula part, because it’s two different entities,” he notes. “That occurs every so often at home. I could feel the itch to create a new song or a new chant.”
So does that mean he has a collection of unreleased material?
“I do,” he affirms. “You never know if it will come out. Will it come out when I kick the bucket, I have no idea.”
* “Kukahi 2020” will be presented on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. in MACC’s Castle Theater. Preshow festivities will start at 5:30 p.m. in the Yokouchi Pavilion with music and hula by the Kamehameha Schools Maui Campus Hawaiian Ensemble. Tickets are $12, $45, $65 and $85, plus applicable fees, available at MACC box office, by phone at 242-SHOW, and at MauiArts.org.