Gregg Porter's Music Reviews
An Interview with
Hawaiian musical star Keali`i Reichel has just released a new concert DVD, and Music Writer Gregg Porter recently spoke with him about it ---
GP: Let’s talk first about the new DVD, “Kūkahi.” It’s a moment-in-time recording of a concert at the Blaisdell Concert Hall in Honolulu in September, 2006. You have a reputation of being very meticulous about the recordings and materials you release to the public. What was special about this concert, and why release it at this point in your career?
KR: The meticulousness comes from being a kumu hula. Once it’s out there, it’s out there, and you cannot take ‘em back. So we try as much as possible to cross our t’s and dot our i’s, so that, bumbye, down the road, there are no regrets on any level; from a cultural standpoint, from a linguistic standpoint, from a technical standpoint. We had done this particular show a few months before on Maui first, and we really enjoyed putting on this particular production. It had been brought up that “too bad it wasn’t filmed, because we really enjoyed this one.” And this was where we got to have a lot of new dancers in our hālau participate, ‘cause normally we only bring in those dancers who have some experience under their belts. With this particular one, we brought in most of the classes. These concerts have become a venue for us as hula people to express ourselves on many different levels, and one of the end results is to stand up in front of people and express yourself as a hula person.
GP: This DVD features the types of segments that people would often see in your live shows. It begins with an extensive kahiko set, then a wide range of mele with your band and your hālau, Hālau Ke`alaokamaile. What do you hope that viewers will come away with after watching this DVD?
KR: I think what we hope is that people come away with a deeper sense of knowledge of our culture that we were able to uncover for them, either through explanation or through the dance itself or even just through the singing. We hope that people leave with a sense of pride in where they come from. If we spark interest in one person to go and seek more knowledge in not only Hawaiian culture but maybe in their own ethnicity, in their own culture, and practice it on a daily basis --- because that’s becoming more and more difficult in this modern world and in this homogenization of cultures, to go back and practice your culture, or the culture that you embrace. If that’s what happens in this performance or after, I think that we’re happy.
GP: Can you talk a little bit about the meaning of the concert’s subtitle, “Kamahiwa,” which was also the name of your first compilation CD?
KR: Kama is a child. There are various words, literal and poetic, for children or for a child. That child might be actually be a child in age. I’m also a child, I’m a child of this land, I’m a child of this time. So utilizing the word kama actually broadens it. When we say keiki, more than likely it means a child of young age. When we say kama, it can be a little more inclusive in age. And hiwa means precious, it means elevated. Kamahiwa is a precious child, a child that you hold closely to your heart. So we named the concert as well as the compilation this because the songs are like that in the compilation. Every song that we record, every song that we’ve sung, you have to have some kind of personal relationship to. Otherwise, you’re just singing the words. Each of these songs in the compilation is a kamahiwa. Same thing with the concert itself. We pulled that particular word out of that song (from “Maunaleo”) and tacked it onto this particular kūkahi because all of the chants that are done at the beginning, like the songs that we do, were all songs and chants that were given to me by my teachers. And so each one is a precious gift, and we treat each one as such and give each one the attention it deserves in the learning of it, in the internalization of it, through dance or through chanting or singing and then in passing it on from generation to generation.
GP: The concert features a number of special guest performers, including guitarist and songwriter Ben Vegas, and kumu hula Keali`i Ceballos. Even your mom makes an appearance as a dancer. Would you talk about your connections with these guests?
KR: I’ve known Keali`i Ceballos since the beginning of time, from the Kumulipo era (laughs). I’ve known him for many, many years, and we’ve always had a great relationship. And I’ve seen him grow over the years as a kumu. Once you become a kumu, sometimes people forget that you were a dancer at one time. I remember seeing him dance not too long before this concert series, and we took him on tour with us for a while. He’s a great addition to any concert, on many levels. With Ben Vegas, I had always been familiar with his work, we were both coming out at the same time as far as music and CDs go, we were both hitting the airwaves quite heavily at that time – ’94 or ‘95. For a few months, it was either one of his songs or one of our songs on the radio. We kept saying “Who dat? Who dat guy ovah dea?” And a couple of years ago, we hit it off right away and we’ve had a great relationship ever since then. He comes and sings for us every so often. We wouldn’t have had a Christmas album but for him. And my mada is my mada. In hālau, kinda hard, yah, ‘cuz she’s my student. I have others correct her because I cannot, I cannot correct my own mada. I no like get lickens. Ma isn’t ma, she’s “Mrs. Reichel.”
GP: In addition to the concert segment, there are a couple of special features: a brief retrospective of your career, and a 2005 Maui performance with Uncle George Holokai, who passed away just a little over a year ago. Would you please share some memories of what it was like to study with Uncle George?
KR: That was a really, really, really special time, not only in my life, but I know for all the students in that particular class, many of which were and are kumu. I had been in the class for maybe 2 or 3 years total before he passed. That kind of thing where we’re already kumu hula and we already have our own style and we have our own hula genealogy, some people were like “well, why are you doing this, why are you taking hula from Uncle George?” While his own dances are very, very important and his own particular style of hula is very important, the huge thing was to be able to see the world as he saw it. He comes from a very different time and so to experience being with him and to see how he taught and to just be around him, that, for me, was the most valuable lesson. Yes, I remember his dances, but I don’t think I’m going to perpetuate his particular style because there are other kumu in the class who have been with him longer and they’re the ones who really should perpetuate his style of dancing. My job is to take his knowledge and incorporate it within how I think. I think that’s the most important thing for me.
GP: Who else has been among your teachers and your kumu – in music, chanting, hula, language, history and so on?
KR: My first experience in hula was in Lahainaluna’s “Hawaiiana Club.” The student teacher was Peter Day, a child prodigy in the 1970’s and late 60’s. He studied under I`olani Luahine, Edith Kanaka`ole, Henry Pa, all of the great hula masters of the time, he wasn’t quite a teenager yet when he was studying with them. He was sent from place to place. He had all of this knowledge about dances. Then he started a hālau and I danced with him for years. And then, eventually, he left, I took over the hālau and renamed it. Over the years, some of my mentors have been kumu - Hokulani Ho Padilla; here on Maui, she’s called the kumu hula of kumu hula, and my primary chant training comes from Pua Kanahele. Puakea Nogelmeier, for language. Uncle George is a huge part of the fabric of my hula training. There have been many mentors along the way; those are the primary ones.
GP: What are some of your future plans? Do you anticipate doing more or less recording, touring and teaching?
KR: We were talking about a new project, a new album, but that’s just still in the talking-thinking stage, which is always the first step. Sometimes that step can take a year. We know we’ll tour because we enjoy doing that. We try to incorporate some new material into our live concerts. The interesting thing, I get to wear different hats. The thing is, you cannot wear all of the hats at the same time ‘cuz no look pretty. I’m a kumu hula first and foremost, that hat will never be far away or even off my head. The singing thing, that’s a different hat. If I’m not doing that, I’m doing hula workshops or I’m doing lectures at different universities on Hawaiian poetry or songwriting or whatever the case might be. All of those different hats keep this old body kind of busy. I enjoy doing those things, and as I get older, I’m finding it harder and harder to multitask. I gotta focus in on only one or two things at a time. I don’t know what’s coming up next and I kinda like not knowing. We’ll see what happens in the next year or two. I don’t know what’s coming up, but I hope it’s good.
Photos Courtesy of Punahele Productions
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