Kalani Pe‘a’s journey from singing in karaoke bars to being a two-time Grammy-winner began more than 30 years ago, when he was growing up on Hawaiian Homestead land in Pana‘ewa outside Hilo on the Big Island.
“I grew up waking up to guava trees, chickens and cows, on five acres — born and raised in mold and mildew,” he recalled jokingly, leaving no doubt he looks back fondly at his rural upbringing.
He’s come a long way. Joining him tomorrow for a “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii” concert at the Hawaii Theatre, which he headlines, will be a true galaxy of Hawaiian music stars.
“My friends and colleagues,” Pe‘a said during a newsroom interview alongside with his manager and life partner, Allan B. Cool. “There’s my idol, Amy Hanaiali‘i. Mark Yamanaka, my childhood friend, we were friends from Hilo. I love (kumu hula) Sonny Ching. I looked up to his halau, Na Mamo O Pu‘uanahulu.”
Filling out the bill are Josh Tatofi and 2019 Grammy Award finalists Na Hoa. Hanaiali‘i, Tatofi, Yamanaka and Na Hoa are all Hoku Award-winning recording artists; Ching won a Hoku for his liner notes.
The concept that “May Day is Lei Day” was coined by a Hawaii resident, Don Blanding, in 1928, and revived in 1977 by the Brothers Cazimero, who presented May Day concerts, come rain or come shine, for the next 30 years at the Waikiki Shell. Pe‘a continues that tradition this weekend.
“‘May Day is Lei Day,’ and I want everyone to wear all of their lei,” Pe‘a said, adding that in 2019, “May Day is beyond the whole concept of wearing lei. It’s the concept of bringing us together to olelo Hawaii, hula, ‘oli and story-telling. That’s the goal for May Day.
“We’re all there for one vision — perpetuating who we are as people,” he said. “Our music and hula truly describes who we are.”
By now, most avid followers of Hawaiian music know the story of Pe‘a’s illustrious rise. He seemed to come out of nowhere when he released his debut album, “E Walea,” in 2016, but on Feb. 12, 2017, Pe‘a became the first Hawaii-resident recording artist to win a Grammy since 2011.
A little over three months later, at the 40th Annual Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 2017, he became the first person ever to win a Grammy Award and a Na Hoku Hanohano Award for the same project.
Fast-forward to 2019. Pe‘a is now a two-time Grammy Award winner. His second album, “No ‘Ane‘i,” won in the best regional roots music category in February. Since that landmark Grammy win, Pe‘a has performed on the mainland, played dates in Japan, and sung songs from “E Walea” for the dancers of Halau ‘O Kamuela in competition at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo.
Three weeks from Saturday, we’ll learn if “No ‘Ane‘i” wins a Hoku.
Pe‘a’s thoughts aren’t consumed by Hoku hopes, however. He and Cool are focusing their energy on tomorrow’s Lei Day event.
“We work 16 hours day,” he continued, speaking for both of them. “That’s life when you run an independent label and a publishing company, and you’re getting ready for tours and shows.”
It’s all a long way from the carefree days of Pe‘a’s early childhood. Born Trazaara Kalani Juanito Pe‘a, he became known as Kalani when he entered a Hawaiian language immersion program as a third-grader.
“I went from Trazaara — which is an English men’s cologne, an Avon product that my mother named me after,” Kalani said, “it’s on my (driver’s) licence — to Kalani.” (“My dad’s name is Kalani, so he’s ‘Kalani Pe‘a’ too,” he said, “but I’m not a ‘junior.’ He’s Arthur Kalani Pe‘a. I’m Trazaara Kalani Pe‘a.”)
Pe‘a graduated from a Hawaiian-immersion high school in 2001, where he was one of the pioneers of the program.
“The first graduating class had five students. My class was the third — we had 12 students,” he recalled.
Growing up in the homestead young Trazaara had a speech impediment. He overcame it through singing.
He sang through elementry school and high school, and while he was earning a degree in mass communication at Mesa State College in Colorado.
Pe‘a worked on the mainland for two years before the islands called him home.
Back in Hawaii he taught pre-school and then became a resource coordinator for Kamehameha Schools.
Through all those years of singing he was also listening — to Hawaiian music and jazz, Genoa Keawe and Luther Vandross, Pavarotti and Billy Paul. He didn’t consider music as a career until four years ago, when Cool — they’ve been together now for a decade — told him it was time to stop singing pop songs in karaoke bars and get serious.
“I sang ‘Me and Mrs. Jones,’ in Hawaiian and English, in a bar, and my other half — Allan Cool — pulled me aside and gave me a lecture about producing and recording my music,” Pe‘a recalled. “I didn’t feel qualified. He told me, ‘You got to quit this. You need to gather all the music material you have.’”
Pe‘a and Cool cut back on expenses every way they could and poured the money they saved into recording Pe‘a’s debut album, “E Walea.” The effort paid off in a Grammy triumph.
Pe‘a was back at the Grammys this year, a finalist for the second time, and in the audience when the winner of award for best regional roots music album was announced.
“The history — that I had won before — didn’t come to mind,” he said. “I’m just sitting in the corner in my bedazzled squined purple jacket, trying to contain myself and thinking, ‘I’m here with (Grammy finalists) Na Hoa, and we are here representing our kupuna, representing our kupuna before that, representing our ohana and our Lahui Hawai‘i (nation of Hawaii). Whatever happens, I’m grateful to even be nominated.’”
Looking back over everything that’s happened since “E Walea” was released in 2016, Pe‘a says he learned success can bring criticism as well.
“I never knew that being in that spotlight, being able to wear bedazzled outfits and being able to olelo Hawaii and be proactive, there’d be people who would try to bring you down along the way. It never dawned on me. That people want to you to fail — I never thought of that.”
Writing songs about people and places that are dear to him has helped him overcome the negativity of the “crabs in buckets” who’ve tried to drag him down, he said.
His childhood and Hawaiian values also ground him against too much self-importance.
“It’s a tough business,” Pe‘a acknowledged. … “The accolades do not define this boy who grew up with guavas, who fed cows and chickens, and went to a Hawaiian immersion program. It’s the values and the practices that my parents and grandparents instilled in me that are important.
“I’m here to serve my people, and to show the people around the world that the Hawaiian language and Hawaiian music should be recognized on a global scale.”
Kalani Pe‘a – May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii
7 p.m. Friday
hawaiitheatre.com or 528-0506