Keali'i Reichel: Innate Authenticity

[as appeared in Hawaiian Style magazine]

Keali'i Reichel: Innate Authenticity

The label "musical artist and kumu hula"—while impressive—doesn't do much justice in defining Keali'i Reichel. A student, scholar, teacher, performer, master chanter, recording artist and cultural advisor, Reichel could very well wear all the list hats during a single week. Yet for him, it isn't about filling a role. Reichel "has to do it", in his own words. He does it for himself and his students. And you don't have to be under his tutelage to comprehend his power, or mana, of during one of his performances.

"The overriding goal has never been to educate everybody," says Reichel. "Like everything, it has to begin with you. I started performing in public because I had to, for me. But like the pebble tossed in to the pond, it started trickling exponentially. For my family, the friends, then students. But there's plenty of shrapnel for everyone else!"

Born Carleton Lewis Keali'inaniaimokuokalani Reichel in Maui's historic Lahaina town, Reichel soaked in the contrasts of life in a Hawaiian fishing village that drew visitors from all walks of life. Yet it was during his long weekend and summer stays "upcountry"—in Paia—with his maternal grandmother, where his passion for all things Hawaiian were sowed.
Reichel was very aware of Maui as a destination for global travelers, hence he set out to preserve the Hawaiian language and heritage as taught to him by his own kapuna. They included his grandmother, as well as his kumu hula (master instructor), Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele, daughter of Hawaii's most famous kumu hula, Edith Kanaka'ole. Starting in his teens, Reichel was captivated with the manner in which chants linked him to his ancient ancestors, in addition to the attraction present-day listeners had for his reciting of chants. More often than not, they involved the accompaniment of a guitar or ukulele.

"Every song or chant is a snapshot, a specific moment in time," says Reichel. "It's the composer's experience of an event, whether it's love, honoring a place, whatever. So whenever you sing or chant that composition, you relive it, and tap in to that event or situation. It's like drawing on a childhood memory—you feel it all. Especially when it's your own."

At 18 years old, Reichel founded a Hawaiian immersion language school, called Punana Leo O Maui. That same year, he founded his own hula school, now called Halau Ke'alaokamaile. He has led the Wailuku-based halau for nearly 30 years; it currently has 120 students enrolled.

During this time, Reichel's skills as a performer—in both song and dance—earned him the reputation of a showman, in addition to a propagator of true Hawaiian culture. In 1994, he produced and released his first album, "Kawaipunahele", a collection of Hawaiian traditional and contemporary chants and songs. Literally overnight the album was a hit. Perhaps it was the bridging of ancient Hawaiian verses, chanted with an ethereal yet warm tonality, to the pleasing lyrics and simple instrumentation of the ballads. It may have been the timing of its release, as much of Hawaiian music was beginning to blend foreign music styles in to its own; where Reichel reached back to his roots, and put down all he was taught. Ultimately, it could have been a combination of all these things.
The fact remained: Reichel was on the map as one of Hawaii's most "authentic" performers. In any solitary moment onstage, he could orchestrate a dozen musicians, lead a troupe of hula dancers, sing and play ukulele—all in perfect syncopation. Yet somehow none of these nuances are compromised. It beckons one to wonder, how does he maintain the passion and the focus in each aspect of his expertise?  
"The links to hula are ancestral—and everything that comes with that," says Reichel. "Chant is a big part of hula. So there's a direct link between chanting and hula. When I sing, I utilize the same force as when I'm dancing. And it's the poetry that I connect to in both regards to perform. The beauty and power of the words… people who don't even understand Hawaiian language, or even Hawaiian people, can get it. They feel it. It's the strength of a good performance."

Reichel followed up his successful freshman release the following year (1995) with "Lei Hali'a", proceeded by "E O Mai" in 1997, "Melelana" in 1999 and "Ke'alapkamaile" in 2003. In the interim, Reichel was asked to open for acts that include Bonnie Raitt, LeAnn Rimes and Sting. He has taken the stage at the Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, throughout Tokyo and Osaka, not to mention just about every available performance space across the Hawaiian Islands. 

How does he manage to maintain a halau and tour at the same time? 

"I love to travel," says Reichel. "To express myself as a performer is just exciting. I'll usually bring as many people as I can—singers, dancers, friends, family—sometimes 50 or 60 people. The more people, the more sharing I get to experience. When I'm old and there are only a few friends around, I don't want to turn to someone and say 'Remember that time…' and have them say 'I wasn't there'. This gift I have is meant to be shared."