Kalani Pe’a speaks a language shared by just 20,000 people. But his music and spirit are universal.
Beloved in Hawaii and expanding his horizons to his first show ever in Las Vegas, Pe’a headlines at Myron’s at The Smith Center for two performances at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Pe’a speaks traditional Hawaiian, along with English, and has recorded originals and covers in both languages.
Pe’a is forever promoting his home state’s culture and music inspirations in his recordings. As a result, the 38-year-old artist has claimed a pair of Grammy Awards for Best Regional Roots Album for each of his first two albums, 2016’s “E Walea” (meaning to relax at ease with the gentle voices of the birds), and 2018’s “No ‘Ane‘i” (meaning, we belong here).
This week, the native of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii spoke of his career to date and his upcoming gigs in Vegas:
Johnny Kats: We’ve called our city the Ninth Island, which has become kind of a cliche, but there are thousands of visitors from Hawaii to Las Vegas every year. Can you tell me about your first visit?
Kalani Pe’a: My connection to Las Vegas is like any other person that yearns to see shows to eat at the buffets there (laughs). You try various cultural foods, and also gamble, right? Gambling is illegal in Hawaii, so my family stayed at the California, that was their hang. My grandfather loved taking my grandmother to Vegas, eat all different types of food. We were not a family of luxury, we believe if you work hard, you play hard, and Vegas was great for that.
When did you realize you wanted to be an entertainer?
When I was 4 years old, I had a speech problem, so my mom put me through speech therapy. It was actually a challenge because the person who was working with me was not taking a culturally developmental approach. She was directly screaming at a 4-year-old. But my parents caught me serenading a mannequin at JC Penney’s, in one of our local malls. I was just singing to it. They realized that music was probably a healing tool for me, and was somehow supposed to be a part of my life.
For the uninitiated, what are we going to see from you onstage in Las Vegas?
Well, a lot of people expect me to grab a guitar and wear some slippers and aloha shirt, singing “Tiny Bubbles.” I’m not that guy (laughs). I am a Hawaiian contemporary soul artist, meaning I speak Hawaiian fluently and I am amongst the 20,000 Hawaiian language speakers who grew up speaking Hawaiian my entire life. You will feel that from me, in my music.
You sing originals and covers in both languages, right?
Yes. I’m going to embrace those beautiful elements of where I live, I write about these special places, and the stories are told with a lot of soul. But what sets me aside from the rest is that I also love doing Motown music, and I do it in the Hawaiian language, too. I call it the “Isn’t She Lovely Medley” to honor Motown and Stevie Wonder. I can do Joe Cocker, Luther Vandross in my set. I love, love, love doing my versions of classic hits in the Hawaii language.
I’ll tell you, I was in your hometown, Hilo, about 15 years ago. It rained so hard it felt like I was being hit by shot glasses.
Right, brah! You think it rains in Seattle? Come to Hilo! We’ve had tourists complaining to officials they want a refund for the immense amount of rain this winter. I’m like, “Wait, hold on. Let me email God and ask him to control a rain.” But it is what it is. Welcome to Paradise!
But you keep it sunny, I can tell.
Always. I grew up in a pink trailer house, a hot-pink trailer home on a farm at Hilo. Do you think I wanted my friends to drop me off in a pink trailer home? But I grew up embracing happiness in that home.
“Pink Trailer Home in Hilo” could be the title of something, you know?
We’ll get it together! I came from a great loving family, so growing up in a pink trailer home in Hilo is fine with me!
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.