Keali'i Reichel is nominated for a Grammy award.

Reichel tries to balance
culture, entertainment


Keali'i Reichel has, for more than a decade, often found himself caught between two worlds. "First and foremost, I am a Hawaiian, a culturalist, teacher, musician and dancer," he says from his home in Wailuku, Maui. "But then I'm also an entertainer and performer, and honestly, the limelight is something, you know, that I have never really been comfortable with."

Grammy Week

In the days leading up to Sunday's Grammy Awards, we will present daily profiles of the artists nominated in the new Hawaiian music category.

Monday: Charles Brotman, producer of the compilation "Slack Key Guitar Vol. Two"

Tuesday: Ho'okena; nominated for "Cool Elevation"

Wednesday: Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Willie K; "Amy and Willie Live"

Yesterday: Brothers Cazimero; "Some Call It Aloha ... Don't Tell"

Saturday: The Grammy process, demystified

Sunday: Isle artists partake of the L.A. experience leading up to the Grammy Award ceremony.

Reichel, whose CD "Ke'alaokamaile" has been nominated for the first Hawaiian Album Grammy, is pragmatic about his mission, which he says "essentially" is to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture beyond Hawaii.

The Grammy will likely help.

"The overall benefits -- giving Hawaiian music a bigger voice in the world and having those outside of Hawaii learn about our culture through music -- is much more important than any one of (the nominees)," he says. "There's so much hype over this award, and that's a good thing, but what we do with this good thing determines whether it becomes a bad thing."

As one of the most popular and respected Hawaiian artists of the 1990s, Reichel artfully balances obligatory concessions to American pop music with the heartfelt qualities of traditional Hawaiian chanting, a style that places emphasis on conveying emotion with the intricacies of the human voice.

"Ke'alaokamaile" -- Hawaiian for "the scent of the maile" -- was a tough album to make because "it's my most personal," he says. "Honestly, I was a mess doing it."

He adds: "There's a traditional Hawaiian saying about 'leaving your bones out to dry.' It warns us about exposing ourselves too much, and it's said to anybody who overly indulges the public with personal matters.

"For me, 'Ke'alaokamaile' meant having to straddle a fine line to be properly revealing but not show every skeleton in the closet."

The work paid off with Hoku awards last year for Best Male Vocalist, Album of the Year, Hawaiian Album, Song of the Year, Engineering, Graphics and Liner Notes. Its songs range from his original Hawaiian compositions to Sting's "Fields of Gold."

Reichel includes stories from his grandmother and "things in my own life that I wanted passed on." His aim was to inspire other local families to write down their own family stories.

"We all need to remember the actions of those who came before us and made us who we are today," says Reichel, who suddenly becomes playful, slipping into a pronounced pidgin. "Eh, if grandpa nevah turn right but turn left kind of thing, I no be here."

The album

Keali'i Reichel
(Punahele Productions)

Keali'i Reichel and his Punahele Productions ohana stand second to none in creating world-class Hawaiian albums, and this latest gem, a requiem for his beloved grandmother, is no exception. Each song and chant is part of a perfectly executed celebration of life, love and ohana (family). Each selection seems exquisite in form and concept, and Reichel is in top form throughout.

A poetry reading, followed by a genealogical chant, sets the theme. The beautiful "Ka Nohona Pili Kai" follows, written by Reichel and Puakea Nogelmeier, which broadens the focus to include the ohana. Detailed annotation reveals the significance of older songs such as "Fields of Gold" and "Pupu A'o 'Ewa," hinting at the hidden meaning, the kaona, that might lurk within an apparently innocent song.

Kapono Beamer, Willie K, Lehua Kalima-Heine and a talented string section help make "Ke'alaokamaile" a superb Hawaiian album.

John Berger

This review was originally printed in John Berger's Island Mele column on Dec. 26, 2003.

REICHEL GREW UP in Lahaina but spent weekends and summers at his grandmother's Paia house, where he learned the traditional values and ways of life.

He became one of the founding directors for Punana Leo O Maui, taught Hawaiian culture and language at Maui Community College and was the cultural resource specialist and curator at the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku.

Reichel began chanting at 17 and began formal training after studying Hawaiian at the University of Hawaii.

"I would sing at family get-togethers, but I was very shy about performing in public," he says.

That changed in 1994 when he recorded "Kawaipunahele" for friends. The album became an instant hit.

"I'm in a business where you have to be in front of so many people, and I hate that," he says. "The way I get around feeling so shy is by becoming a teacher onstage. A performer has to communicate, and you have to make sure everyone leaves with something, just like a teacher in a traditional classroom."

REICHEL, WHO doesn't enjoy being interviewed, has had to answer several reporters the last few weeks. Several mainland reporters have been insulting, asking him how he feels about being "validated" by Grammy recognition.

"Excuse me! I have huge issues with that word," Reichel says. "I am a traditionalist, and this award does not make Hawaiian music more credible or less credible.

"Grammy doesn't validate our music! Hawaiians have been doing music for 2,000 years, and with or without the Grammy we will continue to do what we do and do it well."

The winner's challenge will be to balance commercial pressure with the desire "to remain as true to your culture and music and yourself as before," he says. "You've got to keep a level head, stay focused on what you've been doing. More eyes will be watching you and more ears hearing you."

Keeping to his pragmatic style, Reichel has kept Grammy hype from interfering with other aspects of his life. He will still perform in a concert tonight and tomorrow at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, and has continued his halau classes.

"I try not to shoot ahead too far, because I've always been taught to pay attention to the breadfruit right in front of you on the tree, even though riper ones may be higher up," he says.

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