Cover story by Liberty Peralta, PBS Hawaiʻi
For Grammy- and Nā Hōkū Hanohano-winning singer Kalani Peʻa, music wasn’t just a hobby. It was therapy.
“I stuttered a lot as a child,” he says. “In preschool, my mom wanted me to take speech therapy. That didn’t work.”
A pivotal moment came when Pe‘a was only three years old, when his parents found him serenading a mannequin at a Hilo shopping mall.
“[My parents] were like: ‘If we put him through choir [and] vocal training, will that really help him, give him the confidence to be comfortable with himself, to be able to overcome such a challenge?’” Peʻa says.
The answer was a resounding “yes.” Indeed, Peʻa’s parents signed him up for vocal lessons and choir. Throughout childhood and into his college years, Peʻa would keep singing in talent shows and public performances.
“Music saved me,” he says. “[Singing] helps me to enunciate and pronounce certain words, whether it’s in Hawaiian music or English.”
One word that many may find difficult to pronounce – his legal first name. “What the heck is a ‘Trazaara’?” Peʻa laughs. (It’s pronounced “trah-zah-ah-rah.”) “Trazaara is an English men’s cologne. My mom gave that to me. Sounds like an entertainer’s name, right?”
Growing up, Pe‘a lived with his family in a pink trailer home in Panaʻewa Homestead near Hilo. “We had lanterns; we didn’t have electricity,” he recalls. “And it was such a loving family. We weren’t rich, we weren’t poor, but I knew that we had to work hard … That home is a reminder of hard work for me.”
While continuing to work through his speech impediment in the third grade, he asked his parents about transferring from a mainstream English language school to a Hawaiian immersion program. “I wanted to speak [the Hawaiian language] just like my siblings,” Peʻa says.
He would remain in Hawaiian immersion schools, graduating from Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu in Keaʻau, Hawai‘i Island. Wanting to cement his speech abilities, he moved to Colorado for college and earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.
Singer Kalani Peʻa (in red cap) performing in the PBS Hawaiʻi studio. He’s accompanied by Aron Nelson on piano, Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals, Henry Aiau Koa on guitar and Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar. In the foreground, from left, are Hula Hālau ʻO Kamuela dancers Julyen Kaluna, Auliʻi Faurot and Jasmine Kaleihiwa Dunlap.
“I was told that I would never be successful,” Peʻa says. “My siblings and I were told that if we spoke Hawaiian fluently, we’ll never go to college. And I went to college. We had to overcome challenges and misconceptions. That’s what I do.”
Music saved me
– Kalani Peʻa
And he does much of this through music. In a new episode of Nā Mele: Traditions in Hawaiian Song, Peʻa performs selections from his albums, E Walea and No ʻAneʻi, both of which won Grammy Awards for Best Regional Roots Album. Supporting Peʻa are: Henry Aiau Koa on guitar; Nalei Pokipala on backing vocals; Mark K. Vaught on bass guitar; and Aron Nelson on piano. Members of Hula Hālau ʻO Kamuela provide hula accompaniment. And from the lighting on set to his wardrobe, it’s clear that Peʻa has a trademark color, one often associated with royalty and creativity: purple.
For a creative like Peʻa, every moment is a chance to craft a melody. “I’m just inspired all the time, whether I’m sipping on coffee, or eating breakfast with my ʻohana …I’m all about pushing the envelope and coming up with ideas.”
He says the desire to strive and create are traits that have served Hawaiians well. “We’re all about collaborating with each other and finding innovative things to do,” he says. “Kalākaua was an innovative king. Kamehameha I was an innovative king, collaborating with the people of England. So when it comes to tradition, part of our traditional practices and values play a role in our lives now, but we seek balance between modern technology and our old cultural practices.”
Peʻa is familiar with this balancing act – honoring cultural traditions without sacrificing his personal identity. “I would call myself a modern Hawaiian, a Hawaiian of this century,” he says. “I speak Hawaiian fluently, I honor my kūpuna, I understand my values and protocol and teaching. [And] I am the guy with the purple sequined jacket. That’s who I am.”