Kalani Pe’a speaks a language shared by only 20,000 people. But his music and his spirit are universal.
Beloved in Hawaii and expanding his horizons at his very first Las Vegas show, Pe’ headlined Myron’s at the Smith Center for two performances at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Pe’a speaks traditional Hawaiian, as well as English, and has recorded originals and covers in both languages.
Pe’a always promotes the culture and musical inspirations of his home country in his recordings. As a result, the 38-year-old artist won a pair of Grammy Awards for Best Regional Roots Album for each of his first two albums, 2016’s “E Walea” (meaning chilling out at ease with the sweet voices of birds ), and 2018’s “No ʻAneʻi” (meaning, we belong here).
This week, the native of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii opened up about his career to date and his upcoming gigs in Vegas:
Johnny Kats: We called our town the Ninth Island, which has become kind of a cliché, 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 Las Vegas connection is like anyone else who longs to see shows to eat at the buffets there (laughs). You try various cultural foods and play too, right? Gambling is illegal in Hawaii, so my family stayed in California, that was their thing. My grandpa loved taking my grandma to Vegas, eating all types of food. We weren’t a fancy family, we think if you work hard you play hard, and Vegas was great for that.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
When I was 4 years old, I had a speech problem, so my mother sent me for speech therapy. It was actually a challenge because the person working with me didn’t take a cultural development approach. She was screaming directly at a 4 year old. But my parents caught me serenading a model at JC Penney in one of our local malls. I was just singing on it. They realized that music was probably a healing tool for me and it was kind of meant to be a part of my life.
For the uninitiated, what are we going to see from you on stage in Las Vegas?
Well, a lot of people expect me to pick up a guitar and wear slippers and an aloha shirt, while singing “Tiny Bubbles.” I’m not that guy (laughs). I’m a contemporary Hawaiian soul artist, which means I’m fluent in Hawaiian and one of over 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, don’t you?
Yes. I’m going to embrace these 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 apart from the rest is that I also love to do Motown music, and I also do it in the Hawaiian language. 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 Hawaiian language.
I’ll tell you, I was in your hometown, Hilo, about 15 years ago. It was raining so hard I felt like I was being hit by shot glasses.
Alright, brah! Think it’s raining in Seattle? Come to Hilo! Tourists have complained to authorities that they want a refund for the huge amount of rain this winter. I’m like, “Wait, wait. Let me email God and ask him to control some fucking rain. But it is what it is. Welcome to heaven!”
But you keep it sunny, I can tell.
Always. I grew up in a pink trailer, a hot pink trailer on a farm in Hilo. You think I wanted my friends to drop me off in a pink trailer? But I grew up embracing happiness in this house.
“Pink Trailer Home in Hilo” could be the title of something, you know?
We will do it together! I come from a big, loving family, so growing up in a pink trailer in Hilo is fine with me!
John Katsilometes’ column airs daily in Section A. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at [email protected] To follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.