With his mix of Hawaiian chanting and strains of mainland pop music, Keali'i Reichel became Hawaii's most popular indigenous artist throughout the 1990s, garnering more than a dozen Na Hoku Hanohano awards. Moving beyond local fame, he won fans on both the United States mainland and internationally, as well as opening for major American and international artists.
The first son of a Hawaiian mother and German father, Keali'inani'aimokuokalani Reichel was born in the early 1960s on the island of Maui. As was often common in Hawaii, he spent the first five years of his childhood living with his mother's parents, immersed in native Hawaiian culture and values. His maternal grandmother, Kamaile Puhi Kane, would prove to be an important musical influence. While growing up in Lahaina, on Maui's west side, Reichel would spend summers and weekends in Pa'ia, on the northern part of the island. As a student at Lahainaluna High School in Lahaina, his music lessons continued under Peter Day.
At age 17, as a student of the Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaii, he took up traditional chanting. But it wasn't until age 26 that he would seek out formal studies. Reichel's musical formation reached a new level with his studies under kumu hula (hula teacher) and master chanter Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele, daughter of the Hawaiian scholar and kumu hula "Aunty" Edith Kanaka'ole. Reichel would later go on to found his own hula school.
"It was at that point I started discovering my voice and little nuances; how to bring out emotion, how to put yourself in the composer's shoes, in English or Hawaiian," he later told the World Sound website. "When you get chant training you have to become aware of where all the tones are coming from and you have to be able to visualize what you're saying. If a chant was written 300 years ago, you're supposed to be able to put yourself into that spot and feel what the composer is trying to convey."
A shy public singer who limited his talents to gatherings of family and friends, Reichel did not at first actively pursue a professional music career. In addition to his role as founding director of the Hawaiian language immersion preschool Punana Leo O Maui, he gave a Hawaiian culture class at Maui Community College and acted as cultural resource specialist and curator at Wailuku's Bailey House Museum.
His first album was something of an accident. In 1994, with his friends in mind, he independently produced a collection of traditional Hawaiian and contemporary music. Kawaipunahele (The Favorite Waters) was soon released commercially and sold more than 350,000 copies, making it the most successful album in Hawaiian history. It was only then that he succumbed to pressure from fans to form a back-up band and perform before a mass audience; his first concert drew 10,000 spectators.
Reichel's second album, Lei Hali'a, sold more than 500,000 copies and was so successful that mainland United States record companies began courting him. After reissuing Reichel's first two albums for mainland audiences, Atlantic then released E O Mai in 1997. The mainland label's contract with the artist reportedly required that the artist's Hawaiian perspective be respected, and that the band could not be required to leave Hawaii for more than two weeks every two months. On his website Reichel explained that when he is "removed spiritually from Hawaii … the energy starts to dissipate because there's no [other] place … that I can regenerate and get inspired."
Hawaii, a former sovereign monarchy taken over by the United States in the nineteenth century, has seen its indigenous culture and language battered for generations, and one of the goals of Reichel's music is to preserve and promote the Hawaiian language. "Most big local recording artists aren't fluent in Hawaiian. They don't know the cultural details that go into the delivery of a song or the composition of a Hawaiian language song. On my records, I think that's part of what people like about it," Reichel said on his website.
Reichel has traveled throughout the United States mainland, using music to dispel stereotypes about Hawaii's native people ("We don't run around naked, we don't live in grass shacks. We are modern. We are educated. We are a living, viable, important culture with a voice"). He has also toured Japan and the SouthPacific. In addition to producing widely-praised albums, he has opened for American acts like Bonnie Raitt and LeAnn Rimes, as well as international performers such as Sting and Celine Dion. According to his official website, Reichel has played "such diverse venues as Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the sportswear department at the Mililani WalMart."
In December of 2003, Reichel released Ke'alaokamaile, an album paying tribute to his grandmother and others who have helped him in his musical and cultural pursuits. On the album Reichel preserved the Hawaiian tradition of keeping family history alive through song, by chanting the lineage of his grandmother. "Chant is the breath of life—when Reichel chants, a sound emerges from deep within and his whole body resonates with an earth-shaking effect," wrote Jamie O'Brien on the PopMatters website. "Although he basically remains on one note, he twists and turns his voice. Behind him, the driving ipu (gourd drum) punctuates the chant."
Ten years after his debut album, Reichel continued to sweep the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts' Na Hoku Hanohano awards, with eleven nominations and seven Hokus awarded in 2004. That year's awards included the award for Male Vocalist of the Year, and Ke'alaokamaile was considered both Best Album of the Year and Hawaiian Album of the Year. The cut "Ka Nohona Pili Kai" was composed by Reichel with Puakea Nogelmeier, and was awarded Song of the Year. In total, Reichel has been named Male Vocalist of the Year four times. On three occasions his recordings have been deemed Album of the Year.
In mid-2004 Reichel continued to tour, and in August he was scheduled to tour Japan, followed in October by a concert in Cerritos, California, and a Hula Workshop in Indianapolis, Indiana.
"Hawaiian songs live," Reichel told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on the night of his 2004 awards victory. "I think it's a direct consequence of having such talented young people, not only composers but performers who understand what they are doing, who draw from a rich tradition and are able to bring it forward into this particular time."
For the Record …
Born c. 1963, in Lahaina, Maui, HI. Education: Attended Lahainaluna High School, studying under Peter Day. Began traditional chanting as Hawaiian language student at University of Hawaii; later studied under master chanter Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele.
Albums include Kawaipunahele, 1994; Lei Hali'a, 1995; E O Mai, 1997; Melelana, 1999; and Ke'alaokamaile, 2003.
Awards: Na Hoku Hanohano Award, Male Vocalist of the Year, Most Promising Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, Popular Hawaiian Album of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, 1995; Male Vocalist of the Year, Popular Hawaiian Album of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, 1996; Male Vocalist of the Year, Hawaiian Album of the Year, Album of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, 2000; Male Vocalist of the Year, Best Album of the Year, Hawaiian Album of the Year, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Punahele Records, 525 Akolea Pl., Wailuku, HI 96793, phone: (808) 249-0090. Website—Keali'i Reichel Official Website: http://www.kealiireichel.com. E-mail—[email protected]
Kawaipunahele, Punahele, 1994; reissued, Atlantic.
Lei Hali'a, Punahele, 1995; reissued, Atlantic.
E O Mai, Punahele, 1997; reissued, Atlantic.
Ke'alaokamaile, Punahele, 2003.
Honolulu Advertiser, May 25, 2004.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 25, 2004.
The Hula Source, http://www.hulasource.com/kealiireichel.html (June 30, 2004).
"Keali'i Reichel," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 5, 2004).
"Keali'i Reichel," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/r/reichelkealii-kealaokamaile.shtml (June 9, 2004).
Keali'i Reichel Official Website, http://www.kealiireichel.com (July 4, 2004).
WorldSound, http://www.worldsound.com/keali/biography.asp (July 9, 2004).
—Brett Allan King
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