Story by Kathy Collins
“Music saved my life, at the age of four,” says Kalani Pe‘a.
Growing up on Hawai‘i Island, Kalani suffered from severe stuttering, which speech therapy in preschool failed to alleviate. His mother, Pua Leonard, turned to music. “It happened at the Kaiko‘o Mall in Hilo, at J.C. Penney’s,” Kalani recalls. “I started singing to the mannequins in the store. My mom goes, ‘Oh, you love a crowd!’ and she introduced me to music: vocal training, opera, choir. . . .” Mom was right; her young son enjoyed performing for an audience, and when he sang, his stuttering stopped altogether.
Kalani’s father, Arthur “Ata” Pe‘a, is himself an accomplished musician, and encouraged and influenced his son’s passion. “Because of my dad, I grew up singing all kinds of music: Temptations; Al Green; Earth, Wind & Fire; Genoa Keawe, Uncle Willie K . . . I love it all.”
Evidently the feeling is mutual. In 2017, Kalani, now a Maui resident, received a Grammy Award for his debut album, E Walea. Winning a Grammy, especially with a debut album, is no small feat, and this victory is even sweeter because E Walea is the first Hawaiian-music recording to receive the Best Regional Roots Music Album award since the category was created five years ago. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences combined the Hawaiian, Native American, polka, zydeco and Cajun Grammies in 2012, and the Regional Roots category has been dominated by Cajun/zydeco artists ever since. Until this year, when the self-described “big boy” with the lauhala bow tie and jaunty flat cap burst onto the Grammy scene.
The album’s title, E Walea, means to come together, like a flock of birds, in exuberance and enjoyment; it aptly portrays the energy that surrounds this young man. And the ease with which his voice sails — from the heights of pure, clear Hawaiian falsetto; to earthy, playful growls — evokes walea’s alternate definition: to do well, effortlessly, as an acquired skill.