Echoes of Aloha: preserving culture through music


Hawaii is celebrated for its stunning landscapes, vibrant culture, and, perhaps most notably, its enchanting music. The roots of Hawaiian music run deep, intertwining with the islands’ complex history and diverse cultural influences. 

At the forefront of this musical tapestry stands Kalani Pe’a, a contemporary artist whose work pays homage to this rich heritage while adding his own unique voice to the island’s harmonious legacy.

The history of Hawaiian music is a story of cultural fusion and resilience. Traditional Hawaiian music, known as “na mele,” was initially performed using chanting and percussion instruments like the “ipu” (gourd drum) and “pahu” (sharkskin drum). As Western contact increased in the 18th and 19th centuries, Hawaiians began to incorporate European instruments such as the guitar, ukulele, and steel guitar. This blending of cultures led to the emergence of new musical styles, including “hapa haole” music, which featured Hawaiian lyrics with Western melodies.

Kalani Pe’a’s music embodies this fusion of tradition and innovation. Born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, Pe’a is a three time Grammy-winning artist who masterfully combines the spirit of Hawaii’s past with contemporary sounds. He credits his late grandmother, Rose Kawaiae’a, as a significant influence in his journey, teaching him the essence of Hawaiian culture, language, and music. By embracing his cultural heritage, Pe’a has become a torchbearer for the revival of Hawaiian language and music.

Kalani Pe’a is dedicated to singing primarily in the Hawaiian language but he is also known to perform bi-lingual arrangements of his favorite R&B songs. In the mid-20th century, the Hawaiian language was dangerously close to extinction, with only a handful of fluent speakers remaining. By incorporating Hawaiian lyrics into his music, Pe’a plays a pivotal role in preserving and promoting this endangered language. His commitment to singing in Hawaiian serves as a testament to the power of music as a tool for cultural preservation.

Pe’a’s debut album, “E Walea,” which won him the Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album in 2017, showcases his unique blend of traditional and contemporary styles. The album is a mesmerizing journey through the diverse genres of Hawaiian music, from the soulful balladry of “He Lei Aloha” to the lively rhythms of “Noho Paipai.” Each track is a tribute to the land, culture, and people of Hawaii, a testament to the enduring spirit of the islands. Pe’a remains the only Hawaiian artist to win a Grammy in this category.

Kalani Pe’a’s success has not only brought recognition to his own talents but also shone a spotlight on the broader Hawaiian music scene. He serves as an inspiration for aspiring artists who seek to connect with their roots and contribute to the continued evolution of Hawaiian music. In a world where globalization often threatens indigenous cultures, Pe’a’s music is a beacon of hope, reminding us that tradition can thrive alongside innovation.

Beyond his musical contributions, Kalani Pe’a is a cultural ambassador for Hawaii. He has used his platform to raise awareness about the importance of preserving Hawaiian language and culture, advocating for the revitalization of the “olelo Hawaii” (Hawaiian language) in schools and communities. Through his efforts, he promotes a deeper understanding of the history, values, and traditions that make Hawaii such a unique and cherished place.

Hawaiian music, with its rich history and ever-evolving sound, is a treasure that reflects the beauty and diversity of the islands. Kalani Pe’a’s place in this musical tapestry is that of a guardian, preserving the legacy of Hawaiian culture while adding his own innovative brushstrokes to the canvas. His dedication to singing in the Hawaiian language and his ability to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity have earned him a well-deserved place of honor in the annals of Hawaiian music.

Music is one of the best ways to learn about and preserve culture and serves as a conduit that connects us all. I feel very fortunate to be in a community that honors the traditions of multiple cultures. Hawaiian culture takes center stage this weekend as Kalani Pe’a will perform to an intimate audience in the Center Theater at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido on Saturday, October 14.

Gina Lopez is CEO at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. To learn more about California Center for the Arts, Escondido go to artcenter.org.

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