His Swan Song

Keali’i Reichel drops his first full album, Kawaiokalena, in years, then drops a bomb on his fans regarding his future

Keali’i Reichel, arguably Hawaiian music’s most popular and commercially successful recording artist ever, just released his first all-original LP in more than a decade and, in the shy guy from Maui’s typically understated way, he did so without much fanfare. As usual, there was no CD release party to announce his arrival — or in this case, herald his return — and no scheduled performance dates as of yet to promote his sixth album, Kawaiokalena.

But there was this little unexpected nugget he decided to drop on me: His latest project would indeed be his swan song, a fitting cap to a glorious recording career that began 20 years ago with the seminal release, Kawaipunahele.

“I’m looking at (Kawaiokalena) as a bookend to Kawaipunahele. But I’m not disappearing. You can’t get rid of me that fast!” says Reichel before breaking into a round of infectious laughter.

“You know, I may step into producer mode, do a single here or there or appear on someone else’s album — I’m not really sure at this point,” adds the highly accomplished songwriter, choreographer, dancer, chanter and kumu hula after the chortles die down. “But as far as doing another full-fledged album, this is definitely my last.”

When discussing the reasons behind this decision, Reichel points to several factors — most notably, age (he turned 53 this year) and the desire to spend more time with his hula troupe, Halau Ke’alaokamaile, in promoting native culture. “Now that I’ve reached this point in age, and if the average life span of a kanaka is 75 to 80, you start to see (the end) on the horizon. It’s coming. So I’ve been trying to establish different things for my halau while I still can. I don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to pass the reins on or to start training others. All of this should occur while my mind is still semi-bright, right?”

Of course, there is another important reason why Reichel is stepping away from producing complete albums any longer: He’s grown weary of working at a snail’s pace. “I’m not real prolific in songwriting and in the musical, creative process. Things come to me slowly — in part because I ain’t no spring chicken, you know!” admits Reichel, who oversees all aspects of his projects, including production of his compilation and Christmas albums and the Disney-contracted CD Music of the Maka’ala over the past decade. “It took about 12 years for (Kawaiokalena) to come to fruition, and I can’t see taking another 12 years to do another album,” explains Reichel, adding that he even “pulled the plug” on his annual “Kukahi” performances in Japan last year because he felt the live event had run its course. “It’s time to try other things and make a difference in other parts of my life or in the community, as best I can.”

In Kawaiokalena, fans will find joy in the album’s 15 richly produced tracks and overall eclectic feel, while reveling in Reichel’s characteristic sound of chants and soothing vocals layered over an ensemble of guitar, bass, ukulele and string instruments. From the majestic feel and Pi’iholo-inspired title track to the album’s kolohe-filled drinking song ‘Omata Pahe’e Te Aloha, which features the accompanying vocals of Kekuhi Kanahele and the human bass sounds of co-producer Shawn Pimental, Kawaiokalenadelivers a memorable tribute to key moments in Reichel’s life. Or, as the artist explains, “Every piece of the album is the reflection of a certain time or period over the past 12 years.”

Musical Notes asked the often interview-reluctant but whenever-you-can-get-’em-candid-and-humorous Reichel to step into its own booth on General Election Day and answer a few more questions about his ever-changing world:

MN: Did you perform your civic duty and vote?

KR: I did.

MN: Splendid! Now, can you imagine people voting for you one day — you know, when your recording career is done and you’re making a difference in the community as an elected official?

KR: No ways! I not that smart or that savvy to be a politician.

MN: You’re telling me the thought of a post-recording political career has never crossed your mind?

KR: Well, yeah, but only because people have asked me that before. They tell me I got name recognition and face recognition, and I should run for OHA or something, but I tell them that’s not enough. Plus for me, I need total control. In my halau or when I’m in concert, I have that control. In the political arena, there’s very little control. You get swept into what’s happening at any given moment. So, no chance. And like I already said, I’m just not that smart.

MN: Well you’re akamai enough to drop in at Jane’s Fountain in Liliha every time you’re in Honolulu. Saimin and hamburger get your vote every time, eh?

KR: Yeah, they’re still my weakness. I gotta get all that artery-clogging, greasy foods into my system whenever I’m in town, and especially from there because that’s old school kine food.

MN: And yet despite how weak in the knees those foods make you, you’re still in good shape.

KR: I know. Surprisingly I still leave my halau in the dust on hikes! I think it’s been helpful that I work out with weights, although trying to keep everything in place is getting harder and harder as I get closer to age 55.

MN: So regular weight training mixed in with a little bit of cardio too?

KR: No, no, no — no cardio! If I going be running, it’s gonna be because some monster is chasing me!

MN: Well, no one is chasing you from continuing a recording career, right? But I get it. You’re going to walk away on your own terms. Life is good when you’re in control, ain’t it?

KR: I have no complaints. And even if I did, nobody going listen anyway! But seriously, I can say that I live a very charmed life and it’s very humbling. I get to perform, I get to teach, I get to travel and, on top of that, I get to take the people who I love the most along with me on the journey. And that’s important because junk, yeah, if you all by yourself?