Hawaii’s Cherished Child

Every time Keali’i Reichel finishes an album, he says it’s his last one. This time, with his focus increasingly on teaching hula, he just might mean it

Bill Mossman
Friday - October 14, 2005
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Keali'i Reichel enjoys a bowl of saimin, and the old-time ambiance, at Jane's Fountain in Liliha
Keali’i Reichel enjoys a bowl of saimin, and the
old-time ambiance, at Jane’s Fountain in Liliha

Care to know what makes Keali’i Reichel’s soul really sing? Just sit him down inside a booth in the rear of Jane’s Fountain - a tiny mom ‘n’ pop restaurant in Liliha - and allow him to kick back and enjoy the entire old-style setting, with its Formica tables, large heavy-duty workbench fans and a Coke-dispensing machine from the 1960s that no longer works. Then watch him order anything off of the menu - most likely hamburger and saimin - and listen to the wonderful melodies and memories they produce within the multi-talented singer, song-writer, dancer, choreographer, chanter and teacher.

“Eating in a place like this reminds me of my growing up time,” says Reichel, referring to his island home of Maui and, specifically, the town of Paia. “There was a place there called Wimpy’s Corner and they specialized in hamburger and saimin.”

He briefly pauses to soak up the reminiscences of his youthful days in the early ‘70s before quickly returning to the present. “Now (Jane’s) has become the standard. So whenever I go and eat hamburger someplace else, or saimin, I always go, ‘Hmm. Is this as good as ...?’”

He discovered the decades-old eatery about three years ago while his manager, Fred Krauss, was undergoing a liver transplant at nearby St. Francis Hospital. Since then, Reichel has made it a point to stop in at Jane’s Fountain every weekend when he flies from the Valley Isle to the Gathering Place, just so he can sink his teeth into two of his favorite dishes.

“But it’s not only the food; it’s the whole ambiance of this place,” he explains, adding that he’ll occasionally deviate from the norm and order something else on the menu, like sari-sari. “See, these kinds of places are slowly but surely disappearing. You’re not gonna see this place, in the same way, in 10 or 15 years. On Maui, there are only something like two mom ‘n’ pop stores left on the whole island. So for me, I guess I’m trying to eat up as much as I can before these places change or disappear.”

The latter statement - specifically the words “change” and “disappear” - in many ways perfectly describes the present state of mind of Hawaii’s foremost entertainer. With his latest CD, a two-disc compilation album called Kamahiwa, slated for release Oct. 25, Reichel claims that his sixth album could indeed be his last.

Then again, it might not.

“Where I’m gonna go from here, I don’t know. I may not ever do another album again,” he says, perfectly aware that such a disappearing act could cause a series of panic attacks among many of his most ardent fans.

C’mon, Keali’i. Don’t you always sing the same tune after releasing an album?

The man who’s spent the past decade living on Billboard Magazine‘s World Music and Heatseeker charts ponders the question for a few seconds.

“Yeah. Always,” he sheepishly admits before bursting into laughter. “I’ve learned that nothing is final, nothing is set. When people ask me, ‘When you going make another album?‘I say, ‘I don’t know. When pau!

“But really, my focus has been more on the hula in the last two or three years.”

In many ways, Reichel has come full circle. Like his weekly jaunts to Jane’s, he’s hearkening back to his younger days - when it was all about the hula and the perpetuation of this ancient art, and less about his aspirations as a singer. As much as Reichel loves his hamburger and saimin, his weekly flights into Honolulu are for a more important reason: to study under kumu hula George Holoka’i.

According to Reichel, Holoka’i came out of retirement several years ago to pass on his knowledge of the hula, which he first learned as an alaka’i (student teacher) of Tom Hiona, and later as a student of Lillian Maka’ena and Mary Kawena Puku’i. The opportunity to learn under one of the masters was too good for Reichel and several other renowned kumu hula to pass up.

“What’s important to me is just hanging out with Uncle (George),” says Reichel, while slurping up his saimin noodles. “He comes from a different time, a different generation, and the way he learned hula is real different from today. And just by osmosis, we get to view, in a small way, how he thinks and how he approaches the mele. It’s a much simpler way of approaching hula. And I find that my own methodology has changed. I’m starting to pattern my own technique after him.

“For example, Uncle likes to teach ‘in mirror,‘which is basically facing your students and doing the motions. I never learned that way; I never taught that way. I would always turn my back to my students and do my motions. But doing it ‘in mirror’ has been real difficult.” The founder of Halau Ke’alaokamaile again pauses and begins to chuckle. “I’m an old dog, yeah? I cannot learn too many new tricks.

“What I’m trying to do is gear up and specifically train select students of mine to perhaps move to the next level and teach. Again, I may not be old,” says the 44-year-old Reichel, “but I ain’t no spring chicken either! I’ve done my time, made my mark and I think it’s time for me to begin training others in my particular style of movement and chant.”

In the meantime, his fans from around the world can continue to enjoy his latest release, Kamahiwa. Listeners will immediately notice that, although Reichel has no new songs on the album, he has carefully separated many of his finest com-

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