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Review: Hawaiian Musician Keali’i Reichel Brings Spirit of Aloha to Santa Barbara

While we in Santa Barbara don’t have the trade winds and warm, clear tropical ocean waters of Hawaii, we do have palm trees, hula dancing, surfing and outrigger canoe clubs. Of course, we embrace beach culture, wearing flip-flops just about everywhere. We like to feel that we are in on the spirit of aloha.

Keali'i Reichel
Keali'i Reichel (photo courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures)

But on March 12, UCSB Arts & Lectures delivered up a sweet infusion of the real deal — Grammy-nominated Hawaiian musician and hula master (kumu hula) Keali'i Reichel in concert at Campbell Hall.

When Reichel, a slight man with long black hair and a warm manner, asked who in the audience had never been to this type of Hawaiian music concert before, a sprinkling of hands went up.

"You won't see any coconut shell bras," he said mildly. "You won't see any grass skirts."

Indeed, instead we saw the flow and sway of velvet and cotton in soft and bold colors made into elegant traditional gowns, real ti leaf leis, arms and hands and hips that floated expressively and gracefully, telling ancient tales.

A native of Maui, Reichel grew up immersed in the Hawaiian language and culture that have remained his passion over the years. After working in education and with museums, he founded his own hula school in 1980, which has taken top awards at the prestigious annual Merrie Monarch competition. Two of his students, who earned the Miss Aloha Hula title in 2009 and 2011, were there to perform with him, as were many other dancers who have studied under him, some for decades, including multiple generations.

In 1994, Reichel released a collection of traditional and contemporary Hawaiian songs and chants, which went gold. Since then, he has continued to record steadily, selling more than a million albums in Hawaii alone, where the population of the entire state is only 1.4 million. He is working on an album to be released later this year.

Accompanied by his troupe of dancers, singers and guitarists, Reichel chatted easily with the audience, often self-deprecating riffs about how old he’s getting, while alternating between playing guitar, singing and dancing. He performed a hula dance with two male dancers in white, which blended Spanish-sounding guitar with more traditional Hawaiian music. The effect was an intoxicating salsa-hula, and his relaxed yet polished movements conveyed the love with which Reichel inhabits his multifaceted role of performer, teacher and mentor.

A delightful bonus was the pre-concert hula lesson with Hālau Hula O Pualanina’auali’ioha of Camarillo. Gracious teacher Rona Koe and her hālau (school) first taught a simple hula to all who cared to join in — a hearty crowd of at least 30 — and then performed a few hulas for us, all to live musical accompaniment.

At the opening of the show, Reichel asked Koe and her hālau to stand for recognition, and then invited them and everyone who had learned the hula in the lesson to step into the aisles and dance.

“There,” he said with a broad smile. “Now you can say you’ve opened for Keali'i Reichel.”

It was truly a beautiful evening of aloha spirit — a deep current of tradition topped with warm and contemporary flair.

— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.

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