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Making your own footsteps - Mahealani Keale

Profile by Ina Hinkelmann, staff writer

Usually, when you go to your classes every day it is always the same. The teacher gives a lecture, or you do some group work, but nothing extraordinary happens. One day, four weeks ago, when I went into my introductory journalism class, it was very different from that daily routine. We had a guest in class—Mahealani Keale. Our task was to interview him, and then we got a chance to listen to him play Hawaiian songs on his ukulele.
 

Mahealani Keale looks like an ordinary man and yet, he is somehow special. He is a man with great musical talent, and when he played his ukulele the whole energy of the room changed. His voice is soft, and his music ranges from sounding calm and slow to vivid and faster-paced. He sings with such passion and love for music that he gives people goose-bumps and touches them emotionally.

Of his parents, only his mother is still alive. She is originally from Ni‘ihau, a place where ancient Hawaiian culture is still alive. As an adult, she joined the army where she met and married Mahealani’s dad who was from Arkansas.

Mahealani’s uncle was Moe Keale, the well-known musician and TV actor who passed away in April 2002. Here in Hawai‘i, many people still remember him as a great and passionate Hawaiian musician.
Mahealani was born in Hawai‘i, but his family moved to central California where his dad’s parents lived when he was two years old because his parents wanted him and his siblings to grow up with their grandparents. The community was mainly Mexican and sometimes it was hard for family members to deal with both fitting in and still maintaining their Hawaiian identity and traditions. They often danced hula and played Hawaiian music.

When Mahealani was five years old, his right eye got hit by a rock while he was playing with some kids from the neighborhood. Because no adult noticed the accident, he was left lying on the street for hours. His eye could not be saved, and today he has a plastic eye.

Mahealani went to two different colleges, one was Mennonite Seminary in Fresno, Calif. and the other one was Multnomah Bible College and Seminary in Portland, Ore. After eight years of theological study, he earned two master’s degrees, one in Greek and one in Hebrew.

Mahealani, his wife Sally, and their 5-year-old daughter Emma moved back to Hawai‘i in 2001, when he got hired by The Gathering Church in Kailua here on O‘ahu. He said that usually it’s the other way around. Many Hawaiians move away because of the high costs of living in Hawai‘i. He hasn’t regretted his decision to come back, he said, adding that he and his family love it here, although for him being a hapa-haole (part white, part Hawaiian), it sometimes can also be rough to fit in.

Currently, Mahealani is working as a pastor. However, for him, doing his weekly service doesn’t mean going into a church. He wants to connect his parishioners with real life and says that we don’t need to go into a church, but that we are the church. So every Sunday, people come together for three to five hours on Kalapawai Beach (Kailua beach) behind the green market in Kailua to sing, eat, talk, and just spend time with each other. “It’s all about sharing the great aloha spirit,” Mahealani said.

Since Mahealani came back to Hawai‘i, he has learned a lot about Hawaiian culture. He had a need to know after being gone for so long. He said that as a college student, he studied his books. In Hawaiian culture, however, people learn through the kupuna, the elders. Old people are seen as the primary source of knowledge. Learning from books is almost looked down upon, for one can only really have trust in something if a kupuna says so. Hawaiian is still an oral culture. Also, it is considered rude to ask too many questions of older people. It’s the role of the less wise person to listen and to pay attention – to develop a feeling of things and to sense what needs to be learned.

According to Mahealani, the history of one’s family—one’s ancestors—is also a very important aspect in Hawaiian culture. For only when one knows one’s roots can he know where he comes from and who he really is.

About his Uncle Moe, Mahealani said that he didn’t see him often when he grew up. Sometimes his family went to his concerts when he was playing near their home in California. Once they even drove up to Canada to see him. As a child, Mahealani sometimes spent summers in Hawai‘i and that’s when he got to see his uncle.

For Mahealani, Uncle Moe always was a hero. “He seemed bigger than life,” Mahealani said. But most of his life, he was simply Moe’s nephew and didn’t have many adult conversations with him. Mahealani had only been back to Hawai’i for six months before Moe passed away.

In Hawaiian tradition, when someone dies, one can sometimes still feel the presence of the person. One day, shortly after Moe passed away, Mahealani was sitting on the beach when he suddenly saw his uncle. This was a very special and life-changing experience for him. On that day he felt that he had received Uncle Moe’s spirit and passion for music. After that, Mahealani suddenly knew how to play the ukulele and started singing to his music.

Mahealani said that he loves playing music and sharing it with others. He is a very spiritual person, and when you listen to his music, you can feel the Hawaiian spirit alive in the melodies. His musical talent is a gift and his music flows from him right into the listener’s soul.

His next concert is on Sunday, April 18th between noon and 3 p.m. at Ward Warehouse.

 

 

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