Story by George Tanabe
When I was a young boy in Waialua in the 1950s, I could whistle the entire melody of “Shina no Yoru.” I could even sing its first verse in Japanese—though as an English- speaking third-generation Japanese- American, I had no idea what the lyrics meant. The song was everywhere in the 1950s; it was one of my favorites, and I absorbed it from the radio and my Uncle Primo, who loved to sing it when he was drinking beer. My childhood repertoire also included songs such as “Yuyake Koyake,” “Gomen-nasai,” “Ginza Kan Kan Musume” and other numbers popular with the nisei generation of my parents. But as I graduated into rock ’n’ roll and then folk music, I buried the Japanese songs deep into my musical memory, never expecting to hear them again.
It might seem strange to those of us who possess stacks of CDs, let alone iPods, that most of the second-generation nisei groups in the Islands did not record their music; instead, people heard it by going to live performances or tuning in to live broadcasts on the radio. When the bands started to die out in the 1960s and completely disappeared in the ’70s, the music of an entire generation in Hawai‘i went silent.
Almost. There were a few recordings out there, locked up in the obsolete technology of 78 rpm records. “There were records in the basement of Uncle Harry’s house,” says Alan Yoshioka, co-owner of Harry’s Music, the legendary music store founded by his uncle, who was also a leader of the wildly popular Hawaii Shochiku Orchestra. The records eventually found their way to producer Michael Cord, who secured licensing rights to the Shochiku recordings as well as the records of Club Nisei, another popular group. Cord digitally remastered the recordings and, from 2000 to 2003, released four CDs under the Hana Ola label: Club Nisei, Club Nisei Encore!, Paradise Honolulu: Hawaii Shochiku Orchestra and Honor Bound: Hawaii Shochiku Orchestra.
Brian Suzuki, a third-generation expert on Japanese songs and movies, lends me the four CDs. When I listen to them, all these decades later, I am washed over by nostalgia: The songs are full of heartbreak, patriotism, tragedy, humor and, above all, romance. Now I speak Japanese fluently, and I understand the lyrics at last. And, spurred by the music to investigate, I learn the history of this lost era in Island music.