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Hawai‘i's elder paddlers bring experience and wisdom to the canoe and rip it up on the water
Vol. 10, No. 3
June / July 2007

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Music of the Hemispheres 

story by J. W. Junker
photos by Brad Goda


It's the end of another term at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and on a Sunday afternoon several hundred ethnomusicology students have gathered to perform what they've learned during the semester. The festivities begin inside Orvis Auditorium with the nahenahe (relaxing) sounds of the UH slack key guitar ensemble. Next comes dance from Japan and Okinawa, followed by the ancient Shinto ritual music of kagura. A Chinese group performs a 1,000-year-old composition in a tuning system that originated to harmonize humanity with nature. As the celebration moves outside to the Barbara Smith Amphitheater, mallets strike metal, and the Javanese gamelan begins a slow, intricate composition. A Tahitian dance troupe picks up the pace with shouts and drumming, and at the end of the afternoon, musicians and dancers give renewed life to the words of an especially apt mele, He hiwahiwa au na ka makua / A he lei ‘a‘i na ke kupuna (I am the darling of the parents / And a lei for the necks of grandparents).

This is ethnomusicology in action, as practiced at the University of Hawai‘i. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the UH ethnomusicology program, which Professor Barbara Smith started in 1957 with a single course on Asian music and a goal to expand the music department's offerings to reflect the diversity of its students. When Smith arrived in the Islands eight years earlier, only Western classical music was being taught at UH. She was fresh from the faculty of America's most prestigious music school, Eastman, in Rochester, New York and had been hired to teach piano and the Eastman approach to music theory in the department, which was then only three years old. Classes were held in flimsy wooden buildings. "One of the first things I was told, even before going into the building, was that high heels were not allowed because they might poke a hole in the floor," Smith says.

Fifty years on, UH has one of the world's great ethnomusicology programs, where students can study music and dance from an array of cultures and learn to perform Japanese koto, Indonesian gamelan, Okinawan classical music, Hawaiian slack key, hula and chant and more. "Ethnomusicology is the study of music in cultural and musical contexts," says the program's current chair, Professor Frederick Lau. "What has always made the UH program unique is the emphasis Professor Smith put on the rich mix of cultures in Hawai‘i."

From the outset, Smith's students were enthusiastic, but few read music well. Lessons in sight-reading went slowly until one day Smith suggested that everyone just sing the melody they were trying to read. "To my astonishment, only a few sang the melody," she says. "The others harmonized by ear quite beautifully." As she spent more time with students of various racial and cultural backgrounds, she began to realize that not all of what she had been taught to consider basic to teaching or performing music applied in Hawai‘i.

To learn more about what did apply, Smith began studying koto with Kay Mikami. The pursuit heightened her sensitivity to timbre, a key element in much of Japanese music. It also inspired her to devote her first sabbatical, in 1956, to studying in Japan. Next followed lessons in Taiwan and Korea. "I still marvel that I had these opportunities," Smith says. "Though I never became really accomplished, I came to consider the cultural experience of learning to perform the music of another culture„and to learn it from a member of that culture„to be as important as the musical experience itself."

When Smith expressed an interest in taiko drumming, Mikami-san suggested the Iwakuni Ondo Aikokai, which was watching the number of its drummers dwindle. "I met with the head drummer, Goichi Fukunaga, and he allowed me to practice with them," Smith recalls. Next Fukunaga took an even bolder step, inviting Smith to perform at the obon dances. As the first woman and the first person not of Japanese ancestry so honored, she set an example. "Apparently, whether because of my university affiliation, being an outsider to the culture, or both, my drumming seemed to encourage some young people to learn," Smith says. There has been no shortage of drummers since.