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Four Strings and a Cloud of Dust

Tradition lives in the music of the Na Kupuna Ukulele Club.



Earlier this month more than 100 members of the Na Kupuna Ukulele Club celebrated its fourth anniversary, and 70-year-old Hifumi Sato hula danced her way to victory at the club's talent competition. Na kupuna is Hawaiian for elder, and every week Japanese-American seniors born in Hawaii and the continental U.S. meet at the Japanese American Service Committee Center on Clark near Wilson to strum the ukulele and hula dance. This year 70-year-old emcee Herb Yamashiroya promised the winner of the talent show a free trip to "Viagra Falls."

Sato hula danced the role of Tutu E (Hawaiian for grandmother) in an interpretative piece with seven spry dancers assisting. They wore straw hats and floral Hawaiian print muumuus and carried empty plastic jugs marked oko lehao (the name of a potent Hawaiian drink).

A retired secretary and a native of Kauai, the four-foot-seven Sato understood the role. "Tutu just let everything go," she explained. "One Sunday morning, rather than going to church she decided she was going to town to drink it up." The choreographer, 37-year-old Lanialoha Lee, teaches hula and Tahitian drum and dance at the Old Town School of Folk Music; her father, 62-year-old Calvin Lee, was born on the island of Oahu but brought her up in Buffalo Grove. Lee and a student, 68-year-old Gary Katano, played ukuleles and sang ("Hookahi Sunday afternoon / There goes my Tutu E").

Sato smiled brightly throughout the five-minute sketch, which must have had something to do with her casting as the tipsy Tutu. Her hula group meets every Friday morning at the Ravenswood Fellowship United Methodist Church. "They told me, 'The only Tutu we need is you.' I enjoyed it." She finds hula easy: "There's several steps you have to know. Everything else is your interpretation of the music.

"It took me a long time to convince people this community even existed in Chicago," she says. "Some of us found ourselves so far away from the island that we must do what we can to re-create the atmosphere and spirit of aloha. Sometimes we acquire that through teaching. Other times we go to a luau in somebody's backyard. Then it could be a concert at the Old Town School. The aloha spirit is among everybody. It's just a matter of tapping in. Whatever it takes. That is the commonality."

The party menu included native cuisine like mochiko chicken (with rice flour coating the bird), assorted Japanese pickles, and Spam musubi, a slice of Spam trying to sneak out of a circular layer of rice and seaweed. "This is the best-seller in Hawaii," crowed Helen Kuwashima, a club founder.

She sat at a long cafeteria table that was decorated with a paper pineapple centerpiece and plastic Easter eggs. Yamashiroya, a retired microbiology teacher from Honolulu, sat nearby. "Hawaii imports more Spam than any state in the union," he said. "We put Spam in everything. Instead of ham and eggs, we have Spam and eggs. During World War II our GIs brought Spam to Hawaii--that's how it started." He smiled at Kuwashima as she sneaked bites of takuwan, called "dynamite." It's a thinly sliced pickled radish with yellow food coloring. "It has a very pungent odor. That's why they call it dynamite." He then got up and left.

A retired secretary from the National Tea Company, Kuwashima founded the Na Kupuna Ukulele Club in 1997. "Most of us didn't even know what a ukulele looked like. We knew very little about Hawaiian songs." She was born in Torrance, California, to a strawberry farmer, Genkichi Bingo. During World War II the entire family was interned in a camp at the Santa Anita racetrack in LA. The family resettled in Chicago in 1946 at the behest of the Japanese American Service Committee, founded that year and now the host of the party.

Calvin Lee taught her the ukulele. "Now we do our gigs all over, at churches, temples, clubs." (About 30 members will appear May 17 at the White Eagle Restaurant in Niles.) At one time Kuwashima had roughly 48 members playing ukulele at once.

"It takes patience to learn the ukulele," says Lee. "It's a lot of repetition, one chord at a time. Once you get it down, you move on to another key. There's only four major chords. Hawaiian music is the easiest music to learn--it's not like American songs with a lot of minor chords." The Portuguese brought the four-stringed braquino to Hawaii in the late 1870s, and the natives named it the ukulele (jumping flea) for the rapid strumming technique. Lee has been playing since he was 12, when he got a plastic ukulele from a Honolulu dime store as a gift. Later, when he moved to Chicago, he learned bass and guitar.

At the party the club sang "Hilo March," then "The Queen's Jubilee" (written in 1877 by Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last monarch), then the Japanese ballad "Wakare Wa Iso Chidori," composed by a soldier going off to World War II.

The talent show followed, with Mak Fukuda drawling the love song "Morning Dew" and Sieni Ladas and Patricia Yamanuha dueting on the Samoan ballad "Tausagi Mai Nu" ("Early Bird"). "Our song is about a guy who was looking for a maiden to marry," Ladas explained. "He was looking through the ocean and there was nothing but sharks and beasts. He returned to the mountains and the forest and he found the bird, who told him it would come natural for him to find someone."

At 7:45 the performers gathered for a final song, holding hands with those on either side of them in the old Hawaiian tradition. Calvin and Lanialoha Lee led the ukulele group in "Hawaii Aloha" ("Beloved Hawaii"), written more than 100 years ago by the Reverend Lorenzo Lyons, and more than 60 guests swayed to the tune (Don Ho and the Aliis used to close their revue with it): "Happy youth of Hawaii / Rejoice! Rejoice! / Gentle breezes blow / Love always for Hawaii / Happy youth of Hawaii."

"It's a song that's close to the hearts of local Hawaiians," Lanialoha Lee said. "It is almost like an anthem in the sense of unity it brings. If you didn't feel aloha, you wouldn't hold hands. It's a single voice in a single room of a lot of people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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