Musicians keep bluegrass alive in Hawaii
January 26, 2011
WAHIAWA, Hawaii - The lone, mournful sound of a fiddle wafts outside a white church located less than a mile from Wahiawa Botanical Garden on California Avenue. Behind the rectory's window panes and sliding doors is anywhere from a dozen to 16 casually dressed musicians. They sit in a meandering, uneven circle. Here and there, half-empty styrofoam cups and plastic water bottles sit next to or under brown chairs, in arm's reach of a thirsty musician.
A fiddler picks up his bow and strikes the fiddle's strings three times to kick-start "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)." More fiddlers join in; other musicians start picking guitars, plucking a banjo or strumming a ukulele. Most start singing along. The heart-aching lyrics can still pierce the hardest of hearts, the same way they could back when Hank Williams Sr.'s original version hit the charts in 1951.
The musicians have gathered at the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church rectory on a rainy afternoon, Sunday, to jam along with the Bluegrass Hawaii Traditional and Bluegrass Music Society.
Bluegrass Hawaii is a nonprofit association that promotes bluegrass and traditional music in the Hawaiian Islands. Types of music include acoustic bluegrass, newgrass, mountain, roots, traditional country, Americana, folk, western, Celtic, Irish and Hawaiian.
Soldiers, family members, retirees and Army civilians are invited to the free, monthly jam sessions, whether to play or just listen and clap along.
"This is the kind of music that so many Soldiers find familiar, comforting and friendly," said Caroline Wright via e-mail.
Wright sings with the group and handles publicity. Her son, Pfc. Matthew Campbell, is with the 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. Another son, Pvt. Joseph Hassani, belongs to the Hawaii Army National Guard.
"I can't tell you how many times young guys (and, in a few cases, young girls) have come up to me to thank me, tell me how homesick they've been, and how happy they are to hear fiddles and banjos and simple, lovely music made by real people, just like back home," Wright said.
"The older Soldiers and Sailors are similarly delighted," Wright added. "We have many, many retired military in our (bluegrass) community, and many active duty (personnel), as well."
Scott Rhode, who plays guitar, bass and harmonica, is a former Marine and a former commandant of the Hawaii Army National Guard's 29th Brigade, and a retired fireman who worked at Wheeler Army Airfield. He invites any service member to join in on a jam session.
"The whole family is welcome, grandmothers down to babies," he said. "A lot of musicians are lonely when they get into the service, because there's not a lot of musicians to play with.
"But here's an opportunity to come out and be with other like-minded people," Rhode said. "They'll be welcomed with open arms. It's a chance to get them out here and have some fun. They'll have a great time."
Like Rhode, RenAfA Berthiaume is a former Marine and plays guitar, plus the autoharp.
"I remember listening to Hank Williams Sr. and Bill Monroe (while growing up), and wanted to play like them," he said.
Berthiaume's musicianship took a different path, though, in the 1960s, when folk and protest songs filled the airwaves.
"I started playing Bob Dylan songs, playing the harmonica and guitar at the same time," he said, adding that his interest eventually "morphed into bluegrass."
While traditional music influences the jam sessions, contemporary tunes are also played. Rhode cites Alison Krauss as an example.
"(She's) a great fiddler and has a great voice," Rhode said. "Her backup musicians are fabulous. Bluegrass is lively music, but some of it's mournful music, and it really hits the emotions."
While Rhode considers himself "...more a rock 'n' roll and blues guy," he points out that jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll and bluegrass all share three-quarter progressions.
When Rhode first met the group, he wasn't sure if his musical style would mesh. However, "the group was really friendly and welcomed me with open arms."
He's been with the group for almost four years.
Learn more about the next jam session at www.bluegrasshawaii.com. See videos and more photos on http://www.flickr.com/photos/usag-hi/sets/72157625849232108/.