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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 30, 2006

Cultures find harmony in bluegrass jam

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer


Check out the Web site www.bluegrasshawaii.com for more information on Bluegrass Hawai'i

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The bluegrass musicians playing in the heart of Mo'ili'ili where Elvis performed before Hawai'i was a state included a blind concert pianist from the Philippines on fiddle, an Air Force major on banjo, two Japan natives on guitar and mandolin, and a former anthropology professor on standup bass.

And just for good measure, Patty Clayton, the 2005 Western Music Association's female vocalist of the year, joined in on the jam.

Bluegrass Hawai'i shows that foot-tapping, feel-good country is appreciated worldwide. About a hundred people showed up for yesterday's 10th monthly jam session at the park where old Honolulu Stadium served for 50 years as the state's major sports and concert showplace until Aloha Stadium opened in 1976.

There were no amplifiers or microphones, just acoustic instruments and beautiful three- and four-part harmonies.

Caroline Wright, who founded Bluegrass Hawai'i in May 2003, said the soon-to-be nonprofit organization has 650 members, though not everyone shows up for the monthly sessions. Wright attended the "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival" at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco this month that drew 500,000 people in three days.

"This is not hayseed music, it's not about dueling banjos from 'Deliverance,' not backwoods hillbilly," said Air Force Maj. Brad Jessmer, an Ohio native who has been playing bluegrass since he was 8. "Conceptually, it's a mixture of a dozen different cultures.

"Where else can I get to play with an Irish fiddle, Spanish sounds of a guitar and the Italian sounds of the mandolin?" Jessmer added. "I love all kinds of music but what draws me to bluegrass is it's improvisational. When I play this music, it gives me a chance to express myself."

Osamu "Sam" Hayakawa, 53, who moved to Hawai'i 28 years ago, has been playing bluegrass on the mandolin since he was 16. In 1984, Hayakawa was in a group called "5th Strings" that opened Bill Monroe's concert at the Waikiki Shell.

"In Japan, bluegrass is very popular; there are over 1.8 million fans," said Hayakawa, who works in TV sales and marketing. "It's a challenge to play any instrument in bluegrass because it requires technique. Even (Hawai'i 'ukulele master) Jake Shimabukuro has played some bluegrass."

Bass player Bob Schacht, 63, was introduced to bluegrass in the 1970s while teaching anthropology at the University of Maryland.

To get the sound, certain techniques are required, said Schacht.

"You have to have a banjo played in the Earl Scruggs style, that is finger roll rather than it being strummed," Schacht said. "The banjo has five strings rather than the New Orleans-style tenor banjo. You also need a mandolin, guitar, fiddler and standup bass."

Chris Cerna, 24, of the Cebu City, Philippines, is a classical and jazz concert pianist who taught himself to play the mandolin but is now concentrating on playing the fiddle because "we needed one."

"I love the way it's improvised and the tight harmonies," Cerna said.

Frequent Island visitor Clayton of Denver said, "The music is contagious, but the harmonies and camaraderie make it just plain fun to do."

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.