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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 1, 2007

'Ewa's sugar plantation legacy to grow quieter

Video: Plantation singers keeping culture alive

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser West O'ahu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Helen Pagdilao of 'Ewa Beach conducts the 'Ewa Plantation Singers, most children and grandchildren of 'Ewa plantation workers.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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AT A GLANCE

What: Final performance of the 'Ewa Plantation Singers

When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22

Where: 26th annual Ewa Community Church Mission Fair on Renton Road

Other details: The fair runs from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and will also feature other entertainers, as well as food, games, a country store, crafts, plants and baked goods.

More information: Call the Ewa Community Church, 681-3471

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Myrna-Lyn Abang, left, and Diana Lagmay, both of 'Ewa, spout out in song with their group, known for vibrant Filipino costumes, snappy dance steps and classic songs.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Front row, from left: Lucy Bonifacio of Kapolei, Diana Lagmay of 'Ewa and Jan Baisac of Pearl City sing with the 'Ewa Plantation Singers.

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Sandwiched between two of O'ahu's fastest-growing communities Kapolei and "new" 'Ewa lies sleepy Ewa Villages.

In this proud, once-bustling hub of the Leeward side few vestiges of its sugar plantation days remain. And one of them, the 'Ewa Plantation Singers, will hold a final concert on Sept. 22.

The singers, comprised largely of second- and third-generation offspring of 'Ewa Plantation workers, took it upon themselves over the last few decades to keep alive the memories of their childhood and those of their parents.

The passage of time, however, has caught up with the group known for vibrant Filipino costumes and snappy dance steps that has performed at everything from funerals to holiday parades and even the governor's mansion.

Their final concert will be held at the 26th annual Ewa Community Church Mission Fair, where the group has performed the past 25 years. Born to remind people of their 'Ewa Plantation roots, the group has decided to make its final stand in 'Ewa.

The singers are expected to take the stage at the fair at around 11 a.m.

A MOTHER'S JOY

Lucy Bonifacio, 68, who was raised in Fernandez Village and now lives in Kapolei, said she recalled the joy on her mother's face when she heard the group singing songs of her youth.

"It brought back a lot of memories," Bonifacio said. "My mom liked to sing, too, at parties like that. Those songs really touched your heart. You don't have that now. I miss that old, laid-back plantation life."

Tesha Malama, longtime executive director of the 'Ewa Villages Owners Association, said the group "always gave us a sense of pride ... their voices were so beautiful and had a connection to the way things were. To lose that is like we're losing another connection to the past."

Where the group once boasted a membership 27 strong, today it has dwindled to 12, all of them women. For many years, the group practiced every Monday and Wednesday. That changed to Wednesdays only. Lately, the group has been rehearsing only in the weeks leading up to a performance.

"It was getting very hard to just get together and practice like we used to," said Myrna-Lyn Abang, president of the singing group.

"A lot of them are ailing, their feet hurt, or they cannot spin anymore," said Abang, who, at 52, is the youngest member of the group. Everyone else is in their 60s, 70s and 80s. "And we've lost a few recently. So it's about time."

GOING OUT WITH A BANG

While the ladies are wistful about the group's demise, they're vowing to go out with a bang.

As Helen Pagdilao, the group's octogenarian conductor, huddled with Abang, her niece, following last week's rehearsal to discuss the group's playlist for its final concert, she urged Abang to slot in more upbeat and visual numbers. This was shortly after a rehearsal during which several members asked to sit down to rest their tired feet.

The group will end their last set with a long list of standards including "Till," "Apple Blossom Time," and an Ilocano version of the Tagalog love song "Dahil Sa Iyo."

Venny Villapondo, who featured the group on his long-running television program "Filipino Beat," said he also is saddened by the group's demise.

"They were the quintessential Filipino Americans because they exhibited so much love and respect for their culture and Filipino traditions," Villapondo said. "And yet, at the same time they were very proud of being sons and daughters (of plantation workers) born and raised in 'Ewa. To me, they bridged the generation gap between their parents and their own children."

Malama said she hopes the ladies will stay involved in the 'Ewa community, for instance by joining the 'Ewa Elementary School's annual Lincoln Day festivities. "Every time we heard them, there was always a sense of this was what community is supposed to be about," she said.

Some of the singers said they intend to keep getting together informally but there did not appear to be any immediate plans to perform publicly.

LOW-KEY BEGINNINGS

Like other legendary musical groups, the 'Ewa Plantation Singers started off as a loose-knit gang of singers. They would get together through the 1980s to sing at the funerals of 'Ewa Villages residents and former residents and other community gatherings.

Pastora Shibuya and Franklin Pagdilao, both of whom have since died, formalized the group in 1990 to sing at the centennial celebration of the 'Ewa Sugar Plantation.

"Their popularity grew from that point forward," said Abang, Pagdilao's cousin who joined the group in the mid-1990s. "They were singing at political events, they were singing at festivals, they were part of the ... Santa Express."

They traveled from Wai'anae to Hawai'i Kai, appealing to a broad spectrum of Hawai'i residents longing to hear both Filipino classics and American standards, typically songs their parents played on their Victorphones or danced to at the plantation social hall.

Among the most popular numbers: "Smile," written by Charlie Chaplin and made famous by Nat King Cole, and the Angels' and Roger Williams' "Till" as well as Filipino favorites such as "Ang Papit," an upbeat Tagalog song about a sparrow.

"We would sing all the dialects of the Filipino language from Visayan, Tagalog, Ilocano, even Pagasinan," Abang said. "I mean, stuff we could hardly pronounce let alone know the meaning of, but the melody was there and our group was known to pick up the harmony fairly well and we presented it in a way that people loved to hear."

Catherine Cabudol, 68, of Varona Village, said she grew up with several of her fellow singers.

"These are all my friends we went to school together, we went to church together, we played together," Cabudol said.

Life in 'Ewa today is much different than it was when they were growing up.

"Today, you're on your own, even the neighbors don't bother you," she said. "Some neighbors say hello but it's not like before."

Operations at the 'Ewa sugar mill ceased in the early 1990s, marking the end of more than a century of plantation life.

Fernandez Village, Tenney Village, Renton Village and Varona Village all still remain in some form or another. Some homes, like many of the ones in Fernandez, have been rebuilt from scratch, while others like many of those in Renton and Tenney, have largely been renovated and are now occupied by people with no ties to the plantation.

Varona remains an eyesore and a sensitive topic for city officials and remaining residents. The mill site itself is slowly undergoing changes with a portion being transferred to the Honolulu Police Department as a storage area.

J.P. Orias, a Filipino community leader, called the upcoming demise of the 'Ewa Plantation Singers a "dreadful" development, noting the significance of Filipino Americans singing the songs of their forefathers.

"Most of them are local," Orias said. "Their parents came here as sakadas (Filipino plantation workers), and they were singing the original Filipino songs that some of them barely understood because they were born with English as their first language already. They were doing it not just for themselves, but for the future generations, to perpetuate the culture."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.