Big Island's bands plead for survival
By Colin M. Stewart
Members of the Hawai'i County Band gave perhaps the most important performance of their lives Monday, yet there was nary a musical instrument in sight.
Amid tears, laughter and even an impromptu sing-along that brought most of the 100 attendees to their feet, band members and their supporters spent more than three hours pleading their case to County Council members.
Their request: Find the money to save what they say isn't merely a band, but a cultural icon representing the best of what the Big Island has to offer.
Almost 60 speakers sat before the council to present testimony in support of the Hawai'i County Band and the West Hawai'i Band, which find themselves on the county's chopping block due to budget cuts.
One of the first speakers was former Mayor Harry Kim, who received thunderous applause as he approached the microphone.
"You know we've been through much harder times than this," he said. "When people talk about the county band, they say OUR band. I know times are tough ... but this is OUR band, for the people of Hawai'i. Please don't take it away from us."
Speakers railed against what they consider to be a continual decline in the government's esteem for the arts, and told council members that to support the cuts would be to destroy a vital part of the island's history and culture.
Wendell Lee said he had been a member of the band for 64 years, and remembered the year he signed on.
"I joined in 1946," he said, "the year of the tidal wave. It was a depressing time, but it became even more depressing when I learned it had consumed my new trombone.
"Music is the foundation that bridges old and young, rich, poor, middle class."
Gene Short told council members that their actions would have a lasting impact on the people of Hawai'i.
"The fine arts make up the essence of what it means to be human," he said. "Unfunding the band is the tearing out of our very soul."
Many speakers echoed the idea that failure to fund the band would send a message that music is not important.
Mayor Billy Kenoi on March 1 proposed eliminating the bands, saying there isn't enough money in the county's $375.4 million spending package to pay the members.
The bands consist of 34 Hilo-based musicians and 11 West Hawai'i members.
Kenoi's budget seeks to rein in spending to the tune of $11.7 million by eliminating 62 positions and furloughing several employees twice a month.
The mayor aims to keep the islandwide bus service running and set aside $1.5 million for nonprofit organizations.
The proposal to bring the 127-year-old tradition of the county bands to a halt raised a furor among some community members, prompting impassioned letters, e-mails and petition-signing campaigns.
Monday night's annual budget hearing was one of two required by the county Charter.
Council members listened to testimony, but did not take any action.
The next public hearing is set for May 17 at 5 p.m., when council members will meet in the council room at 25 Aupuni St. to seek input on property tax rates.