Senior Serenade

The Hawaiian Harmonica Society members, who are giving a concert Sunday at Mission Memorial Auditorium, are all senior citizens, but their music keeps them young

Friday - August 05, 2005
By Chad Pata
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Ron Kaneshiro plays a chord harmonica

“In them days I just as soon died — except for my harmonica. It was like a friend who didn’t give a damn if I could see or not.” — legendary bluesman Sonny Terry

Apparently Sonny was on to something as the pocket-size musical instrument keeps saving lives and recapturing their youth for many seniors here on Oahu. Just how it’s doing that will be on display this Sunday at the Mission Memorial Auditorium as the Hawaiian Harmonica Society holds its recital from 2 to 4 p.m.

“A good portion of older people in Hawaii grew up on plantations learning to play by ear,” says Al Tober, the president of the society who is retired from United Airlines. “Those are the kind of people who come to our shows.”

The walk down memory lane is nice for their audience, but the real beneficiaries may be the players themselves. All of them are senior citizens, their oldest is 90, and the activity of learning and playing the harmonica helps keep them sharp, as their teacher Bob Omura keeps reminding them.

“All of you are physically well. Why? Because you breathe well,” says Omura, who began teaching harmonica in 1993, though he has been playing since the ’40s. “And why do you breathe well? Because you play harmonica.”

All but one in the group had never before picked up a musical instrument, yet here they are performing weekly in senior homes and retirement communities.

“None of them could read music when they first came here, but they are enjoying learning it,” says Omura. “The learning helps invigorate them and that gives me a good feeling.”

Evelyn Findlay and Florence Omura
practice for the upcoming concert

His lessons were recently recognized after the group took a tour to Japan. The All Japan Harmonica Association honored him as an outstanding harmonica player and instructor. It is the first year that a player from outside Japan has been so honored.

He has worked hard, all on his upcoming concert own dime, for this recognition. This will be the eighth recital for the group that has swelled from its original six members to 80. They have split into two groups, the Small World Harmonica Band and Reed 21 Hawaii Harmonica Band, with both groups putting on a one hour show in the recital.

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