The Happiest Band in Hawai’i

The Small World Harmonica Band up to 40 members from just a handful a few years ago offers seniors a creative outlet and healthful benefits, while making audiences smile. It’s 8:15 on a Tuesday morning in Moanalua and practice doesn’t begin for another 45 minutes, but many members of the Small World Harmonica Band are already getting their instruments out of their cases and starting to play.

Christina O'Connor
Wednesday - July 13, 2011
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Mary Webster practices. Nathalie Walker photos .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

ing process, band members say that in many ways, it is also a portal into the past.

“When we entertain people, we play all the kinds of music that they used to hear,” says Omura.

One song that Omura has selected for this year is from The Way We Were, a popular movie from the 1970s. Another is Frank Sinatra’s It Was A Very Good Year. “Both songs reflect on aged peoples’ younger years ... and it helps them recollect,” he says.

Fujii says that many of the songs they play take him back to his youth. “I always appreciated music growing up,” he says. “The songs we play are like a trip down memory lane I recall many songs that I used to hear or play on ukulele.”

The instrument itself has a rich history, too. A precursor to the harmonica, called a sheung, was invented in China thousands of years ago out of bamboo reed. Europeans further developed the sheung later, experimenting with the instrument to create more modern metal harmonicas. Omura explains that all the reed instruments that are seen and heard today including the clarinet, the saxophone and the accordion developed from the sheung.

Small World band members play a 42-hole harmonica 21 holes on each of the two levels that are capable of a wide range of notes. And many of the members have more than one harmonica. Fujii totes a backpack full of different harmonicas with him to each practice. The variety, he says, is like the black-and-white keys of a piano some play in minors and sharps.

Director Robert Omura leads the band in a song

Many of the band members have come back to join the band year after year. And while all of them love the music and the sense of camaraderie, it seems what they enjoy most is playing for others at the nursing homes, churches and other venues they visit.

“Entertaining other people ... is what makes it worth our while to learn,” says Dr. Hong.

“When we play for groups of people ... it brings smiles to their faces,” adds Fujii. “And it warms my heart to see that. I look forward to going to those places and seeing them happy.”

Back at Small World’s practice, the band continues to play. They aren’t always in perfect unison. At times, they stumble along, the sounds of various harmonicas scattering throughout the room. But that doesn’t matter so much they just pick up and keep on going until they catch up.

“Not bad,” Omura says to the band, smiling. “We’re getting there.”

The recital will take place July 23 at the Mission Memorial Auditorium from 2:30-4:30 p.m. at 550 South King St. There will be free parking.

If you’d like to learn to play the harmonica, contact Robert Omura at 8334336.

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