On a chilly wet spring evening, I fought the drizzle and the descending darkness to get to a church near the bust stop. Jamaica Plain, or JP for short, was dead quiet, save those going into the famous ice cream shop.
I intercepted a young woman in a fluffy pink dress carrying what looked like a ukulele case. Concerned that I might have missed the event entirely, I asked if Bryan Tolentino was still inside. She nodded and pointed at the entrance to the First Baptist Church on Centre Street.
A large woman with long straight hair stood with her back barring the room entrance. I veered around her to see what seemed like the tail end of a concert.
Immediately, I spotted familiar faces. My ukulele students and jam mates sat still, oblivious to my gaze. Some I had seen just yesterday in class and the previous weekend at the annual ukulele festival. Others, I recognised but couldn’t remember where we last met. A man at the far end returned my panoramic sweep and promptly got up from his chair.
“Hello Anne. I know you from your photos but you don’t know what I look like,” he said in the hallway.
“Are you Michael?” We had spoken on the phone and corresponded after his initial e-mail of self-introduction. He had organised this New England concert tour for Bryan Tolentino, the artist from Hawaii I’ve yet to meet.
“Come inside,” Michael beckoned. “Have a seat. Bryan is almost done.”
I gingerly moved to the chair behind a young woman with long black hair. While Bryan was talking, she turned around and smiled brightly at me, extending her hand. I took it. “Che! Long time no see! Where have you been?” She had taken my ukulele crash course.
It didn’t matter what Bryan was saying. I was listening to the way he spoke, the same way the local residents in Hawaii speak. Polite. Kind. No rush. When I lived in Wailuku and worked in Kahului, I tried to slow my hurried vernacular to be like the locals. I wore big black sunglasses, varied colored slippers (though I still call them flip flops), and loud spaghetti-strapped sundresses. Add the permanent tan, I sincerely believed I could pass for a local.
Bryan announced he’d play one last piece. His music reminded me that ukulele can be gentle and soothing, so unlike the way it is used to accompany rock-n-roll music in jam sessions of my community circuit. Every gesture evoked fond memories of my time in Hawaii.
Later at JP Licks, with Michael, Bryan, Kevin, Paul, Atsuko, and other hula dancers enjoying ice cream together, I confessed that I resisted learning to play the ukulele until I knew I was leaving Maui.
“Did you think the uke would gobble you up?” asked Paul who lives in JP and runs a monthly ukulele workshop from his home.
I laughed. “Hawaiian music was everywhere. Airports. Malls. Hotels. I lived next to a ukulele builder. My colleagues and students played the ukulele.”
Michael chuckled. “I guess you are making up for it now.”
Bryan shared that the ukulele was part of his culture. It’s not an accessory. Everyone born and raised in Hawaii picked up the ukulele the way one learned to ride a bicycle in the Netherlands.
After I left Maui and came to Boston, I no longer heard Hawaiian songs being played on ukuleles. The most I heard was the chorus part of ‘Aloha ‘Oe’ at a ukulele jam session in Boston. Tonight, I briefly returned to Hawaii with Bryan’s playing.
Below is a short video I created from this unforgettable evening.