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Inside an Alhambra Church’s Impromptu Ukulele Jam Sessions

  • Sage Granada Park United Methodist Church's kanikapila music group. Photo by Jeu Foon.

  • Elaine Chung leads the church's kanakapila singers and ukulele players.


Alhambra , CA United States

On a Monday afternoon at Sage Granada Park United Methodist Church, the sounds of 25-plus ukuleles fills the air. It’s kanikapila time for the seniors and other folks who are singing and strumming Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, and classic American standards on their ukuleles.

Kanikapila is Hawaiian music produced in an impromptu jam session, most commonly taking place at a beach, or family gathering. The term comes from kani which means sound and pila which means any string instrument played in the Hawaiian style. Anyone at any level who has a ukulele and wants to sing and play the instrument is welcome to join the group. The Sage Church kanikapila sessions go from one to three on Monday afternoons.

The group started in 2000, when the church choir director, Jean Taniguchi, organized a small group to play ukulele and sing Hawaiian songs. Henry Kupuhea, a native Hawaiian and former professional musician in Hawaii, shared the traditional Hawaiian songs he sang from the islands. Today, the kanikapila group sings those same songs in Hawaiian to preserve the language and culture.

“We reach out to the community by sharing our music at different retirement facilities and church functions,” said Elaine Chung, a former school teacher who leads the group as its facilitator. The group has played at senior homes, including Sakura Gardens, Pasadena Highlands and Atherton Baptist Homes, and was even once part of an East West Players theater production.

Chung was born in Honolulu, where Hawaiian music was a regular part of her life. “My elementary school teachers in Hawaii were part Hawaiian and included their music in our school curriculum,” she said. “We sang songs every day for as long as I can remember.”

The group has many talented members besides the skilled ukulele players and singers. The dancers in the group lead and perform with audience members on songs ranging from the classic Japanese song “Tanko Bushi” to the fast Hawaiian war chant “Tahu Wahu Wahi.” Others add guitars, harmonicas, Hawaiian ipu gourds and sound effects to enhance the music during performances.

Group member Yoko Aoki uses her American Sign Language skills to interpret the group’s songs, which she learned from working with deaf students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. When asked what she liked about the Sage Church ukulele group, Aoki responded that she “loves our wonderful, responsible facilitator Elaine and all our friendly kanikapila family.”

Valerie Siu is the group’s hula dancer, who tells a song’s story with her flowing traditional hula movements. A life-long resident of Alhambra, Siu and her sisters and cousins learned hula at the West San Gabriel Valley YMCA during her grade school years from about seven to 13 years old. Instructor Jeanne Cannavo taught them a variety of Polynesian dances, including using bamboo sticks or poi balls.

Hula is a form of Hawaiian storytelling through hand gestures, undulating hips, and movements symbolizing or imitating natural phenomena or historical or mythological subjects. For Siu, who has a Hawaiiwan-born father, hula allows her to connect to her Hawaiian roots. “It is a privilege and honor to dance hula, knowing that hula was once a forbidden art form in history,” she said.

The group invites everyone to bring their ukulele, voice and Aloha spirit to the kanikapila sessions. As Chung, the group leader, put it, “Sometimes the place rings with so much laughter that the minister next door wonders what we are up to.”

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