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Waiakea Intermediate School Ukulele Band celebrates golden anniversary

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused numerous event cancellations this month, including a planned 50th anniversary celebration of the Waiakea Intermediate School Ukulele Band.

The local-style gala had racked up sales of more than 200 tickets a week before showtime, which was to have taken place Saturday at the Hilo Honpa Hongwanji Sangha Hall. However, pressure to nix large gatherings prior to the statewide stay-at-home directive that went into effect Wednesday caused the band’s booster club to pull the plug.

That turned what should’ve been a joyous occasion into a bittersweet observance.

COVID cancellation aside, the golden anniversary of the celebrated public school music group, however, is a significant milestone.

Through the years, the WIS Ukulele Band has carved out a name for itself far beyond Hilo and Hawaii Island, traveling to and performing at places including Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Las Vegas, Colorado, Disneyland, Disney World, Mexico, Japan, as well as entertaining passengers aboard cruise ships docked at Hilo Harbor. In addition, the band has participated in countless Big Island parades and community events over the decades.

The band was founded in 1970 by the late George Camarillo Sr., who was teaching Polynesian music at the school. Three of Camarillo’s children, Rama, George “Iki” Jr. and Lila — all accomplished musicians, themselves — assisted their dad as teacher’s aides, and all became music teachers.

Camarillo Sr. passed the ukulele band’s baton in 1982 to Camarillo Jr., who retired in 2019 after 37 years of teaching at Waiakea Intermediate. Lila Parong, Camarillo Sr.’s daughter and a retired private school teacher, took over for her retired brother as a substitute teacher in the current school year.

When asked what the 50th anniversary means to them, Camarillo Jr. and Parong fell momentarily silent, searching for the right words, until Parong said, simply, “It’s special.”

Camarillo Jr. said his father, who died in 2002, was teaching band at Kalanianaole Intermediate School before being transferred to Waiakea Inter, and believes the seeds of the ukulele juggernaut were sowed at the Papaikou public school.

“Talking to some of his former students, they said when they were in band, they had to play ukulele, also — put the band instrument down, pick up the ukulele and start playing,” Camarillo Jr. said. “So I think he had the vision, I think, in the late 1960s, when he came to Waiakea.”

The band started with 53 seventh- and eighth-graders, playing a variety of music including Hawaiian, contemporary, ballads, marches and Latin. Since then, more than 5,000 students have lent their talents to the band, playing ukulele, guitar, bass and singing, often with hula dancers.

Generations of families have shared in the tradition of being Waiakea Ukulele Band members, and a number of the band’s alumni became entertainers or music teachers themselves, including Ben Kaili, Nephi Brown, Glenn Nihipali, Bert Naihe, Eddy Atkins, Guy Imoto, Rick Jitchaku and BJ (Araujo) Soriano.

“She’s the perfect example — the end result,” Parong said of Soriano, a well-known and beloved local ukulele teacher.

“BJ was in the original ukulele band; she was a class leader,” Camarillo Jr. added. “My dad was teaching adult ed at that time, and he asked BJ to take over. And BJ started doing adult education classes.”

Parong was in the band as well, joining the celebrated group in the sixth-grade, making her the youngest band member.

“It made my life exciting; it gave me a sense of relevance,” she said. “I knew I had high expectations from my dad. I would do whatever my dad wanted me to do. Being the youngest in the band was a little scary, but I thought, ‘Like, wow man. I’m privileged,’ you know.”

Almost a year into his retirement, Camarillo Jr. said his nearly four decades of teaching music and directing the band were rewarding.

“For me, it’s just working with the kids and seeing the smiles on their faces when they learn something new. It’s big,” he said. “Also, giving them the sense of belonging, to be a part of the group, you know, experiences outside of the classroom — performances, parades, taking them to Oahu, Maui, the mainland, Japan.”

Added Parong, “When you have a child that has the potential to reach excellence, it’s a joy to just see them trying.”

Not only trying, but succeeding, as well. While the band’s repertoire includes local standards such as Israel Kamawiwoole’s “Hawaiian Sup’pa Man,” Josh Tatofi’s “Pua Kiele,” “Hilo March” and the “Hawaii Five-O” theme, their version of the “Under the Double Eagle March” is their show-stopping signature closing number, with the kids playing their instruments behind their heads, à la Jimi Hendrix.

During the declared state of emergency, the band, like school, is on hiatus. The Department of Education has closed school campuses to students until April 30, but with the COVID-19 pandemic apparently still in its incipient stage in Hawaii, future dates are a matter of speculation.

In fact, it’s difficult to predict what the new normal will look like once the potentially deadly coronavirus crisis has run its course. And while it’s hoped the band will play on for at least another 50 years, nothing is written in stone.

“Music, nowadays, it’s at the bottom of the totem pole. So if they make any budget cuts, they’re going to make it in music and art. It’s a given, already,” Camarillo Jr. said. “And for some kids, it’s the only thing they’re good at. It makes them feel good about themselves and builds up their character, their confidence, playing in front of people and being a community contributor.”

And should the Waiakea Intermediate School Ukulele Band survive the current cataclysm, another question is: Who will lead the band beyond its golden anniversary?

“I don’t know, but there are kids asking me,” Parong said. “I’m willing to come back until they find someone.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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