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September 4, 2007

One last show for Hawaii's Ewa Plantation Singers

Associated Press

The Ewa Plantation Singers will perform for the last time this month. The troupe - consisting mostly of second- and third-generation Filipino-American offspring of Ewa Plantation workers - have used song to keep alive the memories of their parents and their childhood.

Known for vibrant Filipino costumes and snappy dance steps, the singers have performed everywhere from funerals to holiday parades and the governor's mansion. But the elderly members are finding it more difficult to get together for practice. The group's 27 members have dwindled to 12.

"A lot of them are ailing, their feet hurt, or they cannot spin anymore," said Myrna-Lyn Abang, president of the singing group. At 52, Abang is its youngest member. Everyone else is in their 60s, 70s and 80s. "And we've lost a few recently. So it's about time," she said.

They will perform for the last time Sept. 22 at the 26th Annual Ewa Community Church Mission Fair. The Ewa Plantation Singers started off in 1981 as a loose-knit gang of performers. They would meet through the 1980s to sing at the funerals of Ewa Villages residents and former residents and other community gatherings. Pagdilao, both of whom have since died, formalized the group in 1990 to sing at the centennial celebration of the Ewa Sugar Plantation.

"Their popularity grew from that point forward," said Abang, Pagdilao's cousin who joined the group in the mid-1990s. They traveled from Waianae to Hawaii Kai, appealing to a broad spectrum of Hawaii residents longing to hear both Filipino classics and American standards, typically songs their parents played on their Victorphones or danced to at the plantation social hall.

Among the most popular numbers: "Smile," written by Charlie Chaplin and made famous by Nat "King" Cole, and the Angels' and Roger Williams' "Till," as well as Filipino favorites such as "Ang Papit," an upbeat Tagalog song about a sparrow.

"We would sing all the dialects of the Filipino language from Visayan, Tagalog, Ilocano, even Pagasinan," Abang said. "I mean, stuff we could hardly pronounce let alone know the meaning of, but the melody was there and our group was known to pick up the harmony fairly well and we presented it in a way that people loved to hear."

Lucy Bonifacio, 68, who was raised in Fernandez Village and now lives in Kapolei, recalled the joy on her mother's face when she heard the group singing songs of her youth. "It brought back a lot of memories," Bonifacio said. "My mom liked to sing, too, at parties like that. Those songs really touched your heart. You don't have that now. I miss that old, laid-back plantation life." Operations at the Ewa sugar mill ceased in the early 1990s, marking the end of more than a century of plantation life.

Fernandez Village, Tenney Village, Renton Village and Varona Village all still remain in some form or another. Some homes, like many of the ones in Fernandez, have been rebuilt from scratch, while others like many of those in Renton and Tenney, have largely been renovated and are now occupied by people with no ties to the plantation.

J.P. Orias, a Filipino community leader, said it was "dreadful" that the group was disbanding. "Most of them are local," Orias said. "Their parents came here as sakadas (Filipino plantation workers)." The group will end its last set with a long list of standards including "Till," "Apple Blossom Time," and an Ilocano version of the Tagalog love song "Dahil Sa Iyo."

A style of group harmony singing fades away. I should check with David Fanshawe and see if he ever got any field recordings of this style of singing.

Posted by acapnews at September 4, 2007 10:36 PM


I was born on oct 18 1918 on ewa plantation and lived there till 1946 when i left to go to the main land to attend electrical trade school in chigago. i spent 4 yrs in the army when i was drafted in nov. 1941 then got discharged in nov. 1945. every summer i worked out in the fields doing weeding. when i graduated from high school i went to work heavy machinery dept, servicing tracktors and cane loaders. when i got out of the army i was given a job in the electric power plant.

Posted by: simon nasario at December 17, 2008 1:56 PM

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