A Birthday Celebration for Choichi Terukina-Sensei That We Will All Remember

Kenton Odo
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

The dream of performing at Carnegie Hall in New York City dates all the way back to 2003 when OTV (Okinawa Television) host Shinichi Maehara interviewed me for an episode of his series, “Sekai Uchinanchu Kiko (Worldwide Uchinanchu).” After conducting interviews at several different locations, the final  interview was done at the Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park with iconic Diamond Head and O‘ahu’s south shore in the distance.

“So, what is your dream from now?” Maehara-san asked me. I was taken aback by his question, as I had told him earlier that my goal was to grow my school and produce sanshin students who would go on to become uta-sanshin teachers themselves.

Terukina-Sensei, whom I had studied with in Okinawa for three and a half years, had always said, “Don’t be a hanabi (fireworks), which is beautiful when it explodes, and then that’s it. Be more like a tree with deep roots and branches.”

Sensei’s words were always in my mind, so in response to Maehara-san’s question, I replied, “To perform at Carnegie Hall.” Unbeknownst to me, Terukina-Sensei had expressed that same dream. In my mind and I think in Sensei’s mind, too, performing at Carnegie Hall would inspire our students to practice hard and reach for the stars.

It was not until more than a decade later, in 2016, that Terukina-Sensei’s Hawai‘i students — Ryukyu Koten Afuso-Ryu Ongaku Kenkyuu Choichi Kai Hawaii (Choichi Kai Hawaii, for short) — met to discuss the prospect of actually performing at Carnegie Hall. Although Sensei was still very genki (healthy), we all knew that he, like all of us, was growing older with each passing year. So, in 2016, we decided to get serious and try to make Terukina-Sensei’s dream come true.

A small advisory group consisting of Terukina-Sensei supporters in Hawai‘i was formed. The initial group consisted of longtime Choichi Kai Hawaii supporters Isaac Hokama and Amy Higa; Terukina-Sensei’s first Hawai‘i student, Grant “Masanduu” Murata-Sensei; and myself. Recalling my interview with Maehara-san in which I had stated that performing at Carnegie Hall had always been my dream, Masanduu-Sensei said that I should take the lead on this project. Isaac and Amy also informed us that after many years of helping us plan our big performances for Choichi Kai Hawaii , Carnegie Hall would be their last as chair and secretary, respectively. They said they would always support Choichi Kai Hawaii, but they felt that we needed to train new people for these roles from within our schools.

Isaac said he wanted the Carnegie Hall show to be an all-Hawai‘i performance featuring Terukina-Sensei’s students outside of Japan. He called Terukina-Sensei in Okinawa to inform him of our Carnegie Hall plans. With Sensei’s blessing, we began our campaign to get to Carnegie Hall.

I formed a small core committee consisting of our Choichi Kai Hawaii students. The members included Elyse Farley, John Hewitt, Yoko Kaneshiro and my wife, Kris. They did the preliminary research regarding the rental of Carnegie Hall and looked into obtaining grants to fund the performance. Carnegie Hall replied to our initial inquiry with a standard form letter and a long list of requirements we would have to fulfill before they would even consider a performance by Terukina-Sensei and Choichi Kai Hawaii. A concert date or cost weren’t even on their radar screen. Without a concert date, applying for a grant was nearly impossible. All we could do in the meantime was work on fulfilling Carnegie Hall’s requirements.

As the core committee worked on that, Isaac came up with great idea: Let’s shoot for a performance in April since Terukina-Sensei would be observing his auspicious 88th, or tookachi (beiju in Japanese), birthday on April 15. And, since we would be traveling all the way to the East Coast, why not look into also performing at the Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, in Washington, D.C.?

The core committee completed the Carnegie Hall requirements in February 2018, which included building the www.afusochoichikaiusa.com website, compiling pertinent biographies and lists of performers, detailing the exact instrumentation for the performance, the proposed program and stage plot plans with microphone requirements, among other requirements.

A month later, we received the news we had been hoping for: Carnegie Hall had accepted our packet! We could now begin our discussions in earnest. The Carnegie Hall board still had to approve our requested date.

In late March of 2018, Isaac and I decided to fly to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., organizers of the Sakura Matsuri, to discuss the possibility of performing in the 2019 festival. We also flew to New York City to meet with Carnegie Hall’s assistant booking manager and production manager.

After meeting with the Japan-America Society staff and visiting the Sakura Matsuri’s ANA stage, we determined that the cold air, even in April, and the open surroundings would be too harsh for Sensei at his advanced age.

The trip to D.C. was not a total loss, however. With the assistance of Okinawan dance sensei Momoe Onno Proctor, who lives in Virginia, we were able to look at another possible venue — a prestigious one that was much bigger: the Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Kennedy Center is regarded as America’s National Cultural Center and, as we discovered, a venue befitting Terukina-Sensei’s reputation and status as a Living National Treasure of classical uta-sanshin in Japan. In a flash, the dream had gotten bigger!

With high hopes and filled with happiness, Isaac and I headed to the Big Apple.

Our meeting with the Carnegie Hall officials went well. We met with various staff members; asked our questions and answered their questions about our proposed performance; and toured the performance hall, backstage and dressing rooms. We still did not have a performance date or an estimate of how much it would cost to rent Carnegie Hall, or its labor costs. But, we were moving forward.

In April, we received the estimate from Carnegie Hall. Gulp! We would have to raise approximately $50,000 to cover all the costs: rent the hall, pay the staff and technicians, rent the sound equipment and pay for insurance, marketing, catering and other miscellaneous charges related to the performance. How would we raise that kind of money?!

Just as we heard back from Carnegie Hall, planning was getting underway for Masanduu-Sensei’s first dokuen kai, or solo recital, which Terukina-Sensei had encouraged him to hold, as he had been Terukina-Sensei’s first Hawai‘i student.

Since the dokuen kai would be held in November — a mere seven months away — all fundraising efforts were focused on that event.

In July 2018, Carnegie Hall contacted us with a date for Terukina-Sensei’s performance, which we had titled “Tobe! Uta Sanshin in NY.” We were booked for April 18, 2019.

Isaac immediately contacted the Okinawa Prefectural Government office in Washington, D.C., for assistance in securing a date for the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Meanwhile, the advisory group contacted Regal Travel in Honolulu about organizing a tour to Washington, D.C., and New York for our students, families and supporters.

Masanduu-Sensei’s solo concert in November at Hawaii Theatre was a success. But it left us only four months to raise $50,000 to cover the Carnegie Hall costs.

The core committee was expanded to include Choichi Kai Hawaii members Sean and Lisa Sadaoka, Melissa and Greg Yamashiro, Renette Nakasone, Loreen Okamura, Cassie and Neil Nakagawa and Naomi Oshiro. We fundraised like there was no tomorrow. In four months, we held five fundraisers, including three small-scale fundraisers selling cookies, chocolate bars and tour T-shirts. The other two fundraisers were much bigger — more like planning two performances. They required a lot of planning, coordination and hard work.

The first big fundraiser was a party event with food stations, Okinawan entertainment and raffle prizes. We sold 400 tickets. The second and last fundraiser was a preview performance of “Tobe! Uta Sanshin in NY,” the show we would be presenting at Carnegie Hall — minus Terukina-Sensei, of course. It was presented on the stage of the Hawaii Okinawa Center two weeks before we left for New York. This benefit performance was held for our supporters who could not go with us to New York. It attracted over 400 people on a Thursday night.

Those were just a few of the fundraising challenges we faced.

Although we had our Carnegie Hall date, we still had not secured a date for the Kennedy Center performance. We finally got it in January 2019. The date would be April 13. We were at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, ready to board our flight to Washington, when we learned that the Millennium Stage could accommodate all of our sound requirements. Our ancestors were definitely on our side.

We had originally planned for 80 Choichi Kai students from Hawai‘i and Los Angeles (an offshoot school of Choichi Kai Hawaii) to share the stage with Terukina-Sensei at Carnegie Hall. But once Terukina-Sensei’s students in Okinawa and in Kantö and Kansai learned of the performance, they wanted to join us.

There were three parts to the performance: Part I featured koten, or classical, numbers highlighting Terukina-Sensei’s students in the U.S. In traditional Chojanu Ufushu fashion, Terukina-Sensei led a procession onto the stage in front of the U.S. members, who played the lead-in music. Instead of portraying the traditional 120-year-old Chojanu Ufushu, Terukina-Sensei played himself at age 88.

Chojanu Ufushu is usually performed at large celebratory performances. Chojanu Ufushu is like the patriarch of the family. His family members perform for him as if they were at a big picnic. Following Terukina-Sensei in the procession as his attendant was Masanduu-Sensei, who also served as the interpreter for the audience; myself; and Terukina-Sensei’s son, Tomokuni Terukina-Sensei. We were joined by the dancers performing in Part I — Ben Higa-Sensei from Los Angeles and Momoe Onno-Sensei from Virginia. After Terukina-Sensei’s welcome message, the procession sat down on the stage.

The U.S. students then performed a number of classical songs, followed by two dances and a duet by Tomokuni-Sensei and myself. After the entertainment for Terukina-Sensei was completed, he took center stage and gave a parting speech, expressing his pleasure at the performance. He also encouraged the audience to enjoy the rest of the show. Traditionally, the Chojanu Ufushu then exits the stage with his procession in tow.

But Terukina-Sensei was enjoying himself so much that he stopped midway to the exit to again address the enthusiastic audience, bidding them farewell a number of times before finally exiting. That was a surprise! When he stopped the first time, I thought he would address the audience briefly. But he continued on, which made the rest of the procession behind him a bit uneasy, not knowing what to do. Terukina-Sensei was enjoying himself and wanted to prolong the moment.

Part II featured the students who had traveled from Okinawa and the Kantö and Kansai regions of Japan, followed by a solo by Hawai‘i’s Masanduu-Sensei. The latter half of Part II showcased a mix of the U.S. and Japan musicians who played for Hawai‘i dancers Lisa Nakandakari, Julia Okamura and Frances Nakachi; and Joseph Nishijo Jones from California, all Okinawan dance sensei; and Dazzman Toguchi, also from Hawai‘i.

Part III featured a more contemporary sound by Terukina-Sensei’s students. Sensei calls it “Akebono Sound” — and, no, it’s not named for the former Hawai‘i-born yokozuna. The Akebono Sound section included Terukina-Sensei’s popular compositions, such as “Mensoree,” “Atcha Bushi” and “Chibariyo!” along with other minyö, or folk, tunes. We also included a beautiful hula performance by Amy Higa, dancing to Sean Sadaoka, a Choichi Kai Hawaii sensei, singing the popular Begin tune, “Nada Sou Sou.” All of the songs in the Akebono Sound section were performed with traditional sanshin and taiko — and then some. We added a chorus of Choichi Kai women and such Western instruments as an electric guitar, bass, keyboard and flute. It’s all part of Terukina-Sensei’s grand vision for the future.

With all of those components, the number of performers ballooned to well over 120! Keep in mind that the stage was designed for 35 performers. It required a tremendous amount of planning and coordination, not just for the performance itself, but also for Regal Travel and even for people making their own travel arrangements.

In addition to our performance at the Kennedy Center on April 13, we also hosted a master class in Washington, arranged for Terukina-Sensei to visit U.S. Congressman Ed Case’s office (although Rep. Case was back in Hawai‘i on a congressional recess) with a private tour of the Capitol, and to also meet with the Consul General of Japan in New York, Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi.

Our journey to Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall had all the twists and turns of a dramatic movie: a big dream, traversing the unknown, glimmers of hope followed by disappointment, another mountain to climb, exhaustion, even a case of shingles and, finally, euphoria.

It’s amazing that everything fell into place. We were receiving donations up until the day we left for Washington, D.C., just like in the movies.

We did not hit our $50,000 pie-in-the-sky fundraising goal. Fortunately, however, we were able to cover all of our expenses, thanks to the overwhelming support we received from the community.

There was one person who inspired us throughout this long and sometimes arduous journey — Ed Unten, a student in our ‘Aiea class. He exemplified the “Chibariyo!” — “Let’s go for it!” spirit. Ed faced many health challenges: He’d suffered a heart attack and had undergone a procedure to have a pacemaker implanted in his body. He also battled cancer and went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Ed was determined to perform with Terukina-Sensei, his Hawai‘i sensei and his fellow students on the Carnegie Hall stage, so for health reasons, he flew directly to New York. From Ed I learned the awesome power of a determined mind. I’m grateful that he had a supportive family who, in spite of his many health challenges, allowed him to make the trip and perform with us. He was so happy. We lost Ed two months after we returned from the East Coast. The trip would not have been the same without him. Whenever we saw a challenge, all we had to do was look at Ed. If he could overcome, so could we. Rest in peace, Ed Unten.

Like many other clubs, we have siblings who take sanshin so they can learn how to play this instrument and also spend time with each other. We also have siblings who are learning from various Choichi Kai teachers, such as Maile Taniguchi on Kaua‘i, Ruth Murata on Maui and Emory Tamashiro in Los Angeles. The first time these three siblings finally performed together, side-by-side on the same stage, was at Carnegie Hall.

And then there was the fulfilling of a pact three Okinawa Prefectural Government scholarship recipients made over 20 years ago in Okinawa to one day perform together: I was from Hawai‘i and studying sanshin; Kriste Kamiya, who is originally from Los Angeles and now resides in New York, was studying bingata (traditional resist dyed fabric), Okinawan odori (dance) and sanshin; and Ben Higa from Los Angeles was studying odori. I was thrilled to have played a part in making that happen.

Of course, our purpose for this huge undertaking was to celebrate Choichi Terukina-Sensei’s 88th birthday. As I sit here four months later, remembering and documenting my memories for this story, I am still amazed at how everything came together. It demonstrates the synergistic power of everyone working together toward the same goal. Seeing the huge smile on Terukina-Sensei’s face on stage at the prestigious Kennedy Center and just days later at America’s premier concert venue, Carnegie Hall, was more than I could ever have imagined.

Thank you to all of our family, friends, sponsors, donors and supporters. Without your continued support, we could not have accomplished this feat. Thank you also to all of the dance schools and dancers who paid their own airfare, hotel and ground transportation to perform for Terukina-Sensei. We were truly blessed. Thank you to the Hawaii United Okinawa Association for generously allowing us to use the Albert T. and Wallace T. Teruya Pavilion for our last fundraiser.

Thank you to Regal Travel for assisting with our tour arrangements and for coordinating with United Airlines’ Honolulu supervisor, Shari Nakahara, who took care of us and our 80 carry-on sanshin like they were newborn infants (the story was even highlighted in United’s July inflight magazine, Hemispheres). Thank you Regal Travel for also arranging for the hotel conference room so we could hold the sanshin master class, and especially for being so flexible and accommodating.

Thank you to our advisors — Isaac Hokama, Amy Higa and Masanduu-Sensei — who had our backs all the time. Special thanks to all the committee members: Gang, I would go into battle alongside you any time. And, to the one who kept me accountable and grounded, dove into challenges, immersed herself into every little detail — my wife and confidant, Kris Odo. Ippe Nifwee Deebiru!

Seeing the glow on Terukina-Sensei’s face, how he prolonged his exit from the Carnegie Hall stage after the first part and how he took nine bows instead of the traditional three to a standing ovation made all the challenges worthwhile. In those moments, everything flowed as we had hoped. All our worries seemed minor and time slowed down to a comfortable and enjoyable pace. Being a part of making Terukina-Sensei’s dream come true was challenging, yet humbling. In helping to make it happen, I came to realize the truth in the wise words Sensei has always instilled in us, his students: “Yareba dekiru” — “If you try, you can do it.”

Yes, Sensei. We did it!

Kenton Odo is an architect by training. He holds the rank of shihan with Ryukyu Koten Afuso-Ryu Ongaku Kenkyuu Choichi Kai Hawaii. He has been teaching the art of Okinawan uta-sanshin for 23 years, holding classes at Aiea Hongwanji Mission. Kenton lived in Okinawa for three and a half years, which allowed him to study uta-sanshin directly under the tutelage of Terukina-Sensei.


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