Coconut Bras and Little Grass Shacks

“It’s not about if you have the blood,” Lanialoha Lee says. What matters is “if you have enough respect for the culture.” She’s referring to the trouble she’s been having with the Old Town School of Folk Music, where she’s taught for the last decade. Under what she says has been mostly a nurturing administration, Lee developed a curriculum in Pacific islands music that started with a single ukulele class and has grown to include multilevel courses in dance and drumming. She says the many traditional songs she originally picked for her ukulele lessons are the backbone of the program: they teach about the life and values of the islands and “connect different generations of the midwest Pacific island community,” which has been in the Chicago area for more than a century. But recently, Lee says, her carefully selected authentic songs have been vanishing like pebbles on the beach, neglected in favor of popularized ditties like “Little Grass Shack.”

Lee says the problem arose when she was away last year, teaching for a semester at Denison University. Her program had grown and it was time to expand the faculty anyway, so she recommended Mike Hammerman, who’d been a student of hers for six or seven years, to take over the beginning ukulele class. (Another student took over hula, which she says has worked out well.) She assumed Hammerman would follow her curriculum but says she gradually became aware that the “majority of the songs he’s teaching represent misperceptions of who we are as a people.” Lee sees this as a sign that the teacher needs more training himself, and says the quickest way to rectify the situation would’ve been to let her step in and teach the class alongside him. She says she addressed her concerns to Old Town administrator Ari Frede, who informed her via e-mail that he’d spoken with Hammerman and “decided that what he’s delivering is just fine.” But Lee questions whether either is in a position to speak as an authority on the subject. “I don’t think the world really needs another instructor out there teaching songs like ‘Little Grass Shack,'” she says. “They’re so similar to Tin Pan Alley.” (The song does appear, along with 45 others, on Lee’s approved list for the course, but she claims it’s not one she’s ever emphasized.) As it is, she adds, the Hawaii most people know was packaged in Hollywood with a sound track by Elvis Presley. “I’d like for people to stop coming up to me saying, ‘OK, where are the coconut bras?’ That’s not our culture.”

In the last year fewer level-one ukulele students have continued on to the next level, and Lee maintains that’s proof the beginner course is no longer connecting. And while she knows the problem isn’t unique to the Old Town School, she’s particularly disappointed to find it at an institution known for authenticity. “I think in the last ten years the community has really grown to respect Old Town for having the courage to let Hawaiian music be put out there the way it should be,” she says. “And then for the same organization to promote the exact opposite? I think there’s a difference, a fine line, between administering a program and making decisions about the cultural expression.”

Frede says Hammerman was “responding to student requests, as most teachers do,” in an attempt to keep them engaged while playing to his own strengths. (Hammerman declined to comment.) “All of our classes depend heavily on a teacher-driven curriculum,” Frede says, and Hammerman was interested in playing a “catalog of music that he referred to as hapa haole”–nontraditional music that evokes Hawaii. The reason Hammerman was allowed to deviate from Lee’s curriculum, he says, is that the school believes in self-expression and allows its teachers to develop their course work as they go. “What he came up with is an interesting new class. I don’t think it was mean-spirited or imperialistic or insolent or even naive. We’ve had to look broadly at what folk music really is. Not everyone is in agreement, but we’ve got a Beatles ensemble here. If there’s room for the Beatles, there’s room for this.”

In response to Lee’s continued complaints and the declining retention rate–which he believes has more to do with students not wanting to have different teachers for ukulele one and two–Frede plans to return the beginner class to Lee in the fall and give Hammerman his own course. Lee says this is news to her and a reasonable solution, but she wouldn’t call the new class, “which has nothing to do with what we’re doing,” hapa haole. If the school is looking for a term, she says, “the one that would be best is kitschy.”

Art Wars All Over Again

Art in the Park became Art in the Mart when the Merchandise Mart jumped in to save this year’s edition of Art Chicago after Thomas Blackman ran out of funds at the last minute–and then quickly announced that it had purchased the show. Last week the Mart was reporting that dealers were already stepping up to sign on for next year, but there’s also been plenty of buzz about a possible competitor. SOFA head Mark Lyman says DMG, the British firm that bought his company last year, has put the wheels in motion on a “world-class show” to be held in 2007, probably at Navy Pier. Lyman says DMG had already been considering launching something in 2008, and when Art Chicago ran into trouble the date was moved up. Interviews for an executive director were held in New York last week; a decision is imminent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.