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This September, PBS Hawaii will air Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi, a compelling documentary about the songs of Japanese immigrant workers sung while laboring in Hawaiʻi’s sugar plantations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hosted and narrated by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi will air on PBS Hawaii on September 17 at 9 p.m. with a sneak preview screening of the documentary on Tuesday, September 15 from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the UH West Oʻahu Library ʻUluʻulu Archive Exhibition Space.

Called holehole (Hawaiian for dried cane leaves) bushi (Japanese for melody or tune), the songs are an intimate record of the workers’ joys, sorrows, and challenges, and provide a fascinating window into early plantation life.

Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi was co-produced by the University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu Center for Labor Education and Research and PBS Hawaii. The production team included Executive Producer and Writer Chris Conybeare; Producer/Director Joy Chong-Stannard; and Franklin Odo, former UH West Oʻahu distinguished visiting scholar, founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program and former acting chief of the Asian division at the Library of Congress.

Sharing stories through song

Voices from the Canefields bookcover

Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi brings together archival interviews and music in a stunning new 30-minute video partly based on Odo’s book Voices from the Canefields, published by Oxford University Press.

Pioneers and former plantation workers Katsue Asakura of Wainaku (Hawaiʻi County) and Haru Ueno, Tsuyoshi Endo, Kiku Yoshida and Yasu Sato of Waipahu tell their stories and share songs. Many of these songs, composed and sung by women, provide a direct connection to Hawaiʻi’s plantation past as experienced by female Japanese immigrant plantation workers.

“Holehole bushi are the Japanese immigrant equivalent of ‘the blues,’” said Conybeare, Center for Labor Education and Research specialist. “The songs themselves inform us about all aspects of immigrant life. A surprising number chronicle the seamy side of existence on Hawaiʻi’s plantations, including workplace brutality, sexual tensions, drinking, and gambling.”

In the 1960s, Honolulu music teacher Harry Urata recorded over 100 holehole bushi, sung by the women and men who created them 60 years before. His own experiences in concentration camps during World War II taught him the value of preserving immigrant culture and much of Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi is told through Urata, who was instrumental in the preservation of this important part of plantation history.

Passing on knowledge

The documentary includes interviews and performances by students who learned Hawaiʻi plantation history from their grandparents, featuring music teacher Harry Urata, singer Allison Arakawa and sisters Cara and Lacy Tsutsuse. The documentary also includes original music by UH West Oʻahu student Brandin Soquena and Assistant Professor of Music Jon Magnussen.

“Revival of the songs and stories depends on new generations learning and passing on the knowledge,” says Conybeare.

The themes and haunting sadness expressed in holehole bushi have led to their renewed popularity. The songs can be heard in tea houses and night clubs in Japan and were featured at the Tokyo Summer Festival in 2009.

(Photo courtesy of the Barbara Kawakami Collection)

(Photo courtesy of the Barbara Kawakami Collection)

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