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Book review : Aloha ‘Oe The Song at Pier 10

John Tanaka’s Aloha ‘Oe, The Song at Pier 10 is a story about music, but it is also rich in historical information regarding the events that took place in Hawaii during the Plantation Era. The book begins with Hawaii’s Royalty in the 1860s, prior to their becoming a part of the United States, and a discussion of their need for an improvement of the royal band or “The King’s Band.” The king or Mo’i of Hawaii during this time is Lot, King Kamehameha V. The king decides to solve the issue by contacting the Prime Minister of Prussia, Wilhelm I, seeking the Prime Minister’s help by asking that he send a bandmaster from his country. The king had heard from a European minister stationed in Hamburg that the Prussian Kaiser had very skilled bandmasters.

A very dedicated bandmaster named Heinrich Berger, is sent to lead the royal band in Hawaii or “The Kingdom of Havai,” as the Prussians call it. At first Berger has a difficult time adjusting to the cultural differences, but he soon falls in love with the “aloha spirit” and Hawaiians’ musical talents, and he quickly develops a curiosity for their culture. Berger wonders, “Hawaiians must be born musicians. Is it because they play to their gods?” (Tanaka, p.47). Under assignment, for the next four years Berger improves the skills of the Royal Band and earns the respect of the Hawaiian Royalty. All the while, as he teaches the band and dedicates numerous songs and marches, creating for the country a whole repertoire of historical Hawaiian music, Berger also serves as an undercover agent for the Kaiser. However, he never quite fulfills this private assignment as he never does receive intelligence helpful to Prussia, a.k.a. “The Vaterland.” Instead, Berger gains a strong bond with the people of Hawaii and their future queen, Lili’uokalani, or Lili’u Dominis, as she is known in the beginning of the book.

Berger completes his four year assignment and returns home briefly, but then goes back to Hawaii for his obvious love of its people, and a forbidden love of the country’s future queen. The love story is rich in historical context, for it not only expresses a belief that music can create peace and understanding between individuals, but also amongst a group of people. For example, Hawaiians diagnosed with leprosy were sent into exile on the island of Molokai, and Berger performed “aloha concerts”
in his sympathy for them.

When Lili’u became Queen Lili’uokalani, she herself visited the island to show her care for the people and her sympathy for their condition. There too is discussion of the events which led to the annexation of Hawaii and led the Queen, following her own ironic exile, into the ‘Iolani Palace to write Hawaii’s story: “Lili’u remained in America over a year, lobbying Congress to restore her reign. Compelled to tell her story of how America illegally stole her kingdom, she took time to write and publish her book, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, to gather public support” (Tanaka, p. 192).

Overall, this book is an excellent and educational read, and is highly recommended.

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