When the Aloha Boys give a special Fourth of July performance at Fort McHenry today, the trio of isle expats will mark history and make some of their own.
The National Park Service monument in Baltimore, birthplace of America’s anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," will host "50 Years of 50 Stars," a special anniversary of the Fourth of July ceremony in 1960 when the first U.S. flag with 50 stars was hoisted there. To honor the flag that included Hawaii’s star, the park service invited the Aloha Boys.
At 6 a.m. today (noon EST), the park service will raise a 20-by-38-foot flag, and the Aloha Boys — Glen Hirabayashi, Irv Queja and Isaac Ho’opi’i — will give the first of three performances along ramparts lined with flags from all 50 states. It will be the first time in the fort’s 200-plus-year history that Hawaiian music has been played there.
"We were floored when the National Park Service called and asked us to play," said Hirabayashi, an ukulele-playing tax attorney originally from Kauai. "It was a shock for them to ask and when they told us the story about why they wanted Hawaiian music."
All of the Aloha Boys were born and raised in Hawaii but have chosen to live and work in the Washington, D.C., area. They met in 1996 while playing music at a school of Hawaiian culture attended by their children.
Queja, who handles vocals, guitar and bass guitar, is the safety coordinator in the Office of the Senate Sergeant at Arms. Ho’opi’i, who favors guitar, is the federal police sergeant in the canine bomb squad honored for pulling 17 people out of the burning rubble of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
They’ve played throughout the East Coast, including events at the National Mall, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. They even performed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball.
Even though they’re mainland residents, group members are still local boys at heart who perform in aloha shirts, shorts and slippers. Last week when they played at a Smithsonian event, they wore kukui nut lei.
"We went formal," Hirabayashi said.
The park service expects several thousand people for today’s event, which includes a musical number that combines fife and drum music and the Aloha Boys.
"I think we are the only place anywhere that is doing a Hawaiian-themed Fourth of July," said Vince Vaise, a park service ranger who serves as the chief of interpretation. "Without doing a Hawaiian theme, you lose the human element. It is not just any state. It is Hawaii and we wanted to underscore that."
The Aloha Boys expect a lot of friends to turn out for the show because the Washington, D.C., area is home to a thriving community of former Hawaii residents. There are hula groups, ukulele clubs and outrigger canoe paddlers on the Potomac, Hirabayashi said.
Performing helps everyone connect to home "big time," he said.
"It’s always good fun," he said. "And for us, we just enjoy playing anyway, even if it is in a back yard under a tree."