Island Style

The VIDEO below shows about the last 45 seconds of Vana Liya singing her song “Feelin’ Good” at the Sugar Shack live acoustic sessions.  Watch the whole, flowing, good-vibe thing HERE.

You may recognize her guitar player and backup singer, too.  It’s Dan Guzman in one of his latest gigs!

To my knowledge Vana Liya isn’t Hawai’ian—she’s of Caribbean descent and grew up just outside New York City—but she’s one of the young talents carrying on and perfecting that island vibe I associate with Hawai’i.  It’s a unique mix of pop and reggae I learned to love the two times I spent many weeks there at National Endowment for the Humanities seminars in the early 2000’s.

Back then you heard two songs in particular all the time.  Mana Kaleilani Caceres’ “Couldn’t Take the Mana”—a mid-tempo, horn-driven, reggae protest jump—that starts: “Another road built on sacred land / One more hotel up on our birth sand / Where have all our ali’i gone / Maybe they will return when they hear this song.”  It’s a call to the old nobles, who ruled by mana—a divine power derived from the spirit of ancestors—to come back and stop all this modern, touristy, build-out stuff.  The chorus begins: “They took the land, they took Aloha….”  On just about the opposite style end of this song was John Cruz’s “Island Style.”  There’s a sexy double entendre in the title, of course, but that’s damped down by the song’s ultra flowing, gentle nostalgia.  Grandma’s cooking stew on a Saturday night, and—awww!—the singer loves his Grandma “every minute, every hour.”  That’s island style, too: family, love, respect, gentleness.

In Hawai’i they don’t end concerts with a bang, but with a strong gentleness.  I mean, that gentleness doesn’t mean they go out with a whimper.  The gentleness isn’t just full of nostalgia, but a total feeling for the Islands: their beauty and spirit, their people, and a sense of what needs defending, which often tinges things with sadness.  I witnessed this several times. You’d have a six-piece rock band tearing it up, then the finale: and it would be the ever-popular Jake Shimabakuro coming out with just his ukele.

One evening I decided to go to the Waikiki Bandshell for a free concert, and when I stepped off the bus I heard what I thought had to be the finale.  I’d missed it!  A hot soul band with blaring horns was winding up to a fever pitch, but as I made my way in, none of the applauding, whistling crowd was leaving.  “And now,” the announcer said, “our headline act: Makaha Sons!” and out walked three guys, all acoustic, one on upright bass, one on guitar, one on what looked like a bass ukulele.  The crowd released a sigh, and settled in, many swaying to the some of the gentlest songs I’d ever heard all in a row.  I had found a place between two, stereotypically large Hawai’ian men.  I hoped I wouldn’t be crushed if their swaying got out of sync, but I also saw, too, that both were crying softly at the songs.

I love those songs by Mana Caceres and John Cruz—partly because of their strong Filipino connection—but I’ve grown to love Makaha Sons most of all.  The soaring harmonies in the transition between the songs “Eku’u Morning Dew” and “Ke’ala,” one of their most popular medleys, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.  You can catch some of it Here, on an old, scratchy recording of the medley done when they started out as Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau.  Someday I’ll find a way to edit and post the version I listen to lots, the one done by the current Makaha Sons, the trio of John, Moon, and Jerome.

Which brings me back to Vana Liya.  I know her music connects maybe more to her Caribbean roots, but because she does play lots of ukelele she reminded me of my Hawai’i experiences right away.  More than the instrument and music though, you sense she’s a strong gentle, too.  It makes me feel that the island vibe and all the good things it means are in good hands.

  For a different aspect of my time in Hawai’i go to “IZ…A Poem for the Uighurs,” and also go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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From Teaching to Training


I’ve done training sessions on these, as well as single, shorter talks and performances on RELIGION, SACRED TEXTS and INTERFAITH DIALOG, MUSIC AND CULTURE, and LITERATURE—especially of Chicago.

This post has a very specific purpose: to point you to fuller descriptions of these trainings and talks on this page—

Training, Consulting, Speaking.

As the graphic below implies, “Training” often happens in a business setting, though it also happens in many other organizational settings, from churches to libraries to school boards—all of which I’ve done plenty of trainings for.  In essence,  it’s taking teaching out of schools and universities and the course credits they confer, and condensing weeks of a semester course down to a few hours.  It’s also pointing that condensed version towards a specific organizational need, so what you lose in depth you make up for in practical application as you try to help organizations develop certain skills, understandings, and even cultural changes.

I’ve done teaching mostly, but as I said, I’ve done lots of trainings.  I’ve taken a semester course on race or on multicultural literature down to a 4-hour training on diversity.  I’ve taken a semester course on “Workplace Writing” down to a 2-day training on professional writing in tech, manufacturing, and even library organizations.  I’ve taken concepts from leadership courses down to a 3-hour training for an organization (in this case UPS) that wanted to take time out for a different, entertaining take on leadership development.  I gave them a training called—after Max DePree’s book—“Leadership Jazz.”  I’ve also led one of Illinois’ top school districts (Naperville #203) in developing a diversity plan.  Of my leadership here, one community member wrote: “No one else that I know of could have presented the information with such authority, compassion, and vigor.”

  Contact me at this site (click on the About tab above) or at

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Language and Race: Mr. Jefferson’s Forced Labor Camp

It’s still the case that the majority of Americans, as I’ve written over and over for years, would rather talk about anything—anything—but race.  But more are talking about it seriously and deeply than ever before.  Let’s hope this talking, and the anti-racist actions that might come of it,  keeps up for a long, long time.  Maybe if it does, in 40 to 100 years we might see a more equal and just America.

It also matters how we talk about race, what words and terms we use, for we usually talk in ways that already pre-dispose us towards racism, not away from it. We still live the Civil War in romance terms, calling Confederate soldiers “rebels” instead of “insurrectionists.”  We refer to the South’s defeat as “The Lost Cause,” and maintain some 1800 statues and other memorials to the Confederacy, while in Germany there are zero monuments to the Nazis.  We speak of “master and slave” instead of “enslaver and enslaved.”  We continue to call slaves who escaped, or tried to, “runaways,” not “freedom seekers.”  And we speak of “plantations,” replete with mansions and live oaks and vast lawns, instead of, for example, “forced labor camps,” which was certainly what was going on there.

I’m a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Virginia, “Mr. Jefferson’s University,” so am somewhat gratified that it seems to be taking slavery somewhat seriously, as witness the UVA magazine Virginia, many of whose latest cover stories highlight issues of slavery and discrimination.  As I write now, I’m glancing at the Summer 2021 issue, where white words standing out from a dark background read: “SAFE HOUSE. A place where UVA’s first Black students could feel at home.”  Even more, Monticello itself, Mr. Jefferson’s “plantation”—or “forced labor camp”—seems to be taking the paradox and language of slavery seriously as well.  Below, this post shows several pictures taken from the Monticello website itself, which I encourage you to visit.  Click on the Menu, then the link to a large section on Slavery. It calls the “slaves” “enslaved individuals,” “enslaved people.”  It acknowledges “the paradox of the American Revolution—the fight for liberty in an era of pervasive slavery.”  I especially like the ironies of one of its main pages, which says that “Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 people throughout his life,” but still retains the usual tabs so that you can click to “Buy Tickets,” access “Livestreams,” check the “Calendar,” “Donate,” and “Shop.”   Another item, whose ironies are heavier and more  bitter, is the newspaper ad announcing the auction of  “130 Valuable Negroes,” held at  Jefferson’s death to help settle his enormous debts.

In this era of cancel culture and statue removal, it’s important for me to say that I don’t support it in all cases.  My friend, Professor Stephen Maynard Caliendo, says this near the beginning of his book  Inequality in America: Race, Poverty, and Fulfilling Democracy’s Promise.  “The men who designed the US system of government in the latter part of the eighteenth century present a frustrating paradox to current students of American politics.  The Founding Fathers brilliantly devised a structure of government that would last, relatively unchanged, for well over two hundred years (and counting).  They were deeply flawed, however, with respect to their inability to reconcile the sweeping promises they articulated in the founding documents with the reality of widespread and brutal inequality that characterized the nation at that time. We celebrate the Founding Fathers by honoring their birthdays, displaying them on our currency, and studying them in our classrooms. But we need to qualify our admiration because their personal lives and public actions did not fully reflect their rhetoric and broader beliefs.  In short, American democracy is at once vibrant because of their vision and imperfect because of their blind spots.”

It’s not a matter of cancelling the “Founding Fathers” but telling the whole story. Language matters.  Whole stories matter.  We cling to American Exceptionalism, to America as that City on a Hill illuminating the world with its light.  We could become more “exceptional” if we faced the whole story and acknowledged that a staggering amount of our exceptional culture and prosperity was built on the back of enslaved people, people who also literally built most of that City on a Hill:  Monticello, The University of Virginia, the White House itself….

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